Dear John: I need an affordable convertible sports car

It may have taken a bit longer than normal to show up this year, but summer finally did arrive in Canada. And this month’s Dear John letter writer is excited to enjoy the remaining summer weather with a new convertible sports car.

Nicole Burton, from Calgary, Alta., is a retired provincial health care worker. She’s written in asking for my advice on what new vehicle to buy to replace her 2006 Toyota Solara Convertible. While the Solara has been a reliable and comfortable drive when the weather is right to drop the Toyota’s convertible top, Nicole is looking for something that’s a little more “fun to drive”.

A friend of hers recently bought a restored 1966 MGB Roadster, and lent the small sports car to Nicole for a weekend. With only two seats, rear-wheel-drive and a manual gearbox, the MG sports car’s driving experience could not be further removed from Nicole’s front-wheel-drive, four-seat Toyota Camry-based Solara Convertible.

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“Let’s just say, I was smitten,” the Calgarian wrote about her MG experience.

Nicole grew up driving her father’s Pontiacs from the 1960s and ‘70s. “So winter driving in a rear-drive car doesn’t scare me,” she wrote. And as her two adult children are no longer at home, she can afford to only have seats for two, as her husband’s Ford F-150 truck is the family’s beast of burden.

“So, my question for you John is: Can you find me a brand new convertible sports car? And for under $40,000?” asked Nicole.

Why yes, Nicole, I can. In fact I managed to find three.

2014 MX-5

2014 MX-5
Handout, Mazda

While the last MGB you could have bought was back in 1980, the British sports car’s spiritual successor is Mazda’s iconic MX-5 roadster, formerly known as the Miata. First seen in 1989, the Mazda sports car is now in its third generation. An all-new model is expected to go on sale in Canada next year, but the current model is hardly dated in the way it drives.

2014 MX-5 pricing starts at $30,045 (all prices include freight and pre-delivery inspection fees) for the base GX. A 167 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque 2.0-litre four-cylinder gas engine powers all models. With your budget in mind, Nicole, I’d recommend moving up to the mid-range, $37,840 MX-5 GS. It adds a sixth gear to the base model’s five-speeder, as well as a power-retractable hardtop roof compared to the base car’s traditional cloth top.

My second recommendation, Nicole, is another iconic convertible sports car: the Ford Mustang.

Ford Mustang GT at Detroit auto show.

Ford Mustang GT at Detroit auto show.
Alexandra Straub, Driving

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Celebrating its 50th birthday this year, you may have read that an all-new, sixth-generation 2015 Mustang 2+2 is coming this fall. But if you can’t wait that long there are still plenty of 2014 models available on Canadian Ford dealer lots.

Both the V8 Mustang Convertibles — the $68,599 Shelby GT500 and $46,699 GT — are out of your price range, Nicole. But the $34,099 Mustang V6 Premium — with its 305 hp and 280 lb.-ft. 3.7L V6 hooked up to the standard six-speed manual transmission — is. Plus, there’s a bit of room if you wanted to add a few options.

Which leaves us with my third affordable convertible sports car recommendation: the 2014 Chevrolet Camaro.

Like its arch-rival Mustang, the Chevy Camaro is a 2+2 sports car in the traditional American idiom: big styling and big horsepower. Resurrected in 2009 after an eight-year hiatus, the fifth-generation Camaro is available with six- and eight-cylinder engines.

Like the Ford, the V8 Chevys are out of your price range. In fact, the only Camaro Convertible under $40k is the base, 1LT model. With its 323 hp and 278 lb.-ft. 3.6L V6 mated to a six-speed stick, it rings in at $38,430.

2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible.

2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible.
Liz Leggett, Postmedia News

Which brings us to the first affordable convertible sports car to be ditched from our list: the Camaro. Not only is the Chevy convertible the most expensive example here, it’s the furthest from a classic sports car driving experience.

The Camaro Convertible is based on a large sedan chassis. And every time you turn its steering wheel it feels like its wearing a fat suit. As well, when its top is up, the Camaro is harder to see out of than an elevator shaft. And despite its premium pricing, the Chevy’s cockpit feels the cheapest here.

Next to go is the Mustang.

Smaller, easier to drive, better built and an overall better value than its American rival (and the least expensive of this trio), the Mustang Convertible would be my choice, Nicole, if you wanted more power and two more seats than the Mazda roadster. But if you’re trying to recreate a 1960s convertible sports car driving experience, you have to go for the Mazda.

On the road, the MX-5′s relatively light weight means it leaps into corners. Even with low-profile rubber, its ride quality is decent. Plus the Mazda’s surgical precision from its steering and communication from its chassis make it a joy to drive — even if just around the block. And for day-to-day driving, the Mazda’s interior feels more upscale than the Mustang. Plus there’s the added four-seasonal advantage of the GS model’s retractable hardtop.

If you’re in the market for a new car, and would like to be the subject of a Dear John consultation, please contact John LeBlanc at [email protected]

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