Why America's love affair with convertibles has run off a cliff

Why America's love affair with convertibles has run off a cliff

Americans fell in love with convertibles decades before Ike Turner composed the original rock-n-roll song in 1951 about the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 with a convertible top that "the gals don't mind." Some 20 years later, Bruce Springsteen wrote "Born to Run" in a '57 Chevy Bel Air drop top, and if there's a better way to explain how open-air driving embodies our freedom to move, I'm not aware of it.

But after years of decline, America's love affair with convertibles has gone cold.

As recently as 2006, automakers sold more than 300,000 convertibles a year in the United States, according to IHS Automotive/Polk registration data, or just more than 2 percent of all sales. Last year, drop-top sales fell to 151,789, or 0.99 percent of the market and through March, the most recent data available, sales of convertibles were off 4 percent, even as the overall market has surged.

Prior to the advent of modern safety regulations in the 1970s, Detroit offered convertible variations of most mainstream and luxury models. Lee Iacocca used convertibles as a selling point for his revival of Chrysler in the 1980s, and even at the turn of the 21st century, domestic automakers showed off several concept soft-tops. Yet with the end of Chrysler 200 convertible production earlier this year, if you want a new convertible from a traditional Detroit brand, but you don't want a Mustang, Camaro or Corvette, you're out of luck. (Yes, Jeep Wrangler fans, you consider your SUV a convertible, and we're all jealous, but statisticians classify it as a truck.)

The departure of the 200 also shortens the list of open-air cars available for less than $30,000. There's the Mazda MX-5 Miata, the VW Beetle, the Fiat 500c, the Mini Cooper, the Smart ForTwo Cabrio and the Mustang — and nothing else. Here's a few reasons why the coolest cars of summer have become so rare:

Cost to build. The name of the global carbuilding game today is platform sharing; building as many variations from the same basic chassis and electronics as possible. (The most extreme example: Volkswagen, which plans to build 5 million vehicles by 2018 across four brands and dozens of models with one basic chassis.)

It's relatively easy to grow a sedan into a crossover SUV, or shrink it into a coupe, but convertibles require far more engineering work, from the roof-folding mechanism to preventing body shake from the lack of a hard roof — expensive resources for a variation that's rarely a big seller. Take Toyota, the world's best-selling and most profitable automaker with nearly 10 million vehicles sold in 2013 — and which offers exactly one convertible model worldwide, the Lexus IS C.

"Manufacturers really view it as a luxury," said Tom Libby, a consultant for IHS Automotive's Loyalty Practice, an industry research firm. "When they’re prioritizing their product programs, I don’t think that's going to make the cut unless they have a lot of resources sitting around."

Fuel economy. Thanks to those engineering needs, convertibles inevitably weigh more than hard-roof vehicles. At a time where automakers are remixing paints to save every ounce of weight they can for better fuel efficiency under strict rules in the United States and Europe, convertibles get that much tougher to justify in the planning stages.

Quality. Most convertibles inevitably require more maintenance, and create more wind noise or leaks that turn up as demerits in annual quality surveys like Consumer Reports. Diehard convertible fans will buy them year after year regardless, but many owners who try them once move back.

Seasonal sales. In much of the country, convertible buyers hibernate for five months of the year, leaving dealers either stuck with cars they have to pay interest on or automakers stuck with idled factory tooling because dealers won't order them. Just today, Cars.com data showed that the average 2014 Chrysler 200 convertible was sitting on dealers' lots for nearly six months, or three times longer than the average vehicle.

Crossovers. It's one thing to make a coupe like the Chrysler 200 or Toyota Camry Solara into a convertible; it's almost impossible to do it with a soft-roading SUV like, say, a Ford Escape. Now that young buyers have moved wholesale into such models in place of small sedans or coupes, roof-less variations seem ridiculous (as proven by the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet.)

"A high proportion of convertibles used to be in the lower segments — like the Chevy Cavalier, or Pontiac Sunfire — and that smaller, sporty concept has really diminished," Libby said.

China. As Bloomberg BusinessWeek notes, convertibles are rare in China because buyers there prefer to shut out the dirty air rather than bask in it, and as the largest market for new cars in the world, China will soon set trends for the rest of the globe. It's a trend shared in many developing markets: Feeling the wind in your hair makes you come alive; sucking fumes from the dump truck you're stuck next to in city traffic does not.

Even the most pessimistic forecast doesn't predict the end of convertibles entirely. Detroit's muscle cars still do a healthy business in drop-top variations, and German luxury automakers maintain a sizable lineup of them, from the Mercedes-Benz E-Class to the BMW 3-Series to the Rolls-Royce Phaeton Drophead. And every so often, an automaker still rolls out a convertible concept at an auto show, like Toyota's FT-86 Open.

But convertible fans now face a supply/demand spiral; fewer models mean fewer buyers, which means even fewer models in the future. Convertibles will only come back if drop-top fans find more tramps like themselves, born to run.