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6 convertibles almost anyone can afford

For some, they're chick magnets. For others, a sure cure for a mid-life crisis.

They're fun, they're sporty. They're the stuff of dreams.

We're talking about convertibles, the embodiment of carefree driving.

Once you've sat behind the wheel of one, it's hard to think of driving anything else. The images that flash through your mind: lazy autumn afternoons whisking along winding country roads generating a wake of red and brown leaves, the wind ruffling your hair. A quiet moment, parked with that special someone, watching submarine races in the moonlight. Not to mention attracting hordes of head-turners and car lovers at every traffic light and parking lot.

We should all own at least one convertible before we die. But many feel convertibles are too expensive and created only as expensive toys for the rich.

Think again.

Convertibles come in all shapes and sizes and are tailored to meet the budgets of everyone from the working stiff to the company CEO. There are more than 30 convertibles on the market today from classic tiny, two-seat roadsters with high-performance engines and superior handling, to family four-seaters and on up to the luxury sport convertibles such as the hot new Cadillac XLR and Ford's Thunderbird.

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Those high-end models may be out of the financial reach of most drivers. But there are plenty of affordable choices:

Mazda Miata

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Sure, it's a little long in the tooth and it's not as fast as some in this genre, but this perennially popular sports car is still loads of fun to drive. The light and flashy little Miata, going for as little as $21,843 with wonderfully crisp handling and a comfortable ride, is the ultimate proof that you don't need a lot of horsepower to have fun behind the wheel. Sure, it's tiny and impractical with just two seats and minimal trunk space, but it's the absolute distillation of all the things that people love about convertibles. At the wheel of a Miata, you feel like you're driving a racing car, especially if you can find a long, twisting country road. But it's fun even to drive even in heavy traffic. The current generation Miata has been around since 1998, so it doesn't turn heads much anymore; anti-lock brakes are still available only as an option and stability control is not available at all. But it remains a car to fall in love with.

Volkswagen Beetle
With a price that ranges from $21,475 to $26,570, the Beetle offers exceptional value for money. And of course, it's as cute as a bug. The handling is tight and an optional six-speed manual transmission with 150-horsepower turbocharged 1.8-liter engine ratchets up performance. But the Beetle convertible isn't about performance. The ragtop Bug is about being seen and feeling good, and it succeeds on both counts. It is remarkably cute, even more so than the regular Beetle. It's also an extremely enjoyable car to drive, with strong brakes and all the safety features you would expect. It's not very fast or powerful, but it's a very solid, heavy and safe and a terrific value.

Chrysler Sebring

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Stylish and practical, the Sebring is America's top-selling convertible. Despite its base price of $24,590, it's a classy and elegant car that can carry four adults comfortably. Combining practicality and affordability, Chrysler has positioned the Sebring as a ragtop for people who want a big trunk and a back seat with room for a couple of grownups. It's the only convertible in the price range of $24,600 to $30,000 that can carry four adults and their luggage.

Ford Mustang
Here's a convertible that can fit many people's budgets, slipping nicely into the $24,000 to $29,000 price range. This is a car that has a great deal of panache. Those who opt for the 260-horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8 over the standard 190-horse V-6, are driving a very powerful car. Equipped with either a four-speed automatic or five-speed stick, the rear-wheel drive Mustang lends itself better to sporty driving, which means hard cornering and acceleration. And of course, it carries the classic Mustang name. The 2004 Mustang will be changed very little as an all-new model is planned for 2005, but all 2004 models will bear commemorative 40th anniversary exterior badging, while V6 and GT models can be ordered with a full 40th anniversary trim package. Still, strong engines and low prices keep the Mustang plenty desirable next to the more refined convertibles on the market.

Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder
Ranging in price from $24,300 to $30,000 the Spyder is a strong competitor to the Miata and the Mustang convertibles. The front-wheel drive car offers a good compromise of the two for convertible shoppers counting their pennies. It offers more room and power than the Miata and greater fuel economy than the Mustang. The Spyder gets high marks in the looks department employing the classic convertible configuration of a long hood and a short trunk. With a power-operated convertible top, the Spyder is attractive, and affordable -- with room in the back for your kids. Its front-wheel drive makes it an especially good convertible for snowy climates.

Toyota MR2 Spyder

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Very similar to the Miata, the MR2 is fairly lightweight, a lot of fun to drive and can be counted on to live up to Toyota's reputation for reliability. The engine is behind the driver and in front of the rear axle, putting more weight on the rear and adding to the fun of driving. A new Spyder will cost between $25,000 and $27,000 and don't expect to get a break on the price. Low production volume keeps the demand up for these handsome two-seaters so dealers don't have to negotiate to keep them moving off the lots.

Prakash Gandhi is a freelance writer based in Florida.

-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003

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