Are convertibles unsafe?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Aug 01, 2003

Dear Tom and Ray:

I have been lusting after a convertible for a number of years and recently found the car of my dreams: a 1994 Saab 900 turbo convertible. It has a driver's-side air bag and anti-lock brakes. However, my know-it-all friend claims that all convertibles are inherently unsafe, even going so far as to say that no convertible would pass today's safety standards. He says they've all been "grandfathered in." I wouldn't be surprised to find that there are safer cars out there, but the claim that convertibles had to be grandfathered in to pass safety standards seems a little implausible to me. What do you say? And should I go for safety or buy the dream car? -- Susan

RAY: Nah. The stuff about being grandfathered in is bullfeathers. Convertibles do have some inherent safety weaknesses, but they have to pass all current-day safety standards in order to be sold in the United States. And the Saab certainly met all the 1994 standards and then some, if memory serves.

TOM: The problem with convertibles is that they are structurally weaker than sedans because they lack roofs. The roof is a key structural component of a car because it attaches to all four sides of the car and helps keep the car from deforming. In a gross oversimplification, the roof helps keep the car "square," instead of letting it turn into a parallelogram (that's where you're driving along and the front-seat passenger is ahead of you, and the right, rear-seat passenger is riding next to you).

RAY: Because they're missing structural roofs, convertibles all have to be reinforced in other ways down below. And until very recently, that's resulted in them feeling flimsier than normal cars (I say "until recently" because we drove an Audi A4 convertible last year that felt every bit as solid as the sedan, which bodes well for the future).

TOM: So, you'll notice that convertibles flex more over bumps and, as they get older, tend to rattle and squeak more. And depending upon how this reinforcement is done, they might be somewhat less crashworthy or more crashworthy, depending upon exactly where your car is hit. It's really hard to generalize about all convertibles in this regard. So I think you can safely set aside the structural issue.

RAY: Another safety issue is ejection. Unlike traditional sedans with roofs, there's nothing to hold you inside the car in an accident if you're too dumb to wear your seat belt. But I'd ignore that, too, Susan, because if you wear your seat belt, you'll never have to worry about it. So ignore that, too.

TOM: The problem we can't entirely ignore is rollovers. If a convertible flips over, you're done for. Rollovers are not common in convertibles, because they tend to have fairly low centers of gravity. But rollovers can happen. And if you roll over in a convertible, there's a high likelihood that IF you wake up, the Emergency Medical Services guys will be standing on your shoulders, trying to pull your head out of your thorax.

RAY: But even given all that, Susan, I'd say go for it. Convertibles are pretty darn safe these days, and they're a helluva lot safer than they were 30 years ago. Being safe doesn't mean you have to drive THE SAFEST car on the road. We have to balance our fears with our wishes and desires, and live a little bit, too.

TOM: As convertibles go, the Saab is certainly among the safer ones. It's a car that's known for safety to start out with. It's got decent safety equipment and accident-avoidance capabilities, and it's solid and heavy. All of that makes it a pretty good bet in an accident. So if you can stand the squeaks and rattles -- and the repair bills -- go for it, Susan. Get your dream car. And if you're feeling kind and forgiving, grandfather-in your know-it-all friend for a ride every once in a while.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One