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Detroit show: Automakers going topless

2015-01-12 11:25

CONVERTIBLES RESURGENT IN DETROIT: Alfa Romeo's 4C Spider is just one of many convertibles to go on display at the 2015 Detroit auto show as automakers see a resurgence in drop-top models. Image: Alfa Romeo

  •  Convertibles gain in popularity
  •  Positive US vehicle market
  •  60 new convertibles by 2012

DETROIT, Michigan - Americans are ready to let their tops down and feel the wind blow through their hair.

That's the feeling among automakers new convertibles are rolled out at a time when many consumers are gaining confidence in the economy and have more money to spend on less-practical big-ticket items.

At the 2015 Detroit auto show (Jan 12), Buick, Alfa Romeo and BMW all plan to show off glitzy open-air models to capitalise on that newfound confidence and industry analysts expect more to come.


IHS Automotive, an industry consulting firm, predicts there will be 60 different convertible models in the US by 2020, 15 more than 2014 and the most since at least 2000.

IHS senior analyst Stephanie Brinley expects convertible sales to rise 63% from 152 400 in 2014 to 248 000 by 2020.

Following the recession, sales of convertibles tailed off. Automakers, realising that it wasn't socially acceptable to flaunt wealth while others were struggling, rolled out few new ragtop models after the recession. There were 48 six years ago by 2015 there are 45.

As vehicle development budgets were cut during the recession, convertibles were early casualties, says Brinley.

With unemployment down and luxury vehicle sales up, automakers are looking for niches such as convertibles to increase sales in a competitive market. IHS estimates that convertible sales grew nearly 9% in 2014.

Michelle Krebs, senior analyst with AutoTrader.com, said: "The fear of conspicuous consumption is dead. Everybody's getting back into performance and the sexy, flashy mode. Convertibles play into that."


Indeed, there's more money available for such frivolity. US household wealth recovered to R941 trillion by the end of September 2014, according to the latest government figures. It plummeted in early 2009 to R627 trillion as the stock market and home values tanked.

The market has grown dramatically since the recession ended, with the Standard & Poor's 500 index more than doubling. Also, a well-known measure of consumer confidence shows that consumers feel the best they have about the economy in the last seven years.

However, data shows that the gains have mostly helped wealthier households, leaving middle-class wealth largely unchanged. Luxury car sales rose 15% in 2014, the biggest gain since the recession, according to Autodata Corp.

At the 2015 Detroit show, General Motors is unveiling its Cascada, a Buick version of the stylish Opel convertible from Europe. Fiat Chrysler, apparently believing that convertibles are best left for niche brands, will show off its Alfa Romeo 4C Spider, while BMW has a refreshed M6 high-performance convertible.


The four-seat Buick is the brand's first convertible in 25 years. The Cascada is just what Buick needs to keep its sales momentum going, especially in the prime convertible market of Florida, says Ed Williamson, who runs a Buick-GMC-Cadillac dealership in Miami.

Currently, Williamson says he has no convertible cars to match ubiquitous German and Japanese models: "We see an awful lot of Lexus convertibles in this market."

The convertible also helps Buick continue to change its once-stodgy image with a sportier, younger vehicle, said spokesman Nick Richards.

AutoTrader's Krebs doesn't see a huge number of new convertibles coming because of the engineering costs and added weight that come with a convertible.

Still, for most brands, convertible models can bring a sportier image as well as big price tags for the growing number of people willing to pay.

Krebs said: "It puts a little flash in their line-up."


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