The 10 Best Used Convertibles for Less than $15,000
Buying a convertible certainly seems like the very definition of frivolity. But that’s only if you buy one new. Used convertibles shed their values almost as quickly as they drop their tops. Combine that with the fact that their owners tend to drive them only occasionally, keeping the miles low, and it makes convertibles a terrific used car bargain.
In fact, you can have that perfect open air experience for less than $15,000. There’s no shortage of makes and models to choose from, even at that modest budget, so to help you start your search we’ve assembled this list of ten that offer what we feel to be the best mix of style, performance, and overall desirability. Some even have the potential to increase in value over the course of your ownership.
Our list includes quite a few two-seat sports cars, but many also seat four. We’ve even included an SUV. Please know that narrowing the list down to just ten wasn’t easy. After some tough deliberations, here they are listed in alphabetical order.
BMW 3 Series
Successor to the BMW 2002, the rear-wheel drive 3 Series became popular in the 1980s and has ruled the German sports sedan market ever since. BMW introduced the 3 Series convertible in 1985, and the model continues today, renamed the 4 Series convertible since 2014.
Many generations of open 3 Series are available for less than fifteen grand. If you’re looking for a daily ride and the most performance, we recommend buying the newest version you can get your hands on. That could even include a high-mileage used 4 Series.
However, for a fun weekend ride that has the potential to appreciate in value over the next five to ten years, an older model is the way to go. A friend just picked up an extremely clean and low-mile 325i convertible from the late 1980s. This generation (pictured above) is known by the brand’s aficionados by its chassis code: E30.
He paid about $10,000, which is top dollar, but there are many out there for less, especially examples with the optional automatic transmission. His has a manual transmission. Although we’ve playfully suggested he get the license plate 90210, he’s enjoying the car. It has been a hit as his local Cars and Coffee events.
Values of fourth generation Corvettes (C4) are slowly on the rise, but you can still get a clean C4 convertible (pictured above), which were produced from 1986-1996, for less than $15,000.
They offer excellent performance, cool retro style, and the potential for appreciation down the road, especially the early cars built before 1990. That year Chevy changed the Corvette’s interior. It was better in many ways, but lost some of its 1980s charm, which included digital instrumentation and hard lines.
But performance-minded buyers should note that in 1992 the Corvette was upgraded with a new 300 hp LT1 V8, the second-generation of the small block, which increased the sports car’s capabilities considerably.
If you’re looking for a used Corvette convertible to drive everyday, we suggest moving up to the fifth generation (C5) of the two seater. The C5 has a much better chassis, a smoother ride, superior handling, and a more sophisticated drivetrain. In 1997, GM introduced the LS V8 to the world in the C5, and the third-gen small block is still a favorite of hot rodders and enthusiasts today. C5 production lasted through 2004.
Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z and Z28
It’s possible to get a modern Camaro convertible for less than fifteen grand, even an SS with a V8 engine. After a lengthy hiatus, Chevy reintroduced its muscle car for the masses in 2010, with a convertible version following in 2011. If you want an open Camaro to drive everyday and one with the most performance, this is the way to go.
Fifth generation Camaros, which were built until 2015, are bit big and bulky, but they offer excellent performance, a tight chassis, and a smooth ride, thanks its first-ever independent rear suspension.
But if you desire something vintage, we once again turn the clock back to the 1980s. In 1987, Chevy reintroduced the Camaro Convertible (pictured above) after only selling hardtops for 17 years. These cars started life with T-tops and were “chopped” by the American Sunroof Company (also called American Specialty Cars or just ASC) at a facility in Michigan, where a manually-operated soft top was installed. The operation lasted through 1992, and the value of these four-seaters is quickly on the rise.
Chevy offered open Camaros powered by a likable V6, but we recommend the Z28 and IROC-Z models, which have 305 or 350 cubic inch V8s. The 305 was available with a 5-speed manual, while the larger 5.7-liter was paired only with a 4-speed automatic.
If you’re looking for a modern open muscle car, a fifth generation Mustang GT convertible, produced from 2005-2014, is also an excellent choice. First of the retro-styled Mustangs, they’re timelessly cool and offer modern amenities and excellent performance.
All GTs have V8 engines with at least 300 horsepower and were available with either a manual or an automatic transmission. But keep in mind that all Mustangs, like Camaros, are rear-wheel drive, so they aren’t as winter friendly as the front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive options on this list.
