Ferrari 488 Spider
Such is the quality of the roof system in the Ferrari 488 that when it’s locked-in above, wind noise is no different to the GTB. Allow for fourteen seconds, all the while eyeing the rear-view mirror, and the spider top conceals itself below the rear deck nestled between the two peaking buttresses. It’s a teasing precursor to the onset of the famous Ferrari theatre, connecting you more intimately with 3.9-litre, 661bhp V8.
Make no naturally aspirated bones about it, the force-fed V8 sounds good. The noise is a treat in the lower-to-mid reaches but the final few revs don’t emit the same howl as the 458. That’s not say clipping the 8,000rpm limiter isn’t worth the chase. A whopping 560ft lb torque is tarmac bound at 3,000rpm and arrives razor sharp with the turbos spooling. Hooked up to one of the best ‘boxes around the engine’s straight line performance is stupendous.
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The 50kg weight penalty incurred goes unnoticed on the move. You’ll be hard pushed to discern any calculable differences between the Spider and GTB counterpart. The absence of the structurally integral roof only makes itself known though flex and tremor on the most abrasive and testing asphalt.
The 488 Spider is nothing short of a magnificent steer, apparently endowing you with racing driver-like skills. Dial up the wheel-mounted Manettino to RACE, lean purposely on the organically embedded safety net, and you emerge from each passing corner with greater angles of slip, as the brilliant Slip Slide Control system awakens.
Lotus Elise Sport 220
The Lotus Elise has been on sale now for over two decades, but don’t discount the Elise for being out-dated or old fashioned, as it’s still one of the most pure driving experiences you can buy, no matter the price point.
Our favourite Elise is currently the Sport 220, a goldilocks point in the range between the slightly breathless Sport and over-endowed 250 Cup. In fact we think so much of the Sport 220 we gave it our best sports car gong in eCoty 2017, such is its timeless ability to entertain.
The whole package screams Lotus donning fluid, transparent dynamics underpinned by superb steering and suspension calibrations. The supercharged 1.8-litre Toyota-sourced engine is a stand out too, sounding about as good as modern four-cylinders get, complete with a raucous top end and a progressive power curve.
The fact we still consider the Elise to be such an impressive sports car is not driven by that powerful source of nostalgia though, rather a clear understanding of what makes a sports car so exciting to drive. There isn’t much too it, but like a Caprese salad, the art is in the quality of the basic ingredients and not the fluff that surrounds them.
Porsche 911 Speedster
Porsche’s latest Speedster is essentially a roofless GT3 – and if that doesn’t sell you on it, we’ve no idea what will.
Actually, in some respects, it’s better than a GT3, as a road car at least. The chassis set-up is closer to that of the 911 R and GT3 Touring, being just a touch softer on its two-stage adaptive dampers, and therefore more usable on normal, imperfect road surfaces. The softer set-up also helps offset a shell that’s unavoidably 20 per cent less rigid than the coupe’s, but widespread use of carbonfibre – for the front bonnet, rear deck and front wings – keeps weight down to a modest 1465kg.
The roof is mostly manual to save weight too, with only the unlatching mechanism being electronic, and while there’s a lot of visual mass back there on this 991-based car, it’s still less ‘Kardashian’ than the newly released 992 Convertible.
Oh, and did we say that it retains the GT3’s incredible 4-litre flat-six – albeit fitted with a dual-mass flywheel for slightly better usability? And that it retains a manual transmission – one of the best in the business? This soft-top is no poor relation.
There is a weight gain (almost 100kg over the coupe equivalent) but that doesn’t dilute the 911 rear-engine experience. Faculties are kept under control on all but the most challenging roads with crests, dips and dives that make the extra weight and structural changes become perceptible. Instances where you encounter these flaws, though, will be few and far between.
By some margin the cheapest car in this list, the little roadster is still a pocketful of fun. Looking three-quarter scale thanks to its diminutive proportions, the latest generation Mazda MX-5 has so much promise and only lacks a little polish. Tucking neatly between the headrest and boot deck, its manually operated soft-top is a cinch to drop and requires little effort to secure in place, while the alternative RF (“retractable fastback”) model brings Targa-style utility and a coupe-like roofline.
