Stephen Wilcox is 58, and lives in west London with his wife and child and a dog. He has an R-reg VW Sharan Carat TDI automatic, which is useful for long journeys with large loads. Having now taken early retirement he needs a second car, which ideally should take four people at a squeeze.
It won't do great distances but should be reliable and economical. He has £7,000 to spend. The interesting twist here is that Stephen would like a convertible.
I know that Stephen has studied the market for convertibles and cabriolets and found that not too many are family-friendly. They're often overtly sporting, and high-performance rather than frugal.
Even so, Stephen tells me he wants a vehicle that has a lot more style and excitement to it than the ubiquitous estates and hatchbacks he sees everywhere on the road. After all, he's got a boring old Sharan at home. And his daughter is a Top Gear fan and demands something more interesting.
Stephen admits that he hasn't looked at the "premium" marques. That's a shame, because Saab, BMW, Volvo and Mercedes have all made spacious models that can take four bodies in comfort. They may have a higher mileage than a more ordinary Vauxhall or Renault, and may also come with larger, less economical engines. I don't think that matters too much, especially as this second vehicle is intended is a fun vehicle that won't do a lot of miles. All of a sudden 40mpg isn't so important, especially if the convertible is kept for a good few years so that depreciation becomes less of an issue.
I'll look at both options – the cost-effective and economical ordinary convertible, and the more upmarket option.
A car for the head
There are two very obvious choices when it comes to affordable and durable four-seat convertibles – the VW Golf, and the Vauxhall Astra. Personally, I feel that the Astra is always better value for money as the Volkswagen name still carries a premium. It would be possible to get a much more modern model with the Astra badge. I also believe that a Vauxhall will be cheaper to insure and run.
So, an Astra it is then. On the economy front, the 1.6-litre model is rated at group nine insurance, while its 38mpg rating will be compromised a bit by the convertible's extra weight; Stephen should bank on getting 36mpg or so. That's still pretty good going.
It won't be the fastest car in the world, but that isn't what Stephen is after. Even an open-top Astra still turns heads; with roof down on a sunny day, the driver and passengers are usually smiling while other road-users may be less care-free.
The open Astra is handsome, in a chunky way, with decent interior accommodation and a good boot. Stephen isn't that bothered about the driving experience, but the Astra handles extremely well. In the classified ads, I found several 2002 to 2003 examples at £6,995 on offer at dealers, with decent warranties.
A car for the heart
When it comes to value for money, I can't think further than a Saab – and in particular the Saab 9-3 convertible. First, though, I did have a think about the Volkswagen Beetle convertible, which would have been distinctive. But the Beetle, because of its beautifully blunt shape, is not as economical as it could be. The added drawback is that they are not quite within Stephen's budget. Well, the classic Beetle from the 1960s and 1970s is, but that is very uneconomical and is likely to come with rust that will eventually prove terminal.
So, back to the Saab. What Stephen will get here is a smart, comfortable four-seat open-topped car. Going for the smallest engine, the 2.0t, he should get almost 32mpg and be in insurance group 14. That's not bad for a prestige open-top car, but the best news is in the pricing, as an equivalent-year BMW, Mercedes or Audi convertible would simply not be affordable. A look around the classifieds uncovered plenty of Saabs below £7,000. And, at £6,489, it would be possible to buy a 2.0 SE model with loads of extras including cruise control and climate control. It will cost more to run than an Astra, but it is better looking.