From left, Mercedes AMG SLC43, Audi S5 Cabriolet, and Mazda MX-5 Miata RF

Driving Alfresco

Get ready to flip your lid for these fantastic new convertibles, arriving in showrooms just in time to make the most of the season

BY MICHAEL FRANK

MERCEDES AMG SLC43
Mercedes-Benz's new AMG SLC43 drives like heavy metal music blasting through a sound stage's 12-foot-tall speakers. The car's steering cut corners with sushi-knife precision during our test drive in the canyons above Malibu; the exhaust burped loudly and joyously on downshifts of the awesomely quick, nine-speed paddle-shift gearbox; and acceleration from the 362-hp, twin-turbocharged V-6 was, if not supercar breathtaking, certainly strong enough to make all traffic vanish in the rearview mirror.

Use the Dynamic Select system to mute the car's raucousness with the throw of a switch. Choose from mellow Eco and Comfort settings, both of which quiet the exhaust and smooth automatic gearbox changes, or the louder and faster Sport and Sport+ settings. The latter modes, by degrees, add back exhaust vocals and increase the idle speed for better acceleration so the SLC43 can let down its rocker hair, so to speak. Put another way, you can burn rubber and slide the car's 18-inch, high-performance tires to the edge of their grip limit.

The cabin was built for all-day, everyday comfort with a style that's more timeless and restrained than violent with sports car bling. Yes, the leather-wrapped seats hug, but not too tightly, and the speedometer and tachometer are lidded in shiny gloss metal, but mostly there's harmony in the cabin's muted business-classlike mien. Of course, if you want bling, get the special-edition AMG Performance Studio RedArt version with its matte gray exterior, red trim, muscular 10-spoke AMG wheels, and red interior accents.

Mercedes not only nailed the interior and the car's superb engineering, but aced the utility of the retractable hardtop, too. The translucent tempered safety-glass lid makes for a quieter car than one with a cloth roof. Plus, even when the roof's closed, light still shines through, giving the cabin an airier feel than other two-doors. From $60,300. mbusa.com


AUDI S5 CABRIOLET
Not just a fair-weather friend, this all-new S5 Cabriolet - equipped with quattro all-wheel drive and flexible rear seats that fold forward to make room for both summer and winter gear and everything in between -is a convertible for all seasons. Both wider and longer than the previous model, it packs in more shoulder and knee room in the front and rear seats.

Visually, the lines are graceful and flowing, especially in white, and it's hard to call the quarters anything but exquisite. Audi's designers showcase their best efforts here, combining brushed metal accents in weighty, sculptural chunks. Then at night, the whole interior shifts tone as optional soft ambient lighting takes over, creating a supper-club feel that makes you never want to stop driving. Also opt for the diamond-patterned, quilted leather seats - they're ultra-supportive and available in assorted vibrant color packages.

While you can get a base A5 Cabriolet with a 252-hp four-cylinder engine, we prefer the S5's more muscular 354-hp V-6 and its quicker steering. Audi's engineers spent extra effort on the S5's handling, too, not by over-stiffening the suspension, but by increasing the chassis rigidity by 40 percent, creating a more athletic, dynamic ride. They also triple-insulated the folding top, so it's nearly as quiet as a metal roof.

Acoustic engineers even tested whether wind noise would impact smartphone calls over Bluetooth when you're driving with the top down. They weren't completely happy, so they ingeniously relocated microphones into the seatbelt straps. From $62,300. audiusa.com


MAZDA MX-5 MIATA RF
For nearly 30 years, Miatas have been sold worldwide with cloth lids. The beauty in that formula was that most drivers could reach back while seated in the driver's seat and pull the ultra-lightweight top shut, one-handed. Fabric, however, fades with time, and small cloth-top convertibles can be noisy. That's a nonfactor with the Miata RF, which gets an electronically powered folding hardtop that neuters outside traffic din and makes the all-new Miata look even more gorgeous closed than open.

With its nearly dead-even, front-to-rear weight balance and tiny wheelbase, this fun-to-drive car  loses absolutely nothing by adding a little more than 100 pounds over the previous model. Small cars like this have so-called "go-kart handling" because they're short, so they're easy to spin around a central axis. That axis is the driver, so it feels like the car rotates directly around you. Mix in just enough oomph from the 155-hp in-line, four-cylinder engine and one of the best six-speed gearboxes not made by Porsche, and you have a recipe for more smiles per mile than you'll experience from just about any other car at this price.

The functional cabin features well-bolstered seats but - like with the classic sports cars the Miata was originally built to emulate (think 1960s Fiats) - all the money went into an engine that sounds great, quick steering, and a sporty but reasonably forgiving suspension. Although Miatas are the best-selling convertibles out there because historically they're exceptionally reliable, there is one hiccup: If you're much taller than 6 feet you might feel squished. So, like with shoes, you might try one on for size before buying. From $31,555. mazdausa.com

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