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Going topless: The best used convertibles for top-down season

Published May 18, 2013

That big yellow hydrogen furnace we know as the sun is only halfway through its 9-billion-year warranty.

The bad news is that, as it grows older, it will become brighter. In just another billion years, it will adopt a scorched-Earth policy and evaporate all the water on the planet, rendering our home lifeless.

Until then, let’s try to have some fun in the sun. Here are four second-hand roadsters — two-seaters designed specifically with a retractable soft top — for less than $20,000.

Apply sunscreen liberally.

2003-’05 BMW Z4

BMW recast its rear-drive roadster for 2003, making it slightly longer and wider, and wrapped it in coachwork seemingly penned by Picasso.

The Z4 employed the same basic suspension of the latest 3 Series sedans, tweaked for a wider track. There were struts up front and an aluminum-intensive multi-link suspension out back, tied together by a rigid chassis.

The enlarged Z4 offered two occupants more shoulder room in its nicely appointed cockpit. Standard features included a manual soft-top with heated glass rear window, run-flat tires, antilock four-wheel disc brakes and an antiskid system. With no spare tire to carry, the Z4 had a decent-sized trunk. A decadent power-assisted soft-top was optional.

The old Z3’s two inline six-cylinder engines earned a return engagement: the base 184-hp 2.5 L came with a five-speed manual transmission, while the 225-hp 3.0 L used a six-speed manual. Both could be mated to an optional five-speed automatic with a manual shift gate. A new computer-controlled, six-speed sequential manual gearbox (SMG) had no clutch pedal and could emulate a conventional automatic, but quicker.

Equipped with the torquey 3.0 L six, the 2003 Z4 could sprint to 96 km/h in 5.3 seconds; the entry-level 2.5i could do it in less than seven seconds.

The most common complaint about the South Carolina-built Z4 targeted the soft-top’s troublesome electric motor, which expired prematurely after drowning in rainwater from the roof. The top itself may be prone to leaking.

Electrical glitches are not unknown, along with some squeaks and rattles. Its expensive run-flat tires may not last long, unfortunately.

2006-’08 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Widely acknowledged to be a reasonable facsimile of the fun-to-drive 1962 Lotus Elan, the original 1990 Mazda Miata delivered one added benefit: it started when you twisted the key. The wee Miata would become the best-selling sports car of all time.

The third-generation MX-5 Miata was completely redesigned for 2006 to give its growing fans (girth-wise) a more comfortable car. It was made both 4 cm longer and wider overall, while the wheelbase was stretched 6 cm for better legroom.

Tucked under the hood was the Mazda3’s DOHC 2.0 L four-cylinder, tweaked with a two-stage intake manifold to boost low-end torque. Output rose to 166 horsepower and 140 lb.-ft. of torque, good for 6.5-second sprints to highway velocity. What the motor lacked in brute force, it compensated for with unbridled enthusiasm.

The toggle-switch-like five-speed and re-engineered six-speed manual gearboxes remained among the best shifters in the world. The new six-speed automatic came with steering-wheel shift paddles. Side airbags designed to protect both head and torso were standard; traction control was optional.

MX-5 owners have had precious little to kvetch about. Selected models came with run-flat tires, which can transmit a punishing ride and are pricey. Some owners switched to regular tires, despite no provision for a spare (a can of tire sealant suffices).

Mazda’s roadster tracks poorly in snow (four winter tires are mandatory), the interior plastics scratch easily and the keyless transmitter eats batteries. That’s it.

2000-’05 Honda S2000

Resolutely un-Honda-like, the S2000 spun its rear tires via a meaty driveshaft and featured the classic proportions of a roadster with a long hood and short deck, underneath which it could barely hold two golf bags. The cockpit offered just enough room for two average-sized adults; anyone over 6-foot-1 found the fit snug.

No matter. Honda’s DOHC 2.0 L engine provided the highest output per litre of displacement of any car in the world at the time: 120 hp per litre — without the aid of superchargers or turbos. It produced that power by spinning at a motorcycle-like 8,900 r.p.m.

Honda summoned all it knew about lightweight, high-revving engines by specifying forged aluminum pistons, hollow camshafts and hardened connecting rods and crankshafts.

Although 240 hp was impressive, peak torque was just 153 lb.-ft. at 7,500 r.p.m. The S2000 could lunge to 96 km/h in 5.6 seconds — but it required 8,000 r.p.m.-plus shifts, which could shorten clutch life drastically.

Revised for 2004 to mitigate wear and tear, engineers boosted displacement to 2.2 litres by lengthening piston travel, which yielded more torque: 162 lb.-ft. at 6,500 r.p.m.

The few mechanical problems noted online included spark plugs backing out of the early motors, new synchronizers to address gear clash (shifting from first to second) and — surprise — premature clutch and tire wear.

The soft top is susceptible to rips and the car has to be hand-washed. Finally, finding a used example under $20,000 is tricky; it certainly won’t be a low-mileage cream puff.

2006-’09 Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky

Back when the General still ruled supreme, it thought nothing of spending some pocket change to build a ragtop that could knock the pesky Miata off its pedestal.

The Solstice’s Kappa rear-drive platform consisted of hydroformed frame rails and a central tunnel cradling the transmission and driveshaft.

There was plenty of sports-car goodness baked in, including rack-and-pinion steering, forged aluminum unequal-length control arms with Bilstein monotube shocks, four-wheel disc brakes and 18-inch alloy wheels.

The cabin was reasonably spacious for two, but owners noted the plasticky dash felt a little cheap and lacked any useful storage.

The Solstice/Sky featured a manual-folding soft-top with a heated glass rear window. To cut costs, many parts were pinched from other GM models. The sole engine at the outset was a 177-hp, DOHC 2.4 L four cylinder, an enlarged version of the 2.2 L motor that powered millions of Cavaliers. A sturdy chain spun the twin cams, rather than a replaceable belt.

The Solstice was a reasonably capable sports car, although its econobox engine wouldn’t snap many necks. Zero to 96 km/h came up in 7.2 seconds. The Solstice GXP arrived for 2007, complete with a ripsnorting, 260-hp turbocharged 2.0 L four banger. It shaved almost two seconds off acceleration times.

Reliability has been good to middling. Fluid may leak from the rear differential, requiring a vent hose. Transmission woes are not unheard of, but clutch chatter and sundry squeaks and rattles can be heard.

Reported problems with the soft-top include not seating properly to the car body, water leaks and rattling in the trunk when stowed.

wheels@thestar.ca

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