There’s no better time than spring in the Cape for a topless road trip to let the sunshine in. Dieter Losskarn test drives five cabriolets that are ideal for open-air cruising.
It’s spring and time to smell freshly cut grass and flowers in bloom while conquering the bends of Bainskloof or the Franschhoek Pass, with just the blue sky above you. Then top that with an exhilarating spin along the coast-hugging Clarence Drive from Gordon’s Bay to Rooi-Els to get a full dose of invigorating ocean aromatherapy.
Of course, to experience all this you need a topless car. A Mini would be your entry-level ticket to the pleasures of al fresco driving in South Africa. There are two models available, the Cooper and the more powerful (and much more fun) Cooper S. They are cool, funky and young cars that easily take a couple of years off your age. And they’re a statement, especially in zesty yellow. Introduced in 2014, the range looks a good deal sharper in its current facelift than it did in previous models. The fabric roof opens in 18 seconds when you’re travelling at speeds of up to 30km/h, but it also has a sunroof option, sliding back 40cm if you don’t want to open the top completely (fully opened, the fabric is quite bulky at the back, hindering your rear view).
Triple the price and you are in serious sports car territory. Naturally aspirated engines with a glorious sound symphony are a dying species, but Porsche has transplanted one back into its top-of-the-range Boxster model: the magnificent Spyder. The Boxster is very close to my heart; I’ve always loved the midengined Porsche entry-level sports car. It celebrated its 25th birthday last year, though not with this top-of-the-range model. The limited-edition silver anniversary model is based on the slightly less powerful GTS version and in design looks like the very first Boxster concept car.
I picked up the Spyder on a beautiful windless and warm Cape spring day and put it through its paces on the sublime tarmac of Franschhoek Pass and later along Clarence Drive. It’s the perfect topless sports car. I am privileged to drive stunning cars on a regular basis but if I had to choose the one car that I would never be allowed to sell, it would be this Porsche Boxster Spyder – albeit in yellow.
My last exciting road trip in a Boxster, before the pandemic, was in a yellow one and the GTS then had two fewer cylinders. My trip through the Alps was memorable nonetheless, and I can’t wait to do the same tour over mountain passes again – but in a Boxster Spyder.
A couple of months ago I was driving its closed brother, the Cayman GT4. This is a real driver’s machine, with the character of a classic sports car. Also naturally aspirated, it has a 4.0-litre, six-cylinder boxer engine, situated in the middle, and a six-speed manual gear box. Its lightness and agility, coupled with brilliant background noise, tick all the right petrol-head boxes and signify an impressive return to past glory. On my favourite piece of twisty tarmac, Clarence Drive between Gordon’s Bay and Rooi-Els, the Cayman GT4 was in its element. Negotiating those narrow bends with plenty of grip, it came alive. “Can one top this experience?” I asked myself at the time.
Yes one can – in the roofless 718 Boxster Spyder. You get the same power output as the Cayman GT4, but much more fresh air in your hair and an even better unfiltered sound experience. And luckily it’s not the last one of its kind. Porsche has just announced an even more potent (360kW!) Spyder RS for 2023.
When turbos first came out they were hailed as brilliant, capturing exhaust fumes for forced induction, improving performance and efficiency, getting so much more out of smaller engines. But turbo-powered vehicles lack one important sensual motoring ingredient: sound. Nowadays very few naturally aspirated sound machines are left.
ENGINE: 5.0-litre naturally aspirated V8, paired with 10-speed auto and rear-wheel drive
POWER: 341kW and 530Nm
0 TO 100 KM/H: in 4.7 seconds
TOP SPEED: 270km/h
PRICE: from R2,415,900
ENGINE: 43: 2.0-litre electric turbo 4-cyl., rear-wheel drive / 55 & 63: 4.0-litre bi-turbo V8, all-wheel drive, all three models paired with 9-speed auto
POWER: 280/350/430kW and 480/700/800Nm
0 TO 100 KM/H: in 4.9/3.9/3.6 seconds
TOP SPEED: 275/295/315km/h
One of these is the Boxster 718 Spyder. It is quite obvious that the Porsche engineers in Zuffenhausen didn’t intend that you drive this car with the roof closed. They want you to enjoy the convertible as it was meant to be: topless. When the sun comes out you have all the time in the world to open the roof, but imagine a sudden rain shower. In all the other Porsche convertible models the fabric roof closes at the push of a button while you are sitting cosily inside. The Spyder’s roof needs to be closed manually, a throwback to classic cars from a long time ago.
