From long car trips with the AC blowing, to short jaunts for milkshakes, the automobile is a quintessential part of the long, hot American Summer. Whether it’s sticky faux-leather seats or that time the family minivan got a flat in the middle of nowhere, everyone has their favorite car memory. There have always been cars that stand out as especially appropriate for the season; think of the wood-sided 1947 “Woody” station wagons crowned with surfboards or a classic Beetle tricked out for dune duty.
Fortunately, if you’re looking to bring a little summer spirit into your garage, there are plenty of new cars perfectly willing to get between you and the hot August asphalt.
1. Open Sesame: The Mini Cooper Convertible. While some may think BMW’s runty drop-top is too short by a third and too cute by half, we say any car with a built-in “Openimeter”, that measures how long you’ve spent driving with the top down, deserves a spot on this list. You can even upload your list and compare online for bragging rights. Plus, it’s a Mini, which means a spunky engine, great handling, and plenty of quirky interior touches. Sounds like a recipe for great fun! Expect to dole out at least $25,650 MSRP for this Bavarian creampuff. http://www.miniusa.com
2&3. Topless Twins: The Mustang and Camaro Convertible. Both of these revered nameplates have graced cars for over forty years, but these modern iterations are the best yet. Let your mullets fly free as onlookers admire their retro-inspired styling and rumbling engine notes. Even the base “daddy’s little girl” versions pack a walloping 300+ horsepower to outrun those first brisk autumn breezes. Convertible Mustangs start at $27,2000 MSRP, while the Camaro rings in at $30,180. http://www.chevrolet.com, http://www.fordvehicles.com
4. The Original: Jeep Wrangler. The Jeep Wrangler sucks gas, handles poorly, and is as sleek as a hippo in parachute pants. But the original SUV makes no apologies, and its devotees know there is no better way to feel summer like going off-roading in this flat-faced chariot. While any old convertible lets you ride with the top down, the Wrangler owner knows it’s not summer until you’re riding with the doors off. Prices start at $22,045. http://www.jeep.com/en/
5. Night Lights: The Scion tC. But what if you’re more into - cue the score from Grease – “oooh, those sum-mer niiights”? Then the Scion tC is your ride. Scion’s mainstream coupe received a much-needed makeover for 2011, that included more power and a styling overhaul. But what should really get those summer stargazers excited is the panoramic (that is, over the front and back seats) moon-roof and flat-folding rear seats; so you and a special someone can – ahem – “stargaze” in climate-controlled comfort. It starts well-equipped at $20,305. http://www.scion.com/
6. Around the Bend: The Ford Flex. Summer is about vacations and road trips – long road trips – that put a premium on space and comfort. If you’ve got a crew to haul and a shred of pride that refuses to settle for a minivan, the Ford Flex’s retro-box styling and seven seats make it the most stylish way to get your herd to the beach. Put a couple surfboards on top and you’ve got yourself a worthy successor to Ford’s original summer cruiser: the Woody. Opt for the optional refrigerated console and DVD entertainment center and you might never have to leave the driveway. Thinking inside this box will run you $30,885 MSRP to start. http://www.fordvehicles.com
7. Solar Flair: The Toyota Prius: Speaking of summer road trips... Gas ain’t cheap and while the Prius isn’t the prettiest gal on this list, she’s a cheap date, boasting 51 miles per gallon in the city. This leaves plenty of scratch for cotton candy, concert tickets, and t-shirts advertising your smug eco-satisfaction. But fuel-efficiency isn’t reason enough to make this list. No, the Prius makes the cut because it’s the only car to do something useful with the summer sun; an optional roof solar panel powers a fan designed to circulate air throughout the car when it’s off to keep it cool. Anyone who’s ever plopped down in their mobile sauna and had to wait for the A/C to spool up will appreciate this touch. A basic Prius starts at $18,950 MSRP. http://www.toyota.com
8. Flower Child: The Volkswagen Beetle Convertible: Like the Mini-Cooper, this Teutonic charmer is cuter than a four-year-old with a lemonade stand. Yet, under its pinchable-cheek exterior is solid German engineering. Despite its historic name, this Volkwagen doesn’t just make the list because of its famous dune-hopping progenitor, this car earns its summer bonafides by being the only mass-market vehicle to have a flower holder right beside the steering wheel. Showing your flower power will start at $26,390 MSRP. http://www.vw.com