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Four dependable ragtops for under $15,000

Mark Toljagic on cheap four-seater convertibles for Pre-Owned Wheels.
Mark Toljagic

It’s hard to fathom from our vantage point today, but convertibles had a lock on the automobile market a century ago.

Given the fact early autos evolved from open horse carriages, it took a long time before drivers and passengers recognized the advantages of traveling inside a sturdy sedan with a fixed roof.

The enclosed all-steel body didn’t debut until World War I, and it would be 1925 before closed cars outsold ragtops for the first time. That trend accelerated, unabated, until convertibles were left with the small sliver of the market they have today.

Perhaps it’s time to put the fun back in fundamental motoring.

Here are four used, four-seat convertibles you can buy today for less than $15,000 that may plant a permanent grin on your face. The emphasis, as always, is on second-hand models that are reasonably reliable and won’t cost a proverbial arm and leg to keep on the road.

Headscarves are not included. Your smileage may vary.

2005-06 Chrysler PT Cruiser

The wholly unique PT Cruiser cemented Chrysler’s reputation for fostering the most adventurous designers among North America’s automakers. Built in Toluca, Mexico, the front-drive PT Cruiser initially came only as a five-door wagon; the four-place convertible arrived for 2005.

It had two big doors, rather than five, and featured an integral “sport bar” for added rigidity and rollover protection. Almost by accident, the sport bar caused air to flow over the rear passengers, resulting in a less drafty ride for those sitting out back — an unintended, but welcome, benefit. Some owners disliked the rear window in the convertible top, judging it too small.

The PT Cruiser’s DOHC 2.4 L four-cylinder was pinched from the Caravan, making 150 hp and 162 lb.-ft. of torque. Buyers could choose between a cable-operated five-speed manual transmission and a four-speed automatic.

There was also a GT model with a turbocharged, 215 hp version of the same engine to combat complaints that the PT Cruiser was fat — not phat — and felt sluggish when saddled with the automatic (but zippy when mated to the manual shifter).

The automatic four needed 10.9 seconds to reach highway speeds, while the GT’s turbo propelled the trucklet to 96 km/h in 7.2 seconds, with the automatic no less.

In terms of caveats, owners reported front-end suspension components wearing quickly, air conditioning woes and high-mileage examples exhibiting oil leaks. The turbo’s torque eats CV joints, apparently, and the GT engine is very fond of gasoline.

To rein in running costs, it’s best to avoid the GT model altogether and stick with the normally aspirated four-cylinder.

1999-04 Ford Mustang

Although based on the prehistoric Fox foundation that harks back to the 1978 Ford Fairmont, engineers have continually massaged the rear-drive platform to yield a longer wheelbase and wider track, with standard disc brakes at all four wheels.

The 1999 models were re-skinned to reflect Ford’s trademark “new edge” styling, including wraparound headlights and pronounced wheel arches. A new suspension design improved handling, but only the high-buck Cobra got the fully independent rear suspension.

The convertible benefited from boxed frame sections to stiffen the aging platform and combat cowl shake. The power top worked well; the down side is the trunk was unhelpfully small.

Thanks to an improved split-port induction system, the aluminum-block 3.8 L V6 gained 40 horses for a total of 190 hp, while the SOHC 4.6 L V8 gained 35 hp for a sum of 260, attributable to a new head design and other enhancements.

The Mustang is easy to live with. Four adults can fit reasonably well, the car feels rigid and secure and, decked out with GT go-faster parts (primarily the V8), the Mustang performs: highway velocity comes up in 5.9 seconds.

Unfortunately, the manual transmission and clutch are clunky and heavy underfoot (the Mustang works better with an automatic, sadly), and owners have documented bad differentials, broken motor mounts and some oil consumption. Driveline vibrations have also been reported.

Still, the Mustang convertible enjoys an enduring reputation that’s surprisingly attainable. Shop carefully — the V6 cars may have been subject to less abuse — and you too can have an American idol in your driveway.

2000-04 Toyota Camry Solara

With a name like Solara, a ragtop was a foregone conclusion when the California-designed Camry coupe was unveiled. Convertible specialist ASC did the chopping, whisking the coupe bodies off Toyota’s Cambridge assembly line and performing the top-o-dectomy in a nearby facility before returning them for final assembly.

ASC’s soft top was fully lined, power-operated and featured a large heated glass rear window. Unfortunately, the soft tonneau cover was a pain to wrestle into place.

Power was supplied by either a 136 hp, 2.2 L DOHC four-cylinder or a 200 hp, 3.0 L DOHC V6 driving the front wheels. All Solara convertibles came with a four-speed automatic transmission standard, and few were sold with the four banger.

The Solara was redesigned for 2004, taking advantage of the next-generation Camry platform, gaining a 225 hp 3.3 litre V6 paired with the five-speed automatic transmission standard on convertible models. The number of seatbelts was reduced from five to four in the redesign.

Equipped with the silky V6, the front-drive Solara will hit highway speeds in 8.5 seconds, a respectable number. The car does flex over bumps more so than some of its competitors, a symptom of its aftermarket modification.

The Solara is capable of taking four grown-ups over long distances in perfect comfort, which makes this a boulevardier and not a sports car. When the road turns twisty, the Solara is a reluctant handler liable to grind its tires in protest.

In terms of owner complaints, there are few. Easily warped brake rotors are a common lament, along with poor audio reproduction and some rattles. The 2004 models may present alignment problems. Reliability, thy name is Solara.

1999-03 Chevrolet Tracker/Suzuki Vitara

There was a time when the Ontario-built Suzuki Vitara and Chevrolet-badged Tracker were everywhere — you couldn’t swing your car door without hitting one. They constituted a unique product: a Jeep-like 4×4 that actually worked reliably every day.

Unlike many car-based “cute-utes,” the Vitara was a full-frame truck, albeit on a Lilliputian scale. In addition to the five-door wagon, the Vitara and Tracker offered three-door targa convertibles, with a metal hoop that arched over the front seats, reinforcing the truck structurally, and a folding soft top protecting the rear seats.

Base two-doors used a 97 hp, 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine, while better-equipped models got a DOHC 2.0 litre four-cylinder that made 127 hp (the smaller motor was dropped after 2001). A five-speed manual transmission was standard, with a four-speed automatic optional.

The Vitara and Tracker were true off-road vehicles; they offered part-time four-wheel drive with a low range for plodding in the bush. Unfortunately, the short wheelbase and heavy-duty suspension conspired to make highway driving choppy and tiresome. And these flyweight four-wheelers were susceptible to crosswinds.

Mechanically, the Tracker/Vitara is pretty durable. Owners reported problems with flimsy trim and an interior that scratches easily, but the oily bits work well — up to a point. Avoid high-mileage examples as these little SUVs don’t always age well. Rust is an issue and things like wheel bearings, differentials and timing chains can give up the ghost.

While the comfort and refinement are more John Deere than Range Rover, the Tracker/Vitara can reliably get you in and out of the rough with ol’ King Sol warming your hide the entire way.

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