Pausing at one of the Clarence Drive parking bays, I ignored the whales and had eyes only for the beautiful lines of the Boxster Spyder, especially the two humps at the rear that are so reminiscent of the legendary Porsche Carrera GT. Back on the road, the seven-speed PDK automatic gearbox, with its cheetah-fast shifts, proved its worth on the bends compared to the six-speed manual of the Cayman GT4. With PDK, I could concentrate even more on the windy road ahead, not worrying which gear I was in. Navigating those tight bends, I realised once again that the Porsche motorsport team had been actively involved in the development of the Spyder and had free access to some of the 911 performance parts, such as the electric power-steering system and suspension. Porsche is demonstrating impressively that it does both: fully electric in a rather entertaining way, as shown in the Taycan; and naturally aspirated, pure old-school bliss in the Boxster Spyder.
Also hailing from Stuttgart, which is truly the cradle of motorkind, the inventor of the automobile recently launched the latest edition – and eighth generation – of its legendary and iconic SL. This time Mercedes handed the job to its performance department in Affalterbach. All three currently available models – 43, 55 and 63 – are therefore AMGs.
ENGINE: 5.2-litre naturally aspirated V10, paired with 7-speed tiptronic
POWER: 449kW and 570Nm
0 TO 100 KM/H: in 3.2 seconds
TOP SPEED: 330km/h
PRICE: from R3,795,100
ENGINE: 1.5-litre 3cyl./2.0-litre 4cyl. twin turbo, paired with 7-speed auto
POWER: 100/141kW and 220/280Nm
0 TO 100 KM/H: in 8.7/6.9 seconds
TOP SPEED: 205/230km/h
PRICE: from R582,700
Traditionalists initially cringed when they heard that the entry-level icon, the 43, features a four-cylinder engine, forgetting that the 190 SL had one 60 years ago. This new one is special though, as it’s the first fitted with F1 technology, in the shape of an E-turbo, and a 48V mild hybrid system. The SL43 is young and cool and aimed at drivers who are contemplating an upgrade from an A45 to an SL. And while it will be the most affordable SL in the line-up, it will also be the most expensive four-cylinder vehicle on the market.
Purists will be happy to learn that both the SL55 and the SL63 will enter showrooms with the famous V8 bi-turbo power plants. Better still, there are two more models in the pipeline. In its novel Mythos series, Mercedes-Benz will introduce a classic SL Speedster and a more luxurious high-end Maybach SL.
The most underrated and least known of all the convertibles in this feature is the ‘Japanese SL’. Meet the stunningly beautiful Lexus LC 500 Cabriolet. Easily the most attractive Lexus ever built, it is also the most ‘American’ – and not only because it prefers quarter-mile sprints to narrow and twisty coastal roads. It also has a turbo-free V8 engine that produces 341kW and 530Nm, enabling the car to reach the 100km/h mark in just 4.7 seconds, despite a weight of 2.1 tons.
In a rare combination of sport and comfort, this highway cruiser boasts a super-long bonnet and a design that is nothing short of dramatic when the roof is up – and even more so when it’s down. At speeds of up to 50km/h the roof retracts in 15 seconds and disappears completely into the back, leaving the silhouette unblemished. And, most importantly in roof-retractable vehicles, it emits a sonorous, thunderous and brawny sound symphony.
Only to be beaten by this one. The last automobile in our glorious topless line-up is once again naturally aspirated. Introduced in 2006 and based loosely on the Lamborghini Gallardo, the Audi R8 Spyder is an everyday driving car, despite its eye-watering performance. The current model, given a facelift in 2021, has a significantly more aggressive appearance than its predecessors, with optional laser lights adding to the effect.
The familiar Audi interior is surprisingly unexciting, except for the tiny R8 badge on the flat-bottom steering wheel. But as soon as you push the red button to start the engine and the V10 screams to life, you know what you’re in for. The sound is awe-inspiring – and not just from the exhaust. The mighty power plant is right behind your ears and you can hear the V10 at work.
It was pouring with rain when I picked up the car in town and proceeded to drive it on a very wet Clarence Drive in a torrential downpour. Thanks to Quattro, the R8 was completely unfazed by any of this. You can only top this by going topless. So when the sun came out, I was suddenly in petrol-head heaven: flying around the bends, wind in my hair, sun in my face and an exhilarating sound symphony in my ears – a dream drive in a super sports car.
As usual, I stopped at a parking bay with a stunning view of False Bay and got out to admire my ride. Mesmerised as I was by the beautiful piece of (fast-) moving art in front of me, I couldn’t help feeling a bit sad. When you look and listen to the screaming V10 of the topless R8 Spyder, you realise that, with all the hype of electric vehicles, this is an endangered species. If EVs should ever rule the motoring world, this openly screaming V10 will always be fondly remembered as the holy grail of burning fossil fuels.