A Convertible without Compromise

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Not so long ago, if you wanted a convertible car you had to sacrifice a few things. Being able to carry on a conversation while racing down the highway, for starters . Staying warm in winter was another, since many ragtops could be drafty. Thieves and vandals could slash their way in. And there was always the prospect of having to do battle with the roof while attempting to raise it, usually just a few minutes into your trip, when the rains would come.

Car makers can't control the weather, of course. But Volkswagen's latest model, the Eos, named for the goddess of dawn, does eliminate many of the compromises you used to have to make to enjoy the benefits of owning an affordable convertible. Its standout feature is a retractable hard-top, which doubles as a sun-roof. Flip a switch and in 25 seconds, it automatically stows in the rear. Watching this shape-changing act is worth the price of admission; the rear deck opens, the roof panels split apart, stack atop each other and neatly fold away. If you engage this feature in a parking lot, be prepared to discuss it with the gawking onlookers.

VW wasn't the first to invent this kind of wizardry. Cadillac, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz have made retractable hard-top models for several years. But VW's starts at just under $29,000 for the four-cylinder, 200 h.p. edition, far shy of luxury territory. The only comparable model is a Pontiac G6 convertible, though GM's machine lacks the elegance and precise handling of the Eos.

As usual, VW loaded the base model with standard features. Among them: anti-lock brakes, electronic stabilization, leatherette upholstery, a digital compass and a rollover protection system. The interior is tastefully decorated with metallic ornamentation on the instrument panel and door handles. With the top down, the car proved remarkably quiet thanks to touches like a pop-up wind deflector for the front winshield. Even footwell lighting comes standard.

VW's turbo-charged engines get smoother with each generation and this one performed outstandingly. The base model, outfitted with a six-speed manual transmission, provides plenty of pickup, barely noticeable turbo-lag and enough juice to handle lane changes at velocities well beyond the speed limit. The car's handling feels taut, and only the most sensitive of drivers will notice body-roll when cornering, due to the front-wheel drive setup.

Of course, there are a few things to gripe about. The rear seats have enough leg room for a couple of pint-size 10-year olds. Trunk space is cozy-don't pack more than an overnight bag or two. And VW's lousy reputation for reliability suggests buyers shouldn't expect anything like the build quality of a Lexus (though VW does offer a 50,000-mile warranty to ease one's concerns). For the price, however, this is one model that Veedub can credibly say rocks.