By on July 23, 2015

I think the time has come to wave goodbye to one of the auto industry’s most fickle segments: the small luxury convertible. Once formerly strong and full of life, the segment now consists of a bunch of cars that leave people asking: Do they still make that?

Allow me to explain what I mean. Back in 1989, Mazda came out with the Miata and taught everyone that maybe the two-seater convertible wasn’t quite dead yet. So all the luxury automakers decided they wanted a piece of that sweet droptop action, and they all scrambled to the drawing board to make expensive Miatas with steering wheel volume control buttons.

They all came out right in a row. First there was the BMW Z3, which went on sale for the 1996 model year and starred in a James Bond movie soon after. I remember how cool this thing was, because I remember how much of a departure it was for BMW to build it in the first place. Here’s an automaker who has only offered sedans and one slow-selling large coupe for the last few decades, and now they’re coming out with a fun looking, two-seat convertible that’s kind of affordable? THIS IS SO COOL! Eight-year-old me had a model Z3 sitting on a shelf in my room.

Then there was the Porsche Boxster. Oh, the Boxster, an enormous sales success when it first came out; the car that made Porsche realize that maybe, just maybe, they can continue in the business of selling cars without going into the business of declaring bankruptcy. The first Boxster models came out in 1997, and the first few years were their best-selling of all-time.

Then there was Mercedes. The first-generation Mercedes SLK came out for the 1998 model year with a totally new idea: a retractable hardtop. A retractable hardtop on a small Mercedes convertible, while the brand’s flagship SL-Class still had to make do with a normal old folding cloth top and a removable hardtop that was about as easy to move as a Great Dane who’s asleep on the remote control.

Like the Z3, the SLK was also so damn cool when it came out. The retractable roof was in all the ads. It was the first time anyone had ever seen such a thing outside the Mitsubishi 3000GT, which sold approximately 11 total units. And most importantly, it was a strong competitor to the brand-new rivals from BMW and Porsche. Back then, this segment was heating up like the compact crossover segment is today.

And then, yet another challenger emerged: the Audi TT. Originally on sale for the 2000 model year, the front- or all-wheel drive TT caused quite a stir when it debuted by being the first Audi ever not to completely suck. And then the stage was set: Audi had the TT. Mercedes had the SLK. BMW had the Z3. Porsche had the Boxster. And then the redesigns came.

First the Z3 was redesigned in 2004 to become the far more aggressive, bolder, sharper looking Z4. Next, the SLK and Boxster were updated in 2005, both with more modern appearances. Clearly, the automakers thought this segment still had some legs. And finally, the Audi TT got a full redesign for the 2008 model year, bringing everyone back into close competition once again. And then…

Half-heartedly, most of these models have since been redesigned once again. The Z4 lost its flame surfacing and gained sort of a “me, too” appearance designed to offend precisely nobody, and inspire the same number. The SLK received another redesign, though nobody knows this outside of spouses of Mercedes dealers. The Boxster, admittedly, earned an excellent redesign — though its price point has taken it well beyond the level of the original 2-seat roadster. And Audi’s hemming and hawing about a potential TT redesign has been one of the most reluctant things I’ve seen from the auto industry in decades.

The reason for all this is that this segment has completely died out, and nobody wants these cars anymore. Back in the ‘90s, convertibles were all the rage, and people loved the idea of hopping in a BMW roadster and going for a spin. Now, sedans are back. We want functional. We want practical. And we don’t want to pay fifty grand for an SLK250 with something called the “Airscarf.”

For proof, some numbers. Back in 2005, with its last redesign, the SLK hit nearly 12,000 units in America. With its most recent redesign in 2012, it didn’t even manage to reach 5,000 sales. The Z4 did almost 20,000 U.S. units in 2003. Last year, just barely 2,000. And the poor Audi TT has dropped from more than 10,000 sales in its first year to just over 1,000 last year. Even the Boxster is down from well over 10,000 U.S. sales in the late 1990s to just over 4,500 after its most recent redesign.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I’m currently predicting the death of the luxury roadster segment. When it happens officially, remember that you heard it here first. Even James Bond can’t save it now.

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54 Comments on “The Small Luxury Convertible Is Probably Dead...”


  • avatar
    lexus94

    New user here. Fantastic website and fantastic community, so props to everyone who has helped make what TTAC is. Much better than the press release type “articles” Autoblog puts out.

    I would be interested to see the factors behind “people don’t want them anymore”. Usually there are a number of causes: emergence of panoramic sunroofs, upward creep in price, substitution with larger convertibles etc…think that would be an interesting zone to explore. Not sure I buy into that community not existing anymore, but perhaps there are other concerns at play here.

