When I was a kid, I knew there to be two universal automotive truths. Number one was that the Lamborghini Countach was really cool. I, like all kids, had a Lamborghini Countach poster on my bedroom wall, which I’m convinced was part of a cunning decades-long Lamborghini marketing scheme: first, hook them when they’re seven. Then, thirty years later, come out with a model that’s actually drivable. And now that buyers are getting older, confuse them with special editions.
The other universal truth was that if you wanted a convertible, you were going to the Chrysler dealer to buy a LeBaron.
In today’s world, this is hard to believe. That’s because the only people who go to Chrysler dealers are employees, plus the occasional tourist who visits Chrysler of Manhattan in search of a bathroom after leaving the Intrepid Museum.
But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were two different Chryslers. One was the Chrysler who made impressively awful crap like the Dodge Monaco, which is probably the car least suited for actually visiting its namesake. (Close runner-up: Pontiac Parisienne.) But the other Chrysler made some decent vehicles, like the original Jeep Grand Cherokee, the minivans, and – most importantly – the LeBaron.
Chrysler’s Convertible Domination
The LeBaron was perfect because it meant that people who wanted a convertible with four seats (in other words, your wife’s mother) didn’t need to buy a performance car like a Mustang or a Camaro. Instead, they could get a comfortable, reasonably attractive, well-priced Chrysler and cruise around all day visiting salons. While Chevrolet and Ford competed for discerning enthusiast buyers, Chrysler walked away with the “relaxed convertible” set whose low standards consisted primarily of: make sure the top goes up and down.
When the LeBaron died in 1995, Chrysler made a rare bold move and actually offered an all-new model. This time it was called the Sebring, making it the car most suited for actually visiting its namesake. (Close runner-up: Chevrolet Suburban.) The Sebring continued the LeBaron’s tradition by offering four usable seats, a cushy ride, a reasonable price and – most importantly – a top that went up and down. No, it still wasn’t a great car. But the ragtop Sebring sold in such high numbers that you had to wonder: “are there really this many mothers-in-law?”
Toyota Joins the Party
Toyota must’ve been wondering the very same thing. That’s because the 1999 model year heralded the debut of the Camry Solara, a two-door Camry with an available soft top that appealed to Sebring buyers with slightly higher standards. Once again, these sold in enormous numbers, a fact that Toyota commemorated by creating a second-generation model that actually was enormous. Seriously: at 192.5 inches, it was the exact same length as a Land Cruiser. Most of that bulk was in the rear, as Toyota wanted to include a place to store the top, trunk space, and – from the looks of it – a lighted indoor racquetball court.
For several years, Toyota and Chrysler went at it in the four-seat droptop market, with Chrysler earning the price-conscious bottom-feeders and Toyota snagging people who wanted a well-built convertible the size of a botanical garden.
But the rivalry only lasted a few years.
In 2008, Toyota announced it would be cancelling the Solara after the 2009 model year. And with the Sebring’s 2008 redesign, prices rose to stratospheric levels that the droptop’s build quality simply couldn’t justify. Today’s Chrysler 200 convertible starts at $28,000 with shipping, and it includes an interior that looks like this:
My question is: what the hell happened to the world of reasonably-priced four-seat convertibles? During the early 1990s, it wasn’t possible to cruise around in the summer and not see 40-year-old divorcees driving LeBarons. During the early 2000s, every single middle school had a teachers’ lot full of Sebring convertibles. And in the late 2000s, you couldn’t enter a parking garage without getting stuck behind a Solara owner hitting everything in close proximity while backing out of a parking spot.
Yes, the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro still exist. But both of those are rear-wheel drive sports cars with beefy styling and a high-performance image. That’s not quite suitable for the Sebring convertible set, who just wants to cruise around in top-down bliss without concern for performance, or acceleration, or anything, really. The Volkswagen Eos would be perfect, but its base price is more than $35,000. Truly. In fact, the “Eos Executive,” whatever that is, starts at $42,000. For a four-cylinder Volkswagen based on the Golf.
Interestingly, it seems like Honda and Nissan could enter this segment tomorrow and walk away with it. Both already offer two-door versions of their midsize sedans. Would it be so hard to chop off the roof, create a convertible, and price it around $25,000? Or maybe $27,000, if the interior has a little less cheap plastic than the Chrysler 200?
Apparently, it would be too hard – or Nissan and Honda think the market just doesn’t exist. That means today’s children will grow up with only one universal truth: the Lamborghini Aventador is really cool. See you in thirty years.
Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.