The sun shines brightly in the blue sky, the air has warmed and the trees are once more green. Now is not the time to encase yourself in two tons of SUV metal and plastic.
No, this is the time of year when the urge to feel the wind in your hair makes convertibles look like the most practical automobiles ever made. They offer sensations you just can't get elsewhere -- it's simply not the same to crank down the windows and pop open a sunroof. Better to lose the top entirely and feel the world around you -- just don't get all Isadora Duncan with your accessories.
While there are many high-end convertibles that may catch your eye -- from BMWs to Lexus to the Corvette -- you don't necessarily have to dip into your retirement fund or mortgage payment to put a drop-top in your garage.
One of the most revitalized of American automotive brands of the past few years has been Saturn. Its two-seater soft top, which shares its inner workings with Pontiac's Solstice, made an instant impression on roadster lovers. After two years, it's still one of the most distinctive cars on the road.
It's also affordable, both in cost to buy -- they start at $26K -- and in cost to drive -- gas mileage is a reasonable 19 city and 25 highway. The lack of any storage space in the trunk remains the biggest stumbling block for this otherwise exciting coupe.
The Mazda MX-5 Miata has been around long enough to be considered a classic, one that's gotten better with time. It's also an affordable classic, with prices starting just over $21K.
What makes the MX-5 ''classic'' is its simple roadster design -- while it lacks the stylistic bells and whistles of its more aggressive competitors such as the Sky, it looks and feels balanced throughout. They are incredibly fun to drive, and the manual soft-top can be easily put up and down without leaving the car.
Mazda now offers a power hardtop Miata that employs some nifty mechanical origami to fold away in 12 seconds, though it will push your base price into the mid-20s.
Hardtop convertibles are an excellent choice for those who want the breath of spring but still hold concerns about the cold of winter. Volkswagen has extended its convertible offering beyond the standard New Beetle to include the new Eos -- a best-of-both worlds solution that offers gorgeous looks with or without a top. It starts at $28K -- $5,000 more than the Beetle Convertible, but worth it for the more traditionally minded.
Finally, few cars on the road say ''fun'' like the Mini Cooper and, particularly, the Mini Cooper Convertible. The soft top offers the same level of quirky design fun and delightful go-kart handling as the hard top (although visibility out the back remains an issue when the top is up).
While the base model starts at $22K, if you can afford the additional $4,000 splurge go for the more powerful ''S'' version -- it'll make the wind go faster.