The Small Luxury Convertible Is Probably Dead

Doug DeMuro
by Doug DeMuro

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.

Doug DeMuro
Doug DeMuro

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  • JohnTaurus JohnTaurus on Jul 23, 2015

    "...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.

    • Krhodes1 Krhodes1 on Jul 23, 2015

      Uh, no, they don't. Peugeot beat them to it by about 20 years.

  • Grant404 Grant404 on Jul 26, 2015

    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?

  • Charles The UAW makes me the opposite of patriotic
  • El scotto Wranglers are like good work boots, you can't make them any better. Rugged four wheel drive vehicles which ironically make great urban vehicles. Wagoneers were like handbags desired by affluent women. They've gone out of vogue. I can a Belgian company selling Jeep and Ram Trucks to a Chinese company.
  • El scotto So now would be a good time to buy an EV as a commuter car?
  • ToolGuy $1 billion / 333.3 million = $3 per U.S. person ¶ And what do I get for my 3 bucks -- cleaner air and lower fuel prices? I might be ok with this 🙂🙂
  • VoGhost Matt, I'm curious why you write that inventory levels are low at 74 days. Typically, 60 days is the benchmark for normal inventory.
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