5 best soft-tops

But traditionalists will tell you that the folding metal hard-tops that have become fashionable recently aren't worthy of consideration. The folding metal hard-tops boast of being the best of both worlds but the folding roof takes up what little cargo space is on offer in these sports machines, not to mention adding weight - the enemy of true performance.

Anyone who grew up with traditional sports cars will - once the rose-coloured glasses are removed - recall leaks, draughts, opaque plastic windows and fussy installation and removal. Modern fabric hoods are becoming much sturdier and are better insulated for noise and the elements, so much so that the snowballing trend of folding metal roofs has slowed.

The open-air thrills of a convertible need not be pinned to a property-sized pricetag, with plenty of open-topped opportunities available for less. We look at five of the best here.

MAZDA MX-5

The designers of Mazda's MX-5 looked long and hard at the original Lotus Elan before embarking on the Japanese sports car that is now a modern classic and record holder for global sales. The true spiritual successor to such cars as the Austin Healey Sprite and the MG B - the lightweight, nimble, open-topped, rear-wheel-drive sporty - has maintained its focus on remaining true to the vehicles that inspired it.

Only recently has the company strayed from its traditional path and offered a folding hard-top in the MX-5, thankfully without removing the cloth-topped variant from its range. All the vital items are here: airconditioning, cruise control, dual front and side airbags, stability and traction control, plus drilled aluminium pedals, sports leather seats and steering wheel, a Bose sound system, a torque-sensing limited slip differential and a six-speed manual gearbox with a rifle-bolt action. Enough said.

Price: From $44,265
Engine: Two-litre 16-valve four-cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed manual or automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power: 118kW @ 7000rpm.
Torque: 188Nm @ 5000rpm.
Performance: 0-100km/h 7.6 seconds
Fuel consumption: 8.1litres/100km, tank 50 litres
Wheels: 17-in alloys.

ALFA ROMEO SPIDER

Alfa Romeo's Spider is a convertible steeped in tradition. The current Spider is the latest in a long line of Alfa drop-tops, perhaps the most famous being the little Italian sports car that featured in The Graduate. The Italian marque has rarely put a foot wrong when it comes to styling its convertibles - some of its sedans were questionable to say the least - but the design talent of the artisans at Alfa Romeo, Giugiaro and Pininfarina all had hands in this rag-top.

While there is a V6 on offer the 2.2-litre 16-valve four-cylinder is lighter and therefore less prone to affecting the front-wheel drive's cornering prowess. The features list for the 2.2 includes dual front, side and driver's knee airbag, six-speaker CD sound system, a full electric roof, trip computer and leather trim. The 2.2 JTS also comes standard with anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control and hill-holding functions.

Price: From $69,990
Engine: 2.2-litre 16-valve four-cylinder, front-wheel drive
Transmission: Six-speed manual or Selespeed automatic
Power: 136kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 230Nm @ 4500rpm
Performance: 0-100km/h 9 seconds
Top speed: 220km/h
Fuel consumption: 9.5litres/100km, tank 70 litres
Wheels: 18-in alloys.

BMW 135i CONVERTIBLE

The BMW brand's littlest machine (before dropping into the Mini model range) is the 135i Convertible. The littlest Beemer is by no means a dud, particularly if the wallet extends to the 135i Convertible's $82,000-plus asking price.

One of the most spirited rides within the BMW range, the rear-wheel drive, twin-turbo six-cylinder punches well above its apparent station in life, with the drivetrain offering unfussed cruising or giant-killing ability. It might look like a bit of a hairdresser's car but dropping the roof and stretching its legs will do little for the 'do.

Price: From $82,200
Engine: Three-litre twin-turbo 24-valve six-cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed manual or seven-speed double-clutch automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power: 225kW @ 5800rpm
Torque: 400Nm @ 1200rpm
Performance: 0-100km/h 5.6 seconds
Top speed: 250km/h (governed)
Fuel consumption: 8.6 litres/100km, tank 53 litres
Wheels: 18-in alloys.

MINI COOPER S CABRIOLET

Another one from the BMW stable of products that can make a mess of a hairstyle in the best possible way is the Mini Cooper S Cabrio. It has features like climate control airconditioning that has a Cabrio mode, a MP3/USB port-compatible sound system, pop-up roll bars, cloth/leather trim and a split-folding rear seat to improve cargo space.

The brattish upstart of the Cabrio market, which can now run in targa-top or full Cabrio mode, is powered by a 128kW/240Nm 1.6-litre, turbocharged direct-injection four-cylinder engine, enough to whip it to 100km/h in 7.4 seconds. But more gentle throttle applications can see fuel consumption as low as the official figure of 7.2 litres per 100km.

Price: From $48,000
Engine: 1.6-litre 16-valve turbocharged four-cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed manual or automatic, front-wheel drive
Power: 128kW @ 5500rpm
Torque: 240Nm @ 1600rpm
Performance: 0-100km/h 7.4 seconds
Top speed: 222km/h
Fuel consumption: 7.2 litres/100km, tank 50 litres
Wheels: 16in alloys.

AUDI TT ROADSTER

Audi's TT Roadster is a sharper-looking machine than its predecessor and it has plenty going for it. There's a range of TT Roadsters on offer, starting with the front-wheel drive, two-litre turbo, a mid-spec model with the same engine and all-wheel drive or the highly-entertaining TT S at a tickle more than $100,000.

All are entertaining little sports cars to drive - with the nippy front-wheel drive two-litre a worthy machine for a leisurely drive in the country. The TT S is also a smile-inducing drop-top but a leisurely pace, while easily achieved, is not its forte.

Price: From $78,000
Engine: Two-litre 16-valve turbocharged four-cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed double-clutch automatic, front-wheel or all-wheel drive
Power: 147kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 280Nm @ 1800rpm
Performance: 0-100km/h 6.5 seconds
Top speed: 237km/h
Fuel consumption: 7.8 litres/100km, tank 55 litres
Wheels: 17-in alloys.

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