There is something special about cruising around on a cool summer day with the top-down in a performance-themed convertible. For many of us, cars already represent freedom, and when you’re behind the wheel of drop-top sports car the feeling is amplified tenfold. The convertible marketplace is fairly broad. While the finest convertibles are priced closer to what most people expect to pay for a home, superlative vehicles can be found to fit almost any budget.
For the past five years, the Southern Automotive Media Association (SAMA) has hosted a convertible shoot-out called “Topless in Miami.” The clever name is a tongue-in-cheek play on the fun-loving atmosphere of Miami’s South Beach. The event happens at the Ritz-Carlton at Key Biscayne, and this year it took place on June 2. The location is as amazing as it sounds, right on the Atlantic Ocean, with perfectly manicured landscaping and dramatic fountains.
For this year’s the sixth event, SAMA threw a bit of a curve ball and introduced a brand new “Panoramic Sunroof” contest. The recent rise in popularity of the massive pieces of glass that replace the majority of a vehicle’s steel roof warranted the decision. For all intents and purposes, opening up an oversized panoramic sunroof qualifies as driving around topless.
Categories for 2016 included Super Luxury/Exotic, Performance Roadster, Performance Full-Size, Small, Panoramic Luxury and Panoramic Affordable. A total of 16 different vehicles were divided among the classes. A winner was picked in each category, and an overall top pick, based on the highest number of votes, was also chosen.
Each journalist was given a list of vehicles to inspect from the 16. The process was straightforward: a visual inspection followed by a road test. The short drive route allowed us to test handling. A little stop-and-go traffic with a bridge in the middle of the route would gently test the cars’ acceleration capabilities. While not an exhaustive road test, the time behind the wheel was similar to the typical driving experience of most who own these cars.
My categories to judge included Super Luxury/Exotic, Small and Panoramic Affordable. The vehicles I drove were almost as diverse and interesting as the beautiful city of Miami. The Super Luxury/Exotic category consisted of the 2017 Porsche 911 Carrera S Cabriolet and the 2017 Mercedes-AMG SL65. Both vehicles easily topped the $100,000 price point, and the Mercedes was more than double that.
The Super Luxury/Exotic Class
In perhaps the most ill-conceived move of the day, I decided to spend my first 30 minutes inspecting and driving the 911. Porsche’s iconic drop top isn’t a poor choice due to deficiency; the problem is that all other cars seem a little mundane after a few minutes behind the 911’s steering wheel. The fit and finish of the four-seat convertible is undeniable and is only bested by the driving experience it provides. The words agile and nimble are thrown around in automotive journalism far too often, but nothing quite sums them up like driving Porsche’s legendary 420-horsepower luxury sports car in and out of Miami traffic.
The 911’s competition was a 621-horsepower 2017 Mercedes-AMG SL65 Roadster. Powered by a fire-breathing 6.0-liter turbocharged V12 engine and seven-speed automatic transmission, the SL’s 738 pound-feet of torque is impressive, if not punishing. The AMG roadster’s glorious track-tuned adjustable suspension does its best to tame the beast, but with that much power being sent to the rear wheels, there are times when you feel like you are pointing the SL65 rather than steering it. That isn’t to say the $220,000-plus masterpiece wasn’t amazing to drive. The Mercedes garnered the group’s class prize and was also named the overall winner for 2016.
The Small Class
If the Super Luxury/Exotic category is filled with “someday” picks, then the Small category is chock full of choices that are both beloved and within reach. The new-for-2016 Volkswagen Beetle Dune was the first of the class to get an once-over. The Baja-inspired Bug has an additional 0.4 inches of ride height and 0.2 inch wider rear-track width, but otherwise shares the mechanicals and specs with the standard Volkswagen Beetle. The changes are more for the benefit of enhanced visuals than performance, and while you won’t be driving the Dune on any dunes, it certainly looks up for the task. The turbocharged 1.8-liter engine serves up 170 horsepower.
The second vehicle I inspected was the 2016 Mini Cooper S convertible. The Mini included an impressive three-in-one hybrid convertible soft top that can either work like a panoramic sunroof or be fully opened. The Mini is a great-handling car with precise steering, plenty of driver feedback and even a little muscle thanks to the 189-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter engine and six-speed automatic transmission. A six-speed manual is also available.
The final vehicle in the category and winner for the third year in a row was the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata. Ironically, the review vehicle at the event was the exact car I wrote about for this blog not too long ago. My feelings haven’t changed; the MX-5 is one of the most enjoyable vehicles to drive, period. The affordable price point only sweetens the deal. Seeing the dark grey Miata in the contest fleet, climbing in, revving up the 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter engine and shifting the six-speed manual into first was a little like hugging an old friend.
The Panoramic Affordable Class
The final category I judged was a new class for 2016, dubbed Panoramic Affordable. The class consisted of the refreshed 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe, the 2016 Nissan Murano and the all-new for 2017 Chrysler Pacifica minivan.
The 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe features updated styling, plenty of great tech and an enormous available panoramic sunroof. The refreshed aligns the Santa Fe’s styling with the recently launched Sonata and Elantra. Powered by a willing 290-horsepower, 3.3-liter V6 and a six-speed automatic (with Sport, Eco and Normal drive modes) the Santa Fe is a capable three-row midsize SUV that is enjoyable to drive.
The 2016 Nissan Murano was equally impressive. The 260-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 is attached to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Our review vehicle was the Platinum model with leather seats, attractive trim and one of the nicest power panoramic sunroofs on any vehicle. I am a big fan of the Murano’s exterior, and the crossover’s bold floating roof design and wild grille connect with me. The interior is equally pleasing. I actually drove a Murano cross-country with my family last year and found it was a near-perfect vacation-mobile.
The winner of the first-ever Panoramic Affordable award was the all-new-for-2017 Chrysler Pacifica. When it comes to exterior styling, this new minivan offers such a departure that it could easily pass as a full-size crossover SUV from the outside. The 287-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 engine gives the Pacifica plenty of muscle around town and on the highway for easy cruising and passing maneuvers. The event marked my first time seeing the all-new Chrysler minivan and I was impressed. The design, inside and out, is refreshing and fun.
The Rest of the Winners
The Performance Full-Size class was comprised of a 2016 Ford Mustang GT and 2017 Chevrolet Camaro V6 convertible. The nod went to Chevy.
The Performance Roadster class consisted of the eye-catching 2016 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider, the much-loved 2016 Nissan 370Z and the class-winning 2017 Mercedes-AMG SLC43. While I didn’t get a chance to drive any of these fine cars during the shoot-out, I am longtime fan of Nissan’s 370Z and very few cars can match the fun of the Alfa Romeo 4C. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to experience the SLC43, but it looked great and obviously won over the judges.
The Panoramic Luxury class was won by the 2016 Hyundai Genesis sedan. I’ve been a fan of the second-generation of Hyundai’s excellent sedan since it was launched for the 2015 model year. To see this humble brand win an upset victory over the BMW X5 and Infiniti QX60 was surprising, but the victory was well deserved.