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Wanted: affordable convertible with style

Several options on Canadian market

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2013 Fiat 500c Cabrio.

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2013 Mini Cooper Convertible.

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2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible.

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Vancouver, B.C.'s Jennifer Kerwin is graduating from university this spring. The odometer on her mom's hand-me-down 2006 Honda Civic -- that got Jennifer through school reliably and efficiently -- is about to roll over 200,000 kilometres.

Despite owing nothing on the Honda, with a new job waiting for her after graduation, Jennifer is ready to take on the responsibility of new-car payments. And she wants to buy a new (but affordable) convertible.

Just like through her four years of university, Jennifer plans on living at home. Her new job is actually closer to public transit than school was, so she won't be driving her new convertible much during the week. Her boyfriend lives near Abbotsford, B.C., about an hour's drive from her parents' home, though, so a convertible that's comfortable on the highway is a must.

Jennifer says she isn't a "horsepower junkie," but wants the ability to pass slower traffic with ease. Other "must-haves" for her new set of wheels are an automatic transmission and a few "luxury comforts" such as heated front seats and satellite radio.

Oh yeah, we almost forgot about needing space for Riley, the four-year-old Labradoodle Jennifer and her boyfriend co-parent.

Jennifer has a friend at school who has a new BMW 3 Series Cabriolet, but she admits she can't afford the Bimmer's near-$60,000 starting price.

While she likes the "Europeanness" of the 3 Series, she has set her new-car price limit at "all-in for under $35,000."

Jennifer's budget and wish list leaves us with three of the more affordable open-top new cars on the market: the Fiat 500c Cabrio, Mini Cooper Convertible and Volkswagen Beetle Convertible. All three offer the features and options Jennifer is looking for -- room for two up front and the occasional canine in the back, as well as that hard-to-quantify "Europeanness."

Alphabetically, my first candidate is from Italy's Fiat: the new open-air 500c.

Essentially, it's identical to the two-door hatchback 500 except for a gigantic, pullback canvas roof. With a starting MSRP of only $19,995, Fiat says its front-wheel-drive subcompact 500c is "Canada's only cabrio under $20,000" (obviously taking a jab at the $20,500 Smart Fortwo Cabrio).

Because of the 500c's low entry price, Jennifer will be able to load up the Fiat with plenty of goodies. For instance, the topline 500c Lounge adds leather seats, a steering wheel with audio controls and an upgraded sound system with satellite radio.

With an optional six-speed automatic transmission and freight and pre-inspection delivery, the 2+2 Fiat costs only $26,390.

Our second convertible candidate is the Mini Cooper. Despite its British "Mini" badge, the brand is owned by Germany's BMW. And like its European Fiat cousin, the Mini Convertible is based on the front-wheel-drive, subcompact hatchback. But unlike the 500c, the Mini Cooper Convertible's roof folds all the way down.

Despite being within millimetres of each other in most dimensions, the Mini Cooper convertible's upscale fittings and driving demeanour demand a higher price than the Fiat 500 Cabrio. With options that include a six-speed autobox, heated seats and satellite radio (plus freight and PDI), the Mini convertible costs over $7,000 more than the Fiat convertible, or $33,835.

Our third and final candidate is the new-this-year Volkswagen Beetle Convertible. Like the two-door Beetle coupe, the new Convertible is now based on the roomier compact, front-wheel-drive Jetta sedan platform.

While a turbocharged four-cylinder is on the way for 2014 and the American market gets a turbodiesel engine option, all 2013 Canadian Beetle Convertibles are powered by a five-cylinder gas engine matched to a six-speed automatic transmission.

Prices for the German brand's convertible begin at $28,775. But if your budget allows you to move to the top-rung Beetle Highline model with an optional Technology package, you'll get all the goodies you want for the VW's "all-in" $34,425 price.

When most of your driving time is spent on the highway, it's easy to dismiss the Fiat 500c. While its 1.4L four-cylinder is good on gas (estimates are 7.4 L/100 km city, 5.7 highway), the wee mill's 101 horsepower will make passing moves a chore.

Second to be cut from our list is the Mini Cooper Convertible. While it offers 20 more horsepower than the Fiat and is much more composed at higher speeds, the Mini's cramped back seat is barely humane for humans, let alone your poor dog.

This leaves us with the VW. Of the three, the Beetle Convertible offers the most interior room. And once its cloth-top is fully down, there are no other pieces of car architecture to hamper your view.

As well, the VW's 2.5L five-cylinder offers 170 hp and a quieter highway driving experience than either of the smaller engines found in its rivals. It's not a BMW but, for about half the price, the Beetle convertible could be the European convertible car of our dreams.

-- Postmedia News

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