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Convertibles: hard tops vs soft tops

Convertibles: hard tops vs soft tops

So you’ve decided you want a convertible? Good for you – but those hours of agonising, Googling and scribbling on the backs of envelopes aren’t over yet because you face another massive dilemma. Do you go for a traditional soft top or a trendy hard top?

OK, so you don’t always get a choice. If your heart is set on a particular model you may find the maker has made that decision for you.

If you hanker after a 2017 Mustang convertible, then a soft top is the only option, and if you’re shopping for a Merc then you need to know the difference between a cabriolet (soft top) and a roadster (hard top).

At the other end of the market, the Nissan Micra convertible comes with a hard top while the Ka convertible has a soft top. So it’s not like you can go into the dealer, choose the car you want and then choose the top. You might have to choose the type of top you want and then see what cars come with it.

One more thing. If you live in the UK, you can expect an average of 1,493 hours of sunshine a year. If you live in the US, that figure is better – from 2,061 hours in Alaska to 3,806 in Arizona – but if you discount the months too cold for open-top motoring, your opportunities for open-top motoring might be more limited than you think.

Why hard tops are better

  • Hard tops are more secure, and they look it. Thieves can’t cut their way in, and that acts as a deterrent. If you’re too cool to care about petty crime, soft tops are fine. If you’re a bit of a secret worrier, a hard top might be better.
  • Hard tops are typically better sealed against bad weather and offer better insulation. Ragtops are perfect summer cars, but in an unpredictable climate, a hard top is a more practical year-round proposition.
  • Hard tops are made from materials likely to last longer than a soft top. Steel and glass weathers better than vinyl and perspex. If you buy new and sell in a couple of years, why would you care? But if you buy older classics, you need to check the age and condition of the soft top very carefully.
  • You may get better sound insulation and general refinement. A hard top should seal tighter against the bodywork with less flex and a structure that supports better soundproofing, though that’s just a generic principle – individual models will vary.
  • A hard top is no better for structural integrity and crash protection – that comes from the roll bar – but a rigid roof is less likely to rip and shred in a rollover.
  • And then there’s the looks. Soft top convertibles look best with the the top stowed away, but hard tops can look good with the lid on or off.

Why they’re not

  • Having said that, soft tops do at least look like ‘real’ convertibles. Good hard tops look great – the BMW Z4 roadster looks good with the top on and off – but cheaper/older hard tops can look like badly finished kit cars.
  • Soft tops are typically cheaper. The roof is easier to make, costs less and is gives you a wider choice of cars to pick from. It may turn out to be your cheapest route into top-down motoring.
  • Soft tops can take up less space when they’re stowed, leaving you more room for stowing your golf clubs, monogrammed luggage or Fortnum and Mason hampers. Hard tops and their motorised mechanisms can gobble up so much space you’ve barely got room for a 9 iron.
  • Soft tops are typically  lighter, potentially improving handling and fuel efficiency, though this is a purely theoretical argument not backed up by any particular evidence. Soft tops and hard tops both start out with a handling and weight disadvantage compared to ‘roofed’ cars because their structural rigidity is reduced and needs weight-adding stiffening.
  • Soft tops typically have simpler mechanisms which may be less likely to cause problems. The materials used in soft tops might be less durable, but powered hard top mechanisms have plenty of potential for trouble of a different kind.

The verdict?

We won’t tell you what you should do, but having just emerged from a typically cold, wet, blustery British spring at Haynes HQ, we would probably go for the toasty snugness of a hard top rather than a flappy-tent rag-top. If our offices were based in the hills above Nice, however, it would be a different story.