The best convertibles: A glorious way to get around

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If you can throw practicality out the window -- or an open roof -- you might consider a convertible. Our three favorites are a hoot to drive and affordable to own.

By their very nature, most convertibles can carry only two adults, a few groceries or a couple of soft-sided suitcases for a weekend getaway.

But some don't even fulfill those basics, particularly when putting the top down fills up the trunk. Well, life is a game of trade-offs.

Two of our favorites are rear-wheel-drive, which makes them very nimble on the road. One has front-wheel drive making it a better choice if you need to get around in snowy climes.

All deliver a pleasant ride, at least partially due to their solid structure -- not a given anytime you whack the top off a car.

They have plenty of power, too, even though we recommend the smallest engines to save on gas and hold down the price.

Our favorites cost less than $27,000, including important safety equipment such as anti-lock brakes and air bags that protect the head in a side-impact crash.

That's not something you'll want to scrimp on because you'll be sharing the road with considerably larger trucks.

Mazda MX-5 Miata

Normally referred to simply as the Miata, this rear-wheel-drive two-seater was a blockbuster when it was introduced in 1989 as a Japanese copy of the classic British sports car. What a concept: reliability on top of fun.

We're now on the third-generation Miata, which was introduced as a 2006 model. It has a simple and convenient cockpit with plenty of room for two. We like the fact that standard equipment includes seat-mounted airbags for head and chest protection in a side-impact crash.

The trunk is about a third the size of a family sedan such as the Toyota Camry. But by two-seat convertible standards, that's pretty good. And no space is lost when the top goes down.

The most-affordable Miatas have tops that can be lowered manually. Flip two latches and pull it back. With longish arms, it can be lowered or raised without getting out of the car. The good news is that lowering it does not diminish the trunk space, a problem with some convertibles.

The best thing about the Miata is driving it. It is the classic sports car, a vehicle that makes a wonderful connection with the driver. We'd stick with the standard suspension (not the sport) because it offers plenty of cornering power without battering its occupants on a rough surface.

The 166-horsepower, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission are more than enough to move the lightweight Miata.

It gets the best gas mileage of our favorites -- 22 m.p.g. city and 27 m.p.g. highway -- but, alas, premium fuel is recommended.

Mazda has yet to release prices on the 2009 models. But prices on the 2008s begin at $21,305 and run to $27,780 for the Grand Touring model with a wonderful, retractable hardtop that offers security against bad people and bad weather.

If you can do without the Grand Touring's leather upholstery, you can get the retractable hardtop on the regular Sport model for $25,135.

We'd recommend the Sport, which despite the name does not have the optional sport suspension. For 2008, it is priced at $22,305, including destination charge, and it comes with all the necessary goodies such as air-conditioning, power windows, AM/FM/compact disc player, anti-lock brakes and a five-speed manual gearbox.

Ford Mustang

The Mustang is too big to be a classic sports car, but the rear-wheel-drive Mustang offers a great balance between ride and handling. It doesn't jar you on a rough surface and can play with the best of them on a twisty road. That makes it an extremely entertaining way to travel, particularly with the power top down.

Inside, the front seats are comfortable. The color-configurable instrument panel means that Mustang owners can personalize the background by mixing and matching lighting to create colors to suit almost any whim.

The real backseat means you have the option of bringing along an adult eager to avoid walking, two small children or enough luggage to be gone for a week.

Sure, the 4.6-liter V8 is fun, but that 300-h.p. option boosts the price to just over $32,000.

The standard 210-h.p., 4.0-liter V6 works remarkably well, and the five-speed manual transmission is easy to use and gets 17 m.p.g. in the city and 26 m.p.g. on the highway. So, we'd stick with the V6.

With side-impact air bags now standard on all Mustangs, the only safety feature you should add is anti-lock brakes ($995). Ford should be embarrassed to charge for such a basic safety feature. In any case, it brings the total to $26,610.

Pontiac Solstice

Convertibles can be pricey, and saving money often means accepting some compromises. So, while the 2009 Pontiac Solstice isn't perfect, we like the window sticker.

Prices begin at $23,870 for a 173-h.p. model, while the 260-h.p. turbocharged GXP is priced at $29,080.

The Solstice is an eye-catching two-seater -- and we really mean two-seater. Don't spend much time thinking about what to take along for a ride. If it doesn't fit in your pockets, there isn't room.

An unfortunate lack of cargo capacity is the car's major drawback. With the top up, Pontiac says there's 5.4 cubic feet of trunk space. That's about the same as the Miata and considerably less than almost 10 cubic feet for the Mustang.

But unlike the Miata and Mustang, when the Solstice's top goes down, it folds into the luggage compartment. That reduces the cargo capacity to 2.1 cubic feet. Think big glove box. It's difficult to cram even a small suitcase in there.

The standard four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission won't send you rocketing away from stoplights. But it's quick enough to be fun and handles well enough to please most enthusiasts.

The Solstice also gets pretty good fuel economy -- 19 m.p.g. city and 25 m.p.g. highway -- using regular gasoline.

Important life-saving safety equipment such as electronic stability control is standard on each model. That's a big advantage over the Miata and Mustang. It is an option on the more expensive Miatas and not available on the Mustang.

The model we recommend is the entry-level at $23,870. If you feel like spoiling yourself, another $960 will get you air-conditioning.