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.
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