The Quest for a Convertible

bmw, z4, sports car

A convertible is not just a car. It's an attitude. Driving toplessly in Malaysia always feels risky. Weather may change abruptly, from breezy to downpour with little warning. Diesel lorries and buses fart black smoke. And you can never be certain whether the motorcyclist pulling up to your side is going to pull out a knife. The soft-top maybe slashed and your smart-tag stolen. Unlike in Germany, you can leave your car parked with the top open and return to find your sunglasses intact.

So if somebody insists on driving a convertible despite all the downsides, he must be somewhat reckless. For those who call the car “chick-magnet”, they have sadly mistaken. It's actually the driver's personality — with a subtle hint of danger — that charms. The car is merely a projection of such traits.

The absolute best Roadster in Malaysia is the BMW Z4 2.0 year 2007. I had the pleasure of owning one. Before you argue, let me explain I have my own criteria for declaring my “best”. The styling is one of its kind. The handling is superb, yet comfortable enough for daily usage. It performs well for a 2 liter and delivers extraordinary fuel economy. The electronic soft-top is the quickest in its class. It's a BMW reasonably priced, and the only 2.0 manual in Malaysia. That satisfy the vanity needs nicely. Because it's so well balanced in every aspect, I call it the best.

Also because I've sold it. It has become “other people's car”, which is always better than what you already have. Now it is being driven by an old uncle. “I want to feel young again,” he told the salesperson. I thought I could live happily ever after without a Roadster. But every time the weather is nice, I bite my nails.

The whole Roadster mania began with a Smart Roadster. That was my first buy. At that time, I thought it was the best car in the world. It may only have 80hp, but weighed just slightly more than a feather. It felt fast though it really wasn't. Top speed was merely around 165km/h. Turn off the air-con and eject the passenger, and you would see the speedometer climb another 3km/h. But somehow you never care about pure speed in the Smart. When a car (of almost any make) over takes you at 170km/h on the straight, you would remind yourself that you only have a 700cc engine. Fuel economy was out of this world.

If it wasn't due to the multiple problems plaguing my Smart, I would still be driving it today. It seemed like the Smart cars were never built with tropical weather in mind. Leaks led to short-circuited ECU, among other problems. Worse, the service centers hardly knew what they were doing. They would fix one thing and break another. They had to resort to duct tape once to remedy a rattling which they themselves had caused. Over a year, the Smart was in and out of the workshop for about 12 times. That's once a month. I suspect that the car was female.

But when it worked, it was a charm. Seven in the morning, you drive along the winding road in the suburban Ulu Yam. The breeze bears the refreshing scent of the trees. The morning sun shines gently upon you while Rod Stewart plays. All these make the destination felt too near. When you arrive at Coffee Bean Genting, you are given special parking lots and discounts for breakfast. Life is perfect.

One morning, when the Smart refused to start and had to be towed, I decided it's time to part. The Z4 came along. It was the perfect car most of the time, except when it is tailed by a Civic and couldn't pull away. Or even more disheartening, the Civic gives way in front, but the Z4 simply has no extra power to overtake.

What do drivers of MX-5. Lotus Elise and Cooper Convertible have in common? They would all tell you power doesn't matter. It's not about acceleration and top speed. That's just because they don't have any. The MX-5 is the most powerful among the three but somehow it doesn't feel fast. The Elise can reach hundred in 6 seconds and then the needle somehow just gets stuck there. On the other hand, the slowest Cooper feels fast, even though it's actually slow on paper — so slow that you can safely monitor the super-sized speedo while charging to hundred. You will find the second hand on a clock moves faster.

The Z4 was sold to make way for the Z4 M Coupe. How the wild character of the Z4 M made me part with the near-perfect Z4 Roadster will probably be elaborated in another article. This one is about the quest to replace the Z4, in which almost every Roadster available in Malaysia is considered.

First, the elimination process. The Ferraris and Lamborghinis are the first to go. The price is the key reason, but it's not just about affordability. With the seven-digit amount of money you pay for these cars, the only time you dare to drive them sideways is over a speed bump. A dent on it costs the price of a MyVi. They don't just drink fuel. They basically have diarrhea. More fuel is burnt idling than a Proton driving at top speed. And I can't see myself driving up to the Mak Cik beside pasar and say, “Nasi lemak dua.”

So these are the best cars with zero practicality. That's why you don't see them on the road. Not because they are rare. They are not. In fact, there are lots of them parked along side with the vases as garage decorations. That's why, as I later realized, people have been telling me these cars don't need much maintenance and hold great resale value. They are always like new.

The best roadster in car reviews, the Boxster, has to go too. It maybe marvelous in  balancing extreme drivability, price and practicality, but the badge is too flashy for me. Too loud. It shouts “look-at-me” too eagerly. While I can fancy myself buying Pisang Goreng in a Boxster and carelessly chucking the car at the side of a road under a tree (barely), there are still places I would rather not go in a Porsche.