If you want something actually retro for some weekend fun, the market has recently rediscovered 5.0-liter powered Mustang GTs and LX models from the 1980s (pictured above), and their values are climbing. In 1986, Ford updated the engine with modern multi-port fuel injection, which added power and drivability. Prior to that, the V8 was carbureted in manual-transmission cars, while those equipped with an automatic were fitted with throttle body EFI that made less power than the carbureted version.
These Fox-body Mustangs were produced until 1993. Small, light, and blast to drive, especially with the 5-speed manual, they were some of the quickest cars of the era. A 4-speed automatic was also available and quite popular.
Over the decades, Jeep’s Wrangler has grown more civilized, while its off-road capabilities have increased — a neat trick that Jeep’s designers and engineers should be proud of. Jeep produced the JK generation Wrangler from 2007-2018, and they can be really fun daily drivers which can conquer the countryside on the weekends. But they’re expensive. To find one under $15,000, you’ll have to seek out higher milage examples (over 100k).
Unless you need a newer one, the previous generation, known as the TJ, is a better bet. Produced from 1997-2006, TJs were the first Wranglers with a coil spring suspension for a smoother ride. Their interiors are also more comfortable than any prior version, and these were the first Wranglers with front airbags. Jeep didn’t introduce the 4-door Wrangler until 2007, so every TJ is a 2-door.
Unlike today’s Wrangler, TJs came with a standard four-cylinder engine, first a 2.5-liter, which was replaced by a 2.4-liter in 2003. It’s better to find one with the optional 180 hp 4.0-liter inline six cylinder, which got bumped up to 190 hp in 2001. Manual and automatic transmissions were available with both engines.
For the ultimate cool factor and better off-road capability, find yourself a Wrangler Rubicon, which was introduced in 2003. Named for the tough Rubicon Trail in the Sierras, these were the most off-road capable Jeeps ever. Underneath they have additional skidplates, tougher Dana 44 axles, locking differentials, a lower 4:1 transfer case ratio for improved crawling, and more ground clearance.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
There have been four generations of Mazda’s two-seat convertible since its 1990 model year debut. They’re all available for less than $15,000 — even the latest version of the rear-wheel drive sports car, which was introduced in 2016, though most examples will have higher miles. Often referred to by its chassis code, ND, the fourth-gen Miata has the most power, the most comfortable interior, and the most features of all Miatas. They’re also the safest.
First-gen Miatas (NA) can still be bought for less than $5,000, though nicer specimens are creeping up in value. And the second-gen cars (NB), while affordable and fun, aren’t quite as desirable as the earlier or later designs.
The real sweet spot at the moment, especially for daily transportation, is the third-gen Miata (pictured above), known by chassis code NC. Sold from 2006-2015, it was named to Car and Driver’s 10Best List from 2006-2013. Yup, they’re that good.
NCs offer similar performance and comfort to new Miatas at a heavy discount. They’re more spacious and comfortable than any of the older models, and they have considerably more power. Under the hood was a 2.0-liter four cylinder making 170 hp. While early Miatas are actually kind of slow, the NC is quick enough to thrill. Both a 6-speed manual and a 6-speed automatic were available.
Cool since the 1950s, the Mercedes-Benz SL is probably Germany’s best known two seater. It has stood for wealth and sophistication through six generations and seven decades, a record few other cars can match. And yet, you can buy one for less than $15,000. A good one.
In many ways, the SL’s fifth generation (R230) offers the most bang for the buck. Sold from 2003-2012, R230s have more interior space and better performance than any prior generation, plus a retractable hardtop for better security and weather protection.
At launch, a brawny 5.0 liter V8 engine was standard (in the US), putting the power down though the rear wheels. In 2007, Benz upped that to 382 hp with an even bigger V8. And in 2009, the R230 received a facelift, losing its dramatic round headlamps. To most eyes, these cars still look fresh and can easily be mistaken for the current 2020 model.
Though the R230 has its benefits, its predecessor, the R129 generation SL (pictured above), seems to be enjoying more enthusiast attention these days. Sold from 1990-2002, R129s are gaining popularity quickly and values are inching up.
Once considered blocky, their shape has aged well, especially with the removable hardtop in place, and their interiors still have an old-world warmth that Mercedes has unfortunately lost since. Early in the run, an inline six cylinder engine was offered, but you want the V8-powered 500SL. These cars are heavy, so the 5.0-liter’s torque is needed to get it moving. Plus they’re packing over 300 hp.
