The coupé-cabriolet, otherwise known as the hardtop convertible, is an endangered species. DTW will not be shedding many tears at its passing.
The 1996 Mercedes-Benz SLK roadster was a great concept, executed woefully. Despite having a multitude of dynamic, quality, reliability and durability-related shortcomings, the SLK was an enormously successful model that rewarded its maker’s cynicism handsomely.
These issues were not, of course, apparent to the many early customers who endured a nine-month waiting list to collect their handsome new roadster, or to less patient buyers who paid over list price for nearly-new examples. The SLK had one stand-out feature that made it hugely attractive to city dwellers in particular; a retractable steel hardtop, christened ‘Vario Roof’ by Mercedes-Benz.
There had, of course, been hardtop-convertibles before, notably the 1930’s Peugeot 601 and 402 Eclipse Decapotable coupés and the enormous 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner, but such cars were expensive and compromised by the need to store their large one-piece roofs in the boot, seriously limiting both space and accessibility.
The SLK, however, had the advantage of being a strict two-seater with a short roof, not much longer than the depth of the rear window. This provided a convenient articulation point for the roof to fold and drop into the boot.
Notwithstanding its small size, the roof was still bulky when folded, and effectively reduced the boot capacity by about half. Before the roof could be lowered, a horizontal ‘roller blind’ had to be manually unfurled within the boot to ensure that there was nothing in there to obstruct the folding roof. Most owners, unless they needed to use the boot, left the blind unfurled permanently so the roof could be lowered electrically without leaving the driver’s seat. This operation delighted small boys who watched the roof disappear like magic under the steel tonneau cover. Even adults were stopped in their tracks by the Transformers trick, for a while anyway.
The success of the SLK brought the folding hardtop back into fashion and a raft of what became known as Coupé-Cabriolet models, mainly derivatives of mainstream hatchbacks and saloons, soon followed. Peugeot launched the 206CC in 2001 followed by the 307CC in 2003. Renault launched the Megane CC in the same year. Opel/Vauxhall launched the Tigra TwinTop in 2004, then Nissan launched the Micra C+C in 2005. A year later, things really heated up: Ford launched the Focus CC, Mitsubishi the Colt CZC, Opel/Vauxhall the Astra TwinTop and VW the Eos. 2006 really was the peak year for the coupé-cabriolet and their aficionados.
Owners and their friends were impressed by the party trick their new car could perform and appreciated the additional security they offered, especially owners without a garage or, at least, off-street parking. There were, however, drawbacks too.
Unlike the SLK, a strict two-seater, all of these mainstream models were nominally four-seaters, so the roof was considerably longer. The larger models needed a further articulation line at the B-pillar across the middle of the roof and, even with this, they needed a large and tall boot to accommodate it. This did the styling no favours and most looked like they were carrying rather too much fat in their derrières.
Some manufacturers, for example Ford and Renault, tried to disguise this bulk with large and unusually shaped tail lights, but with little success. Shut-line management was also problematic: in order to have a sufficiently wide boot opening to accommodate the roof, the shut-lines often ended up awkwardly placed on the sides of the rear wings.
Moreover, in order to minimise the length of the roof, most had exceptionally deep windscreens with heavily inclined A-pillars. This placed the driver and front passenger’s heads uncomfortably close to the windscreen top rail, making the sun visors less than effective and creating a bump hazard for taller people’s heads as they got in and out of the car.
The solidity of these metal roofs certainly assisted body rigidity when they were locked in the raised position, but the associated mechanisms placed a lot of weight at an undesirably high level, raising the cars’ centre of gravity. With the roof lowered, the cars were often lacking in torsional rigidity. Neither of these traits did the cars’ handling any favours either.
There were problems with water leaks too, notably on the Focus CC, where the seal between the roof and windscreen rail was deficient. Many cars were subjected to repeated adjustment to try and fix the problem, but to little effect and it was only when the facelifted model was released in 2008 that the problem was finally cured*.
Mercedes-Benz introduced a new SL in 2001, the R230, and fitted it with the Vario Roof. In order to improve the packaging when the roof was folded, the rear screen was made narrower and two rather awkward looking gloss black triangular fillets were inserted between the screen and C-pillars. When the SLK was replaced with a new model, the 2004 R171, the same thing was done, again to the detriment of its appearance. Subsequent replacement models for both the SLK and SL retained this awkward detail.
Of the premium marques, Audi was never drawn into the coupé-cabriolet market and stuck with fabric tops for its TT, A3 and A5 convertibles. BMW was initially a bit sniffy, citing the negative dynamic impact of such roofs, but eventually succumbed with the 2006 E93 generation 3-Series convertible. Subsequent 4 Series convertibles have both featured folding hardtops. The larger 6 and 8-Series convertibles retained their fabric roofs throughout, while the Z4 featured a folding hardtop for one generation only, the 2009 E89, before reverting to a soft-top on the 2018 G29.
Volvo switched to a folding hardtop with its 2006 second-generation C70 convertible, but that model was discontinued in 2013 and Volvo no longer offers any convertibles. The 2003 Cadillac XLR was discontinued in 2009 and not replaced. Likewise, the 2001 to 2010 Lexus SC430.
The mainstream coupé-cabriolets were never big sellers, and all gradually faded away without being replaced. Most lived for just one generation, although Peugeot and Renault followed up with second generation models, perhaps failing to recognise that this particular ship was already holed below the water line.
Coupés and convertibles typically offer less utility for more money, so need to offer greater dynamism, style or luxury to make sense. The coupé-cabriolets were neither dynamically superior (and were often inferior) to their saloon or hatchback siblings, nor were they especially attractive, so it is little surprise that their popularity was fleeting.
Once the novelty wore off, those who did not really love open-air motoring decided that the practical compromises of the coupé-cabriolet format were unpalatable, while those who did, their numbers much diminished, bought a proper convertible instead.
The SLK** that inspired the whole generation of coupé-cabriolets was discontinued earlier this year and no replacement is planned. The few hardtop convertibles that remain are all from premium and supercar manufacturers. There will probably remain a niche market for such cars, but their ephemeral appeal and the inexorable rise of the SUV has now all but killed off the coupé-cabriolet.
* Or maybe not: some post-facelift cars still seemed to suffer leaks.
** Renamed SLC in 2016.