Benz SLK has to go because of its badge too, but in this case, the badge is too boring. Benz is the bestselling brand in its class, as if every Malaysian has signed a contract with god that he has to buy a Benz once his net worth hits so much. If the branch of a tree falls, and it doesn't hit a national car, it will hit a Benz. When everybody wears Armani, I'd rather wear Pasar Malam. To be fair, the SLK is a very, very handsome car. The new models look like Batmobile. And you'd better be Bruce Wayne if you want it because it is near the price of a Boxster. That makes the boring badge even more unattractive.

The new Z4 2009 performs better than the SLK and is less expensive. But in BMW's effort to improve the appeal of the car, they have bastardized it. You see, they want to sell more Z4, and we can't blame them for that. First, they do away the previous Bangle styling, which is full of personality (debatably ), to make it as bland as a S2000. Now, customers can fall asleep looking at it, but at least they can't complain it's ugly. To appeal to more rich, fat, balding wimps, BMW softened the ride and added a folding hard top that's as complicated as Optimus Prime. Now you have a rich, fat coupe that looks like its owner and will probably transform into its original roadster form twice in its life time, before being wimpily understeered into a drain.

If you get to see how the hard-top of an MX-5 works, you will agree that the Germans have watched too much Transformers. So much that they begin to sound like Autobots. Japanese seems to excel in grasping beauty in simplicity. The one-piece roof gets stowed away in 12 seconds without taking up boot space. That's even faster than the canvas top on the Mini.

The Quest for a Convertible Of course, talking about simplicity, nothing beats the extreme simplicity in a Lotus Elise. There's no electric motor for your roof. You simply take it off with your hands and put it in the boot. Imagine your girlfriend patiently watching you caressing different parts of the car as you take off its cloth. She's going to secretly wonder why sex never lasts as long. Then, when it rains, you will have to stop and get out of the car to put the top back on. By the time you are done, the sun will be shining. Your girlfriend will be long gone and never answer your call again. But you can always remember her by the crack — on the passenger door as a result of her furious kick before leaving.

Hardcore Elise fans will argue: Elise owners are real drivers. They don't have any girlfriends.  In this case, I would happily admit I am no real driver and never will be. Don't get me wrong. The Elise is, without a trace of doubt, a great car. I totally into the “light is might” concept.  In fact, I couldn't sleep the night after test driving one and placed a deposit the next day. But there are enough reviews out there telling you how great the Elise is. This article is about my quest for a convertible. When I came to my senses that I was too lazy to live with the manual roof, I chickened out of the deal eventually.

The Quest for a Convertible There are several other makes that were ruled out based on superficial reasons and personal preference. For example, Honda S2000. The look must have been designed by a straight-C student from Design 101. It passes, and that's it. When you drives a sports car, you want something that looks special. The S2000 is as special as a mamak store mug. Next, the shrieking engine noise irritates me. Despite what feminist drivers might say, sports cars are male. The noises they make remind us of their aggressiveness, like wild animals. The Subaru rumbles and the M3 roars. But a car that shrieks? I can only attribute that to hormone imbalance.

Audi TT Roadster is said to be lacking in handling. It is called a Roadster but it's actually front wheel drive. So it kinda lied. Alfa Romeo Spyder depreciates so fast that the next day after you've bought it, you have to give it away for free. Nissan 350Z Roadster was once a beautiful car, but now there are too many coupe version running around utterly cheapened by tasteless modders. Most 4-seaters are ruled out because they are unnecessarily bulky and awkwardly out of proportion. I drive alone and don't need the rear seats. Mini is an exception because the rear seats are as good as none.

So I have MX-5 and Mini Cooper Convertible left as the remaining choices. They cost about the same. Intellectually, the Mazda gives you much more of a car than the Mini. It's a widely acclaimed, pure-bred roadster that is in every way quicker than a 1.6 Cooper. But somehow it doesn't excite me. Perhaps it's because the automatic car pales in comparison to my previous Z4 in terms of performance and vanity. Or perhaps the interior is too dull (as a result of weight reduction?).

On the other spectrum, the Mini is honestly slow. I think it may be because the Mini isn't really mini. At its size, I don't understand why it needs to weight more than the MX-5. Furthermore, for a 1.6 liter car, the price is absurd.

Yet somehow the Mini Cooper Convertible puts a smile on me for no apparent reasons. Like the Smart, It makes me care not about the speed any more. I must be mad. I still don't know which convertible to go for. I am waiting for the psychiatric analysis to understand why I like the Mini.

By the way, the uncle gave an evil laugh and refused to sell me back my old Z4. The best in Malaysia.

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Chiew Ruoh Peng

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