Sales Of Convertibles Are Decelerating; Blame The (Fuel) Economy

Sales Of Convertibles Are Decelerating; Blame The (Fuel) Economy

6:32pm Aug 20, 2015
A classic Lincoln Continental convertible is seen in Washington, D.C., in June.
A classic Lincoln Continental convertible is seen in Washington, D.C., in June.
Sonari Glinton / NPR

Few images evoke the lazy hazy days of summer more than a convertible driving down the coast. Soon, though, that image may be pure nostalgia.

Sales of convertibles have seen a steep decline, falling by more than 40 percent in the past decade alone. And with new, tougher fuel economy standards, the days of riding with the top down could be numbered.

Jack Nerad of Kelley Blue Book has owned a 1962 convertible Corvette for nearly 40 years. Nerad lives in Orange County, Calif., a seemingly ideal place for a convertible, but his classic car often stays at home.

"You typically don't drive one when you have one, frequently," he says. Nerad says convertibles are typically the second or third car because while fun, they lack practicality.

Most convertibles have cloth tops that could potentially be easier to break into. They tend to be smaller, somewhat less comfortable cars — especially if you're tall — and the rear seats seem more for show than for riding. They can be noisier. Ironically, in warmer, sunny climates it's often more comfortable to ride with the top up and the air conditioning on.

While convertibles appear to be less enticing for consumers, making them is far less rewarding and more difficult for automakers. In the 1960s, the heyday of convertibles, the frame and body of most cars were separate. "It was easy to plop down a convertible body or a station wagon body or a lot of different bodies on that same frame," Nerad says.

Now, cars are made using unibody construction, which means the body and frame are constructed as one piece. That means a company like Toyota can't easily turn an established car like the Camry into a convertible; the automaker has to start from scratch and create an all-new car.

If there is one thing that makes the ragtop less attractive to carmakers, it's fuel economy. Each manufacturer has to raise its overall fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Convertibles are often heavier and less fuel efficient than their sedan equivalents. The mechanism that raises and lowers the top has weight.

It seems counterintuitive, Nerad says. "You oftentimes have stiffening of the chassis that replaces the stiffening that a solid roof would provide." That means automakers have to work hard to make cars more fuel efficient. All this leads to a lack of enthusiasm for the drop top among many.

But not all. "Basically, this car is the most unadulterated encapsulation of everything we are," says Rod McLaughlin, a Mazda vehicle line manager, in describing the MX-5 Miata. The company just renintroduced its halo car — a head-turning vehicle that makes buyers pay attention to the Mazda brand even if they don't end up buying the actual car.

Last year, Mazda sold about 5,000 Miatas. Mazda is willing to take the bet. As is General Motors, which is launching a new Buick convertible. And the luxury brands are keeping pace.

McLaughlin says consumer tastes are cyclical. "I don't think the days of the convertible will ever go away. It's cyclical and there's a point where people feel they do need to drive other cars and they do need giant SUVs and there was a point when everyone wanted a station wagon a while ago." There's something so much fun about convertibles, he says, and they're "more than just Point A to Point B transportation. How can that ever go away?"

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Few images evoke the lazy days of summer more than a convertible driving down the coast. Well, soon that image may be pure nostalgia. Sales of convertibles have seen a steep decline, falling by more than 40 percent in the last decade. With new tougher fuel economy standards, the days of riding with the top down could be numbered, as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports from a convertible in Beverly Hills.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: I am doing something truly iconic. While I'm recording my part of this story, my buddy is driving me down Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills in his convertible. Before, I met up with Jack Nerad of Kelly Bluebook in Orange County. He's owned a 1962 convertible Corvette for more than 40 years. And when we met up, he didn't drive it.

JACK NERAD: You typically don't drive one when you have one, frequently.

GLINTON: Why do you say that?

NERAD: Convertibles these days are most often a third car, second car, something like that as opposed to the primary car that you drive

GLINTON: There are several reasons for that. Most convertibles have cloth tops that could potentially be easier to break into. They tend to be smaller, somewhat less comfortable cars - especially if you're tall. And Nerad says now drop tops are harder to make for manufacturers. The frame and the body of the car used to be separate back in the '60s, the heyday of convertibles.

NERAD: It was easy to plop down a convertible body or a station wagon body or a lot of different bodies on that same frame. It wasn't really costly for the manufacturers - or costly in the way that it is now with unibody construction which means the body and the frame are one. You know, it's all kind of constructed as one piece.

GLINTON: So Toyota can't really just put a convertible top on a Camry. If they want to make a convertible, they have to start engineering a car from scratch. Now this next part is why convertibles are less practical to car makers. Automakers have to get their fuel averages for all their cars up to 54.5 miles a gallon within the next decade. And Nerad says though it seems counterintuitive, convertibles are heavier and less efficient than regular sedans.

NERAD: Typically it's got a soft top. It's made of cloth. Most of us think, oh, the cloth is going to weigh less than metal, right? That makes sense. What you have, though, is the mechanism that helps the top go up and down which is made of metal and is, you know, typically heavy. And then you oftentimes have stiffening of the chassis that replaces the stiffening that a solid roof would provide.

GLINTON: They're heavier, so they're less fuel-efficient. And consumers aren't clamoring for convertibles. Sales are down more than 40 percent from their peak in 2004. And the typical convertible buyer is in their 50s. So that's a risk that most car companies aren't willing to make.

ROD MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah, I mean, basically, this car is the most unadulterated encapsulation of everything that we are.

GLINTON: For Mazda, the convertible Miata is a halo car - a head-turning car that makes buyers pay more attention to the brand. Rod McLaughlin is in charge of the new Mazda Miata MX-5, and we went on a drive through Orange County.

MCLAUGHLIN: Every other product that we built has some of that DNA in them whether its an SUV, a sedan or an economy car. There's a little bit of the MX-5 in everything that we build.

GLINTON: Do you think the days of the convertible are past?

MCLAUGHLIN: I absolutely do not. I don't think the days of the convertible ever go away. It's cyclical, and there's a point where people feel like they do need to drive other cars. There was a point where people felt they needed giant SUVs, and that's coming down. There was a point where everyone wanted a station wagon a long time ago. You know, so all these things are cyclical. But I think the desire for something that's fun, that's enjoyable, that is more than just point A to point B transportation - how can that ever go away?

GLINTON: So we boys can dream. Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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