    • 0 avatar
      ellomdian

      Speaking only for the NA market:

      1. An unrelenting association with ‘Chick’ cars. It’s a problem the Miata has had since launch.

      2. Expensive. When you check a few boxes on them, the cars get really pricy. Look at an SLK with any of the upgrade engines, or a Z4 with a trim package. Or any Boxster that they actually have on the lot.

      3. Obsession with practicality. Most people think they can’t have a small roadster as an ‘only’ car. Most small roadsters are actually a 3rd or a 4th vehicle. People worry about ‘what if I need to carry something’ without realizing that 99% of the time, you don’t actually have to put everything you do and could ever possibly own in the back. I know I can fit a weeks worth of groceries in the back of an SLK, but people are worried about the theoretical Great Danes from the article…

      4. Complaints that haven’t been relevant for decades. Potential shoppers worry about noise, heat/cooling, body wobble, safety, and any number of things that haven’t affected convertibles since the first Bush administration.

      • 0 avatar
        zerofoo

        I take issue with #3. It could be that the car buying public is finally realizing that 99% of the time that lump of steel in the driveway called a monthly payment IS a practical device.

        From baby boomers decimated IRAs and 401ks to underemployed millenials a car that “does everything” is a smart decision. A third or fourth “fun vehicle” – not so much.

        Look at vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler – a huge success – even though it, arguably, only does one thing (off-roading) well. It does all things well enough. For many people it makes sense to have one of these instead of two more dedicated purpose vehicles.

        Sure you can Uber, Lyft, or rent a vehicle for a specific purpose, but many times that’s a hassle. I know I can rent a pickup truck – but often times it’s simply easier to climb into the one I already own.

        The car buying public’s “obsession with practicality” has been a long time coming – and it’s probably a good thing.

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    My preference would be for a silver hair folk a Lexus IS Convertible – which by the way wasn’t on your list.

    It’s not a small roadster – but it does offer a touch of luxury.

  • avatar

    THANK GOD.

    Keep those silly LITTLE cars in Europe and Asia.

    These are MURICAN ROADS.

    Every small car should have at-least the interior space of a Nissan GT-R or Cadillac CTS-V coupe.

    And you can just kiss the manual GOODBYE.

    Bugattis, Lamborghinis, Corvettes, and other awesome cars a 6-foot-6 (or larger) man can actually fit into.

    Why should Aurthur Jones have to send his Corvette back?

    HE SHOULDN’T.

    The FREE MARKET has SPOKEN.

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      I see you are still laboring under the misconception that we are all you.

      Clearly, the segment is in decline. Whether or not it dies out remains to be seen, and I suspect has more to do with global demand than from US sales. Does anyone have numbers on the worldwide demand for these cars?

      Speaking of the Corvette, doesn’t the Corvette convertible fit in this group, as well as the Porsche 911 convertible?

    • 0 avatar
      energetik9

      I am so glad you do not speak for all of us. There are plenty of people that want, seek, and buy small cars. Two of the three cars we own are small.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    I wonder how the sales of the drop top Mustang, Camaro and Corvette are doing.

    The Challenger convertible, had they made it past the prototype stage into production, would have been cool.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      Right now, the Mustang convertible is selling around 1500-2000 units a month. The Camaro does between 1000-1500.

      • 0 avatar
        Shinoda is my middle name

        Righty-o…..I was wondering as I read this how TOTAL convertible sales are doing, and whether the Camaro and Mustang, which seem positively UBIQUITOUS on the roads hereabouts, have cannibalized the TT, Z4, SLK sales. More car for less money. To blame the decline of the segment on sedans seems to be not accurate.

        • 0 avatar
          bball40dtw

          In the US, the Camaro and Mustang killed every other convertible. Even the mainstream FWD ones.

        • 0 avatar
          duffman13

          Agreed. Look at the pricing:

          Mustang – V6 is $30k, and Ecoboost premium is $35k, and the GT Premium is $41k.

          You get seating for 4, good power, good styling, etc. for $30k. Add $5k for leather, and another $6k for a V8. Camaro pricing is not much different, save for the fact that you can get a 1SS trim, which gives you the V8 sans leather.

          Compare that to the cheapest luxury marque roadsters – the SLK and Z4 both start at $48k, and aside from the badge on the hood, you get less seating, less power, and zero amenities at that price.

          Now as a guy who owns a roadster, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. However as my family got its first +1 this spring, our ability to take it out for anything but date night and me commuting to work basically went to zero. Having a roadster essentially requires it to be a third car for most families, relegating it to empty nesters, or at least families where the kids are driving and picked up dad’s old wheels.

          Unless you really require that luxury marque for status reasons, there’s really no reason to purchase one over the Mustang/Camaro of your choice, especially considering non-muscle car convertible choices like the EOS were stickering well into the mid-30s as well.

          Plus, the Miata and Mini Cooper exist for those who want a tiny drop-top go-kart.

