WE’RE RATHER SMITTEN WITH BOTH THESE FAMILY-FRIENDLY, HARDTOP CONVERTIBLES BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR, IS IT? YOU’VE GOT ONE SPOT ON YOUR DRIVEWAY SO YOU NEED TO KNOW WHICH CAR IS GOING TO FILL IT…
I've driven many convertibles in many different places – all over Europe, across the US and even through bits of Africa. Of all the places to drive a convertible, though, my favourite still has to be Ireland. No, it isn’t the way the summer hailstones bounce off my forehead or the half-gallon of water sitting on the roof that then gets dumped onto my lap when I take advantage of a break in the clouds. It’s because every so often you get a weird combination of weather systems – a soft, summery breeze and warm (but not unbearably warm) sunshine punctuated by the occasional soothing cloud – perfect conditions to really get the most from roof down motoring.
This can happen any time of the year and even though the air might be colder in the winter, you can still get those fresh, bright days that beg to be explored with the top dropped – just throw on a woolly hat and wrap a scarf jauntily around your neck. It’s also worth noting that driving with the roof down is about the most enjoyable driving experience you can have these days. Even sitting in traffic doesn’t seem so bad when you’ve got the roof down, although it helps if you’re in the right kind of car. For most people, the days of the two-seater roadster are either way behind or way ahead of them so most plum for the four-seater pseudo-family cars instead. And who can blame them? Family car running costs, hardtop security, high safety and equipment levels and roof-down fun whenever there’s a momentary lapse in the downpours. There are compromises, of course. The boot’s tiny with all that metal folded in there.
The rear seats are tiny because of the need to make space for the folding metal in the boot. The handling usually suffers because a large part of the structure has been cut away. There’s added weight, too, and not where you want it – above your head or in the boot. And they’re expensive, relatively speaking, costing more than 10 grand over and above an equivalent hatchback. Still, on the right day and in the right environment, they’re worth every penny. The latest to arrive on our shores is the Ford Focus Coupe Cabrio, a handsome brute of a thing in Titanium specification with its big wheels, black paint and tan leather interior. Ford has come late to the folding-hardtop party with Renault, Peugeot, VW and Opel already boogieing away within the segment, but of all the cars currently on sale it’s the Opel Astra Twin Top that cuts the most impressive rug. It drives with more polish than any of its siblings and it looks considerably better as well – the only one to have proper proportions and flawless lines roof up or down.
The Focus, as good looking as it is from certain angles, can’t match the tidiness and cohesion of the Opel’s shape. Its big bottom protrudes to such an extent it’s completely out of kilter with the rest of the car and despite the many design tricks used to reduce the rear’s visual bulk (such as angling the rear facia skyward) it still looks like it’s been poured into a pair of pants two sizes too small. The problem is caused by the need to store that two-piece roof somewhere, an issue the Opel neatly avoids by having a three-piece roof. In order to make the Astra’s roof fit it has a very sophisticated folding action, which is fascinating to watch but worryingly complicated.
The upshot of the complex roof is those stunning lines, not to mention decent boot space and acceptable room in the rear seat as well. Neither car is much good for carrying four people over long distances, you understand, but while the Opel’s rear seats are slightly deeper (not good for younger passengers who want to see out) and narrower (not really an issue, as there’s only room for two there anyway) it does seem to have marginally better legroom and offers better headroom when the roof is up, too. Up front, the Ford is by far the better place to be – the Opel’s cabin doesn’t feel very special and it takes the optional leather to raise the interior ambience to acceptable levels.
The Focus’s dashboard is more appealing and less oppressive than the Astra’s sober, wall-like interior and is more intuitive to use, too. Both are guilty of using annoyingly shiny garnish in there which not only gets hot in the sun but also blinds you by reflecting daylight and even direct sunlight into your eyes. The Ford’s seats are comfortable but rather flat and under-bolstered while the Opel’s deep buckets do a much better job of holding you in place and are more supportive on longer treks, too. At this point I should point out that the two cars you see here are very different animals, mechanically. The Ford is the top-of-the-line 2.0 Titanium model while the Opel is the 2.0 Turbo Design model, another range topper. ‘No fair!’ you cry. How’s the 145hp Ford supposed to compete with the 200hp Opel? Great question. I’ve been asking the same thing myself because the two cars you see here are almost an exact price match for one another. In fact, strip away the options and the Opel is actually cheaper than the Ford by a couple of hundred quid, which makes the Focus seem very overpriced compared to the Opel. I’d like to say that means extra equipment in the Ford but it doesn’t – useful features like ESP, automatic lights and wipers, cornering headlamps and a windbreak, standard in the Astra Twin Top Design, are options in the Focus.
Further down the range, the difference is no less pronounced, with the Twin Top starting at two grand less than the Coupe Cabriolet, leaving owners with a lot more cash to spend on toys and treats. While there’s no denying the Focus has a more polished chassis than the Astra, it’s not by the margin you might think. Our Astra didn’t ride particularly well because of its optional 18-inch wheels but on smaller rims it smooths out rough roads with more finesse and is certainly much better than the likes of the bouncy Eos or jittery Peugeot. It steers sharply, too, though again it can’t quite match the fluidity of the Focus Coupe Cabrio, even if feedback levels are roughly similar and structural rigidity, a vital element in any chop-top’s ride and handling portfolio, is about the same for both cars, too.
The Focus may ride and handle almost as well as its hatchback siblings but the added weight and feeble output of the engine means you can never really exploit its dynamics to their full extent. Performance figures are rather pedantic, too, even if its fuel consumption and CO2 output isn’t bad compared to the thirstier Opel. The Astra Twin Top, on the other hand, has too much power for its chassis, causing it to torque steer occasionally and putting the traction control element of its ESP system to frequent use. Apply a modicum of restraint, however, and it’s pretty easy to get all that power to the ground (revs build progressively and it’s intelligently geared), making the Astra feel fleet and swift compared to the pedestrian Ford. So, even though the Ford is the better handler and I normally prefer anything that out handles its rivals, in this instance victory goes to the Opel.
Although it doesn’t have the fluidity of the Focus Coupe Cabriolet, it’s really a fine car to drive in its own right and while the cabin is a little depressing you have a few more quid left over to spend on interior decorations. Where it makes up the lost ground is in terms of its looks – roof up or down it’s a stunning piece of design – and as a package it simply stomps on the over-priced, under-equipped Ford. It’s faster, too, though it won’t be as cheap to run as a consequence. So not only is Ireland one of the best places in the world to enjoy a convertible, but get yourself an Astra Twin Top and you’ll be in good company, too.
Opel Astra TT 2.0 Turbo Design
Engine 2.0 litre 4-cylinder turbo, 200hp,
262Nm torque Transmission 6-speed manual
Acceleration 0-100km/h: 8.9 seconds
Top Speed 237 km/h*
Weight 1,515 kg
Economy 9.5 litres /100 km* CO2 228 g/km*
Boot Capacity 440 litres Base Price €37,795
Price as tested €41,734 * Roof up