Recently Nissan has made quite a bit of Z news, teasing the next generation of its iconic sports car. It’s about time. The 370Z, which remains in production, has been around since 2009. Though similar to its predecessor, the 370Z was smaller, lighter, and packing more motor than the 350Z, with output increased to 3.7-liters and 332 hp. A 6-speed manual and a 7-speed automatic were both available.
The 370Z is pretty light at about 3500 lbs and gets to 60 mph in about 5.1 seconds with the manual transmission. That’s quicker than a Porsche Boxster of similar vintage. Nissan also stiffened the chassis over the prior car by 60 percent, so it feels tight, even with the top down.
Car and Driver noted at the 370Z’s debut, “Like the coupe, the new ragtop answers its helm with laser-guidance accuracy, grip is sticky at 0.95 g, and braking performance is very strong. Better yet, though the setup is firm, ride quality suffers little.”
Most people still bought the coupes, but the convertibles are out there, and they’re cheap. These rear-wheel drive two-seaters not only feature modern amenities like heated seats, keyless entry and ignition, and a power top, but the exterior styling also doesn’t look dated. In fact, you can still find brand new 370Zs for sale on dealer lots.
If you want the most sports car fun you can buy for less than $10,000, buy yourself a first generation Porsche Boxster, or a 986 as Porschephiles like to call them (in reference to the chassis code). Sold from 1997-2004, these mid-engine two seaters have reached the bottom of their depreciation curve and are starting to inch up. For now, they’re still dirt cheap.
Shortly after its introduction, the Boxster became Porsche’s best-selling model, so there are a lot of them out there. They’re all powered by smaller versions of the 911’s water-cooled flat six cylinder engine, paired with either a manual gearbox or an automatic.
In 1997, the engine displaced 2.5-liters and made 201 hp. That may not sound like much, but the cars only weigh about 2800 lbs, so 0-60 mph with the stick takes about 6.7 seconds. In 2000, the engine was upped to 2.7-liters and 217 hp, and Porsche also introduced the pricier Boxster S, which offered a 250 hp 3.2-liter engine.
Unlike the 911, every Boxster has been rear-wheel drive. Buyers should also know that these cars predate Porsche’s incredible PDK twin-clutch automatic. These were the Tiptronic days. The 5-speed automatic does most things well, but its torque converter adds about half a second to the sports car’s acceleration times. We recommend going with the manual.
To our eyes, no sports car has aged more gracefully over the last 25 years than the Boxster. Plus it’s the only car on this list with two trunks.
If you want to max out on the retro thing, it’s hard to beat a Beetle convertible — or “Cabriolet” in VW speak. So cute it has been called the Golden Retriever of cars, the Beetle Cabriolet was introduced in 2003 and only recently ended production. While early versions are always appreciated for their modern-day take on Volkswagen’s original air-cooled Type 1 “Bug,” we prefer the latest generation of the Beetle (A5), which was introduced in 2012, with the convertible version following a year later.
The A5 Beetle (pictured above) shares its chassis with the VW Golf, which means an engine mounted up front, front-wheel drive, and four seats. It wasn’t quite as cutesy this time around. In an effort to broaden its appeal, VW gave it a shot of testosterone. The flower vase on the dash was out, and better performance was in.
Borrowing from the Golf, the base A5 Beetle got a 168 hp 2.5-liter five cylinder, which isn’t very sporty. But it is considered the most reliable of the bunch. Pricier trims got a turbocharged 1.8-liter four cylinder, and later a turbo 2.0-liter, both of which make more power but can be expensive to fix once the mileage is piled on. For example, replacing the 2.0-liter’s notoriously wonky wastegate means replacing the entire turbo assembly for about $3,000.
The vast majority of Beetles sold were automatics, which means that those with the available manual gearbox are fairly rare and tend to command a premium.
The Bottom Line
A few other fun convertibles worth checking out but which didn’t make our list are: the BMW Z3 and Z4, the Saab 9-3, the Audi TT, the Mini Cooper and Mini Roadster, and the Infiniti G37, with its slick retractable hardtop.
Whichever one you choose, always study the car’s vehicle history report and buy the cleanest example you can afford. A few extra bucks spent up front will help to ensure more trouble-free top down miles down the road.
Photos courtesy BMW, Chevrolet, Ford, Jeep, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Porsche, Volkswagen, Mecum, and Wikimedia Commons
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