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        Here is the real question.

        How many Mustang and Camaro convertibles end up on rental lots each month.

        I would speculate a significant minority of those vehicles are rental purchases.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      And the Mini. That thing seems to have mopped up a fair bit of the Cute-Vert market the Z3 et al once angled for.

  • avatar

    Though it is humorous hyperbole meant for entertainment, I must take minor exception to this line:
    “…TT caused quite a stir when it debuted by being the first Audi ever not to completely suck.”

    The B5 A4 (1994-2001) was well established in the market and very successful when TT landed, and that was a tremendous improvement for Audi (one of the most reliable and pleasurable cars I’ve owned). It put them back on the map, IMO, certainly in the USA.

    And, of course, there were Audis of this ilk:
    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/4c/Streamlined_Auto_Union.jpg

  • avatar
    Nick_515

    I suppose EOS wasn’t a luxury one, though it was priced like one. It confirms your point.

    That’s a beautiful car. Now I’m going to go buy one.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      “Now I’m going to go buy one.”

      Noooooooooooooo!

      Don’t do that to yourself. Do you trust the VW Rube Goldberg contraption of an Eos roof? It will bring you nothing but sadness.

      • 0 avatar
        Nick_515

        I was kidding! I’d buy an A5 or better yet S5 convertible instead, if I wanted something like that. At least the engine is pointing in the right direction am I right?

        • 0 avatar
          bball40dtw

          Good. I was worried for you. I would love an S5 convertible. I don’t know if I could justify the price premium over the Mustang GT or Camaro SS convertibles though.

          • 0 avatar
            Nick_515

            To be honest, I don’t know either. To me four cylinders make a great VW… which pretty much makes any worthwhile Audi just two expensive. New Mustangs look gorgeous.

  • avatar
    1998redwagon

    but you forgot about the vw eos.

    admittedly so did everyone else. i remember seeing it for the first time ever – on the sales floor of a vw dealer. i do not think i have ever seen an ad for an eos, either on tv or in print. how the heck can they expect to sell them if they do not advertise them. maybe i was just not reading the correct trade journals.

    anyway, it seems apparent that the demand for these is small to begin with and the market is saturated rather quickly (frs anyone?) either because everyone who wants one gets one immediately or is soon priced out of the market. note too that your examples all came out during the last great economic expansion. no manufacturer is niche expanding anything right now targeting slightly affluent customers because there aren’t many that truly have the disposable income. imho.

  • avatar
    an innocent man

    The only convertible I want is a Wrangler.

  • avatar
    Aquineas

    Dead perhaps for now, but only for a few years until someone comes out with a brand-new, fresh, good-looking model in a staid market. The trend for all of these cars is that most of them sell very well when first introduced.

  • avatar
    TonyJZX

    oh a doug article

    again not without some truth but it seems to be spilling into things that arent pertinent to the core of what the argument is

    i dont think the mazda mx5 nee miata was ever a part of the issue… it will always live because its a good car regardless of being a convertible but i think its way to compromised for many people not fully into the ‘miata life’

    also stuff like the 911 and corvette convertibles and boxsters are irrelevant… there will ways be a market at this high end

    also i think the TTs and BMW Zs/1/2/3/4 convertibles and Mercedes CLKs etc. will always be here simply because the world is not america and globally there seems to be a market for these things and the companies that make them have enough cash to inflict the world with them whether they sell to a degree that armchair analyst wants or not.

    from where I sit there is the death of the small Euro FWD convertibles that I dont think ever went to the US… this is probably best seen lately as the Opel Cascada. That sort of hatch based convertible used to be insanely popular with the older post menopausal house frau who used them to get to swanky cafes with their poodles. PSA and Renault and Opel and other marginal companies were famous for them.

    I think overall the market for these frivolous cars have been killed by the luxury CUV and small luxury hatch like the A3s and Golfs of the world.

    Of course REAL frivolous cars like the Cayman Boxster will always exist.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      We got the Golf Cabriolet for ages. But that was almost it for small cheapish factory drop tops in the US.

      I think the reality is we are just coming out of a LONG recession. And a house value crash. And a banking crisis. People don’t buy frivolous cars when the perception (and for many the reality) is that the economy is bad. Everyone wants to feel safe in their tall AWD bunkers.

      Reality is that style in the auto industry is highly cyclical. Convertibles were all the rage in the ’60s, then died in the ’70s. Then came back in the ’90s. And are dying again now. Give it 10 years.

      I’ll always have at least one in the garage. At one point I had three. Too many cool old convertibles for me to bother with buying new expensive ones though. With the possible future exception of the Fiat Abarth Spider… :-)

  • avatar
    ccode81

    What is the point witch hunting minorities and niches. Communist?

