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Automakers ready for revival of convertibles

| Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Drop-top sales plummeted by half in the past decade, and some in the auto industry all but signed the convertible's death warrant.

Yet it's clear that not only is open-air motoring alive and well, it's poised for a healthy wind-in-your-hair rebound. IHS Automotive expects sales to creep up to 2 percent of total auto sales over the next few years from a paltry 1.2 percent this year.

The Great Recession hit convertibles harder than the rest of the industry. Sales bottomed out at less than one-third of pre-crash levels in 2010, according to WardsAuto.com.

“The categories that got hammered worst were discretionary purchases — fun, frivolous cars like convertibles,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Edmunds.com.

With the economy improving, consumers are pulling out their wallets to spend on luxury items. High-end auto sales are up; just look at Cadillac. And sales of just about everything high-end are heading upward — from larger-than-normal starter homes to Coach and Tiffany products, to name a few.

Consider that a slate of convertible models are on their way to freshen up some classic ragtop best-sellers that grew stale without facelifts in years — not to mention the stunning 2014 Chevrolet Corvette convertible that debuts later this year and the 50th anniversary Ford Mustang convertible, sure to be a cause celebre at its likely debut next year.

“With the exception of the brands that became extinct, we expect most of the convertibles that fell away will be replaced, and some new models like the Alfa Romeo Spider are coming,” IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley said.

The ragtop's slide was predictable, in hindsight.

• The Chrysler 200, one of America's best-selling convertibles for years, is older than dirt, thanks to the automaker's brush with insolvency. The 200 was America's best-selling convertible, accounting for 11.9 percent of all convertibles sold in 2008, according to Edmunds.com. Through the first half of this year, it has fallen to just 4 percent of the market.

• The BMW 3 Series, for years the top-selling luxury convertible, is overdue for a replacement with a model called the 4 Series, likely to arrive in 2014.

• Several convertibles that went out of production before the Great Recession have yet to be replaced, including the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Toyota Solara.

• Some brands with notable convertibles — Saab and Pontiac — didn't survive the financial crisis.

It was a recipe for a sales slump, with convertibles sales falling from 5 percent of U.S. car sales in 2004 to about 1.2 percent of the new vehicle market in the first half of this year, Wardsauto.com reports.

Chrysler is mum about a new version of the 200 convertible, but the automaker long has specialized in convertibles. It revived the segment with the LeBaron convertible during a recession in the early 1980s.

The 200 is an affordable midsize convertible that can carry four adults in comfort and a reasonable amount of luggage. It had a loyal following among consumers and rental companies, but its appeal wore thin as the model aged.

Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at mmphelan@freepress.com.

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