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Axon's Automotive Anorak: Is VW's drop-top SUV a niche too far?

22nd August 2019
Gary Axon

Ahead of its IAA Frankfurt Show reveal next month, late last week Volkswagen released its first official images and basic information about its latest niche model; a soft-top Cabriolet version of the T-Roc crossover – a premier in this segment – which, according to VW, fills yet another niche in its extensive model range.

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Okay, so this new T-Roc Cabriolet might fill a gap in the market, but is Volkswagen trying to fill a gap that simply doesn’t exist? Now, I might be wrong (and often am), but I have never heard anyone say, “if only there was a new smaller SUV/crossover with a convertible roof that I could buy”.

Volkswagen clearly believes that such a market exists, the Wolfsburg maker stating ‘the T-Roc Cabriolet offers just the right combination of strikingly extrovert design, raised seating characteristic of an SUV (like an exposed Edwardian-era ‘London-to-Brighton’ motor car; surely a questionable advantage), a high degree of flexibility and the unique driving experience of a convertible (agreed, though as a high-mounted SUV, not very sporty, as most soft-tops tend to be).’

VW also goes to great lengths to point-out that this new T-Roc Cabriolet follows the Brand’s long tradition of offering convertible models of its ‘regular’ compact mainstream offerings; the Beetle and Golf Cabriolets, for example. This is a fair point, as Volkswagen has always found a ready market for such four-seater rag-tops, but can a high-up, faux off-roader SUV really be considered in the same manner as a ‘regular’ VW Beetle or Golf? Perhaps, and maybe it’s just me, being too old, too much of a purist and too set in my ways to ever believe anyone would chose to buy a convertible SUV – particularly one that looks as aspirational, desirable and stylish as the average domestic appliance.

Although new car sector sales and demands are changing more radically now than they have done for many decades (EVs, posh-marque SUVs, etc.), to date history has not been kind to previous brave attempts at trying to shoehorn a new automobile into a sector that didn’t previously exist.

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Take the three-door coupe MPV (Renault Avantime) for example: a flop. And how about that short-lived fad in the mid-1980s for all-wheel-drive versions of everyday family cars that various manufactures spent a small fortune developing, never to recoup their investments: the Vauxhall Cavalier 4x4, Peugeot 405 4x4, Renault 21 Quadra, and so on. Why, by the late 1970s, even convertibles themselves were on the endangered list; American legislation and a lack of new and exciting two-seater sports cars almost killing-off the breed in favour of the ‘new kid on the block’ hot hatch.

When real ‘SUVs’ such as the Willys Jeep, Land Rover Series 1 and original Toyota Land Cruiser first appeared (as practical workhorse 4x4s, rather than foppish lifestyle accessories) they were all convertibles, with ‘luxuries’ such as a roof and doors often being unnecessary extravagances. In more recent, and softer, times though, successfully navigating around the other SUVs on the school run, rather than having to tackle an overgrown jungle track or frozen ploughed field, have become the norm, making a tin-top roof the default.

In recent times, a handful of other vehicle producers have previously dipped their toes into the soft-top SUV niche; most quickly withdrawing them though due to the lack of customer demand.

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The most obvious example of these is Land Rover’s first-generation Range Rover Evoque Convertible, this short-lived derivative first being shown in concept form at the 2012 Geneva Salon (possible to gauge consumer interest), before being confirmed for limited production in 2015, and Land Rover finally building the Convertible effectively for just one year, from 2017 to 2018; the roofless Evoque failing to sell in significant numbers. A Convertible version of the new second-generation Range Rover Evoque is not planned.

Ahead of the Range Rover, Nissan boldly tried its hand a selling a roofless version of its good-looking Murano SUV in the USA. Called the Murano CrossCabriolet, the Nissan instantly bombed, falling into the same pantheon of dud new products as New Coke and arguably the most famous of all flops: Ford’s Edsel! Within a year of the CrossCabriolet’s 2012 launch, Nissan was forced to drop the model’s retail price by six per cent, and with unsold stocks of brand-new, unregistered cars mounting, the plug was pulled for good on the Murano CrossCabriolet in 2014!

Chrysler suffered a similar fate with its ‘pioneering’ Dodge Ram Dakota Sport Truck Convertible (phew, that’s a mouth full) in the late 1980s, with the USA’s first (and to-date only) modern rag-top pick-up truck. The 1989 Dakota Sport was the first American convertible pick-up launched since the soft-top Ford Model A truck of the early 1930s, and as its poor sales testify, also the last, the Dodge being produced for just two model years (you see a pattern forming here?). Like the drop-top Range Rover and Nissan SUVs that followed, the Dodge was the answer to the question that nobody had ever asked.

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I genuinely hope that time proves me wrong, as I’m all for breaking out of the mould and taking risks, but I fear that Volkswagen’s name may quickly be added to the historical hall of shame list for convertible SUVs that potentially appealed to the heart, but were not enticing or sensible enough to appeal to the head, with few buyers willing to take the gamble and invest their own hard-earned cash to buy one. On the upside though, this could make the new VW T-Roc Cabriolet an instant future classic; a car to stash away in a barn for a few years and release onto the market when it has a cult curiosity value, just as a ‘wrong car at the wrong time’ 1958 Edsel does today!

  • Axon's Automotive Anorak

  • Volkswagen

  • T-Roc

  • Nissan

  • Murano

  • Jeep

  • Land Rover

  • Evoque Convertible

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