Both MX-5 engines are zingy enough, with the 1.5 litre squeezing out only the bare minimum of power. Drop away from the top of the rev range and it’s gutless, but deft use of the six-speed transmission should safeguard momentum – and the gearchange is, as ever, an MX-5 highlight.
The 2-litre models have recently had a boost to 181bhp and the updated engine is more free-revving than its predecessor. It gives a fairly healthy turn of pace too, but the car’s chassis still has its limitations – high levels of body roll feel out of step with the car’s responses. In some respects, the 1.5-litre car – slower and softer without the 2-litre’s Bilstein suspension – feels more natural to drive.
That said, the MX-5 is still a simple recipe delivering the simple charms of a rear-wheel-driven sports cars at law abiding speeds.
Lamborghini Huracan Spyder
If any car should have its top cut off this Lambo is surely one of them. It's very much a true Lamborghini - exceptionally showy and all the better for it. With low slung, incredibly aggressive, swooping lines and angular points, it looks every bit a modern supercar. Concealing the roof behind you exposes occupants to the glorious cacophony orchestrated by the naturally aspirated V10.
If anyone was to doubt the importance of noise in creating an enveloping driving experience, they must be strapped into a Huracan Spyder. The unique, high-pitch frequency of 10-cylinders firing creates an effervescent, multi-layered soundtrack that any force-fed powerplant will simply not match. The immediacy with which the 603bhp is available makes a charge towards the red-zone more irresistible with each deeper depression of the loud pedal.
Lamborghini’s own description of the Huracan Spyder as the ‘lifestyle’ model in the Huracan lineup preempts some of issues present in this open-top version. Those standing above six-foot may have to compromise on legroom and the high driving position restricts headroom too.
Despite the intimidating exterior, the Huracan Spyder is a benign thing mooching around a town and on the open road. The lack of an overhead structure is highlighted on broken road surfaces but otherwise the agility and response makes the most of a well mannered and predictable chassis. This sense of control though doesn’t endow the Huracan with ultimate thrills, with a rear-torque bias never apparent. The almost identical R8 Spyder is a more engaging and exciting drive.
Audi R8 Spyder
The R8’s anatomy is largely the same as the Lamborghini Huracan’s, with plenty of componentry shared between the two VW Group models. The R8, however, holds its own up against its shouty sibling being the better car to drive.
The second generation R8 Spyder still looks every bit the supercar. The rear deck encasing the soft-top looks a bit fussy but it's a small price to pay when you consider the R8 offers more than just the targa-style opening in the Huracan Spyder.
Extra noise penetrating the soft top roof will only be heard by those keeping a conscious ear out. The euphonious, naturally-aspirated V10 is never dormant though. Free of any breathing apparatus, the motor sounds its way up from deep, low-down growl to a tingling howl that accompanies the 533bhp maximum output (in the lesser powered form). It is truly an electric engine and a great last bastion of atmospheric supercars.
The 5.2-litre’s vast reserves are dealt with by Audi’s Quattro system and a seven-speed dual-clutch ‘box. The result is a sense of security and control no matter how hard you push the R8. It’s unflappable character does split some hairs, robbing you engagement and excitement at times, not helped by the vague steering. That said, it feels just as sorted as the coupe which is probably the best compliment you can pay the Spyder.
McLaren 600LT Spider
This might be one of the easier inclusions in this list. While roofless cars will always be an acquired taste for some, to others a drive is even more thrilling without a roof, and with the 600LT taking the big prize in evo Car of the Year 2018, it’s only natural the Spider would feature here.
What you need to know: roof aside, it’s basically identical to the regular LT, which means the same 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 making 592bhp and 457lb ft of torque, the same 2.9sec time for the 0-62mph sprint, and a top speed that’s still over 200mph – just – provided you leave the roof in place.