  • avatar
    RazorTM

    I absolutely love the Z3 3.0i that I picked up last year in great condition for $5600, and I would buy the new Audi TT in a heartbeat if I could afford it. But new, these cars are just way too expensive for a toy. I’d sooner buy a Miata and wait for a good turbo kit, or pick up the 2016 Audi TT in year 2030 or so…

  • avatar
    daniel g.

    Well, peugeot make the 206 cc before mercedes benz slk with the hard top convertible roof. You american don’t taste that car. Or the daihatsu copen.
    Really sweet little car for the masses.

  • avatar
    sightline

    Well, the Z3/Z4 base model is about 15% more expensive in constant dollars than it was in 1998 whereas the 3-series (323i v 328i) is a few percent cheaper. So that’s a massive relative change.

    Also, it likely has something to do with Boomers moving from their empty nest phase, when they had the time and money for toys like these into nursing homes, and their kids not quite being in this stage yet themselves.

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, with the peak birth year being 1957. Only the oldest boomers are of retirement age, and only a few of the sickest and oldest are in nursing homes. The great majority are of working age.

  • avatar
    stevelovescars

    I think the decline in sales of cars like this can be explained by another factor… a market full of lightly-used pre-owned examples. The same thing happened with the Miata. Annual sales of new cars dropped pretty consistently as there was now a viable alternative for many buyers.

    If the designs become more conservative, if there isn’t a really compelling reason to buy a new one vs. a 5 year old used example with 15k nice-day-only miles. On top of that you have new prices rising steeply. So it isn’t necessarily that demand has fallen for luxury two-seaters, just that demand for NEW examples is waning.

    One exception may be cars like the Boxster where the cost of keeping old ones on the road quickly make them throw-aways. In this case, leasing a new one is probably the best option if you really want one. Snarkiness intended.

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      That’s probably the biggest issue. These are usually second or third cars. They are usually driven on nice days and we’ll maintained. This makes a nice used one a good alternative. It doesn’t have to be as crazy reliable as compared to a daily driver.

  • avatar
    mmreeses

    ***The reason for all this is that this segment has completely died out, and nobody wants these cars anymore.***

    peeps are either getting too old (baby boomers) or too practical-minded (stagnant income growth for the bottom 95%) to ‘waste’ on a 3rd car.

  • avatar
    meefer

    The TT is dying because Audi introduced the A3/A4/A5 droptops – 80% of the dynamics, 150% of the utility no matter how small the backseat is. The SLK got ugly and was undercut by the E-class convertible. The Z4 prioritized performance, then went backwards and became a loungefest, which makes it an impractical 3-series (4-series?). The Boxster isn’t really a part of this segment.

    I would venture that the underpowered luxury roadster is dying, and the luxury convertible is to blame.

  • avatar
    Mike N.

    I actually really like the current Z4, much better looking than the previous generation (Z4/M Coupe excepted) but it’s way overpriced now. That’s probably why it’s such a slow seller.

  • avatar
    stuki

    Ferrari is selling well. And used Miatas. Middlemarket luxury doesn’t really work well when there is no longer a middle market.

    • 0 avatar
      Chan

      This too. Californian metropolitan areas, a major market for convertibles, no longer have a cost of living supportive of above-average income people buying these cars.

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    I agree there are enough used versions of these cars to satisfy the niche.

    One of my daily drivers is a 2001 M Roadster. 315 HP, 3000 pounds, less than 50K miles; it looks and drives like new, and it’s paid for. I’ve considered a new Boxster S, but the value proposition just isn’t there.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    I got all the way to “Once formerly” before realizing I was reading a DDM piece.

  • avatar
    Chan

    The Z4 has dropped out of the ranks of true “sports cars.” It is basically a better-looking 428i Convertible.

    The TT now looks too similar to the A5 and A3 Cabriolets.

    The Boxster and SLK remain true to their respective original missions, and are good examples to use when judging the changes in market preferences.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    The small luxury convertible has been dead for some time.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

    “…a totally new idea: a retractable hardtop”

    Not totally new, more like totally rehashed. Ford Motor Company gets credit for the first retractable hardtop which was on sale back in the 1950s.

  • avatar
    Grant404

    I remember when Road and Track famously told us in the Dec. ’73 issue that the convertible market was dead, period. The media told us that 1976 was going to be the last year for convertible production in the US because government safety regulations and pressure from insurance companies would no longer allow them, and people no longer wanted them in sufficient numbers to justify building them. Collectors and speculators scrambled for the honor of paying far over sticker price for ’76 Eldorado convertibles because they were the last convertibles EVER! In fact, Cadillac was able to sell a record 14,000 Eldorado convertibles in 1976 by capitalizing on the “last ever” hype.

    http://www.history.com/speeches/last-american-made-convertible

    I wonder how all that turned out?


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