It also features the same chassis tweaks as its coupe counterpart, including forged wishbones, recalibrated dampers and different suspension geometry, and if you opt for the Clubsport pack, you get seats from the Senna, titanium wheel bolts and various carbonfibre goodies, though all-up weight is still 50kg more than the coupe.
It’s no less incredible to drive, though. McLaren has a good record with its LT variants, and the aggression and precision of the coupe remains intact here. It’s not a car that needs to be driven up to and over its limits to enjoy either – well calibrated controls and excellent steering, plus the theatre of that gruff V8, make it fun at more sensible velocities too.
Bentley Continental GT Convertible
The latest Bentley Continental GT is a fabulous grand tourer, and the convertible variant has done nothing to change that. In fact, with roof-up refinement as impressive as the previous-generation Conti GT coupe and elegant, speedboat-like styling when the roof is stowed, there’s an argument to be made that it’s an even better GT in soft-top form.
Qualities that remain include the GT’s performance and handling. For a car that weighs 2414kg, its poise is truly remarkable. Active anti-roll technology plays a part in that, and while you undoubtedly feel the car’s bulk if you test it through switchbacks or on downhill sections with higher braking demands, no 2.4-ton car has a right to handle this well – or go this quickly.
Qualities enhanced by the folding roof include sense of occasion, and the GT’s already spectacular cabin. Walking up to the car, key in hand, feels very special, and with the beautifully constructed and tastefully trimmed cabin bathed in natural light, there aren’t many places from which you’d prefer to undertake a long journey.
Yes, it’s expensive – over £175,000 – and yes, you can very occasionally feel a shimmy of scuttle shake through its substantial shell, but neither should take away from what is one of the most desirable soft-tops on sale.
One thing several cars in this list share is a great engine, and the Ford Mustang convertible undoubtedly has that characteristic. The purist in us would tend to opt for the coupe if given the choice, but we’d fully understand anyone choosing to go soft-top with Ford’s pony car.
First, you get unfettered access to that 5-litre, naturally aspirated V8 when you drop the roof. It’s not the most responsive engine on the market, but the absence of turbochargers means the sound is pretty much unparalleled among modern eight-cylinders, particularly when fitted with the sports exhaust.
Given the hard-top car is far from being a B-road-scratching sports car in the first place, opting for the rag-top seems like less of a compromise than it might with certain other coupes-turned-convertibles. That’s not to say the Mustang doesn’t handle, but with its best performance being at a few clicks back from maximum attack, any loss of body rigidity from the hole up top probably won’t bother you as much.
In many respects, it’s like the MX-5 featured elsewhere in this list. Imperfect as a pure driving machine, but there’s little to touch it for back-to-basics fun on a sunny day.
Car manufacturers will tell you that roadsters outsell coupes, so it’s a wonder BMW took so long to remove a section from the i8’s carbon tub and replace it with canvas. In fact, it’s that surgical procedure that contributed to the i8 Roadster only arriving at the car’s mid-life refresh – but it was worth the wait.
Importantly, the dramatic styling remains unsullied in its transition to roadsterdom, and with vibrant colours such as the signature ‘e-copper’ available, the Roadster is every bit as distinctive as its coupe cousin. Marginally easier to get into and out of too, at least with the top lowered, as you can use the strong windscreen surround as a hand-hold to negotiate the wide sill.
You will notice a few more shakes and shimmies than in the ultra-rigid coupe, but that carbonfibre tub has by and large maintained its structural stiffness, aided by a stiffening plate underneath. The car is 60kg heavier overall, but that’s not something you really notice on the road – the i8 is better at a brisk pace than it is flat out, where its grip limits call time on hard driving.
Chopping out the roof has enhanced the sound, though – or lack of it, when you’re in EV mode. Chances to drive around roof-down with no engine sound are still relatively unique in the automotive world. When the engine does kick in there’s plenty of power (369bhp combined), and an appealing Le Mans Prototype-style whine from the motors as the drivetrain delivers and recuperates energy.