Volkswagen’s attempt to bring the convertible SUV back from the dead, is both fitting and ironic.
Once a staple of the brand, the days of droptop cars sporting the VW badge became numbered during former CEO Martin Winterkorn’s tenure, which ran from late 2006 until late 2015.
In an internal presentation to managers in mid-2014, Winterkorn singled out the shrinking convertible market as an example of where to begin thinning out the VW brand’s range to help it save 5 billion euros in costs.
“We have 12 cabrios [throughout the VW Group], but too few SUVs,” Winterkorn told the German enthusiast magazine Auto Motor und Sport.
When the T-Roc Cabriolet went on sale in April, Audi and Porsche were the only VW Group brands that still offered drivers the chance to fold back the roof. For VW, the T-Roc Cabriolet represents a return to its roots: the brand has offered convertibles since 1949.
“We are very confident we can implement the concept and expect we will be successful positioning the product between the smaller and premium offers,” T-Roc Product Manager Jan-Ingo Theuner told Automotive News Europe.
LMC’s Chan estimates European sales volumes of about 10,000 units T-Roc Cabriolets a year, roughly 6 percent of the model line’s total. The number mirrors what Range Rover achieved with the Evoque cabrio, which is well below the 15 percent the British automaker expected.
“The likeliness that other manufacturers will [follow VW into the niche] is up for debate. Although with the continued surge of SUV sales in general, it does remain possible,” Chan said.
From an engineering perspective, an SUVs tend to be less well suited for a droptop derivative because the base model is already substantially heavier than a comparably sized sedan or hatchback.
Add on all the structural reinforcements necessary to compensate for the loss of a B-pillar and suddenly weight becomes problematic, and not just in terms of handling. “The weight and aerodynamics of cabriolets aren’t much good at the moment given the need for CO2 reductions,” Schmidt added.
The loss of a traditional roof also means less torsional stiffness throughout the entire body, reducing a vehicle’s driving dynamics.
A review by U.S. enthusiast magazine Car & Driver described the Evoque cabrio as “not much sport, even less utility,” criticizing the Range Rover’s performance and space after with the additional of a 180 kg of folding hardtop. The publication was equally harsh to the T-Roc, referring to it as a “Barbie beach cruiser.”
While analysts and journalist remain skeptical about the future of convertible SUVs, at least one more addition to the niche is coming, but it’s questionable whether it will be make it to Europe.
German roof specialist Webasto, which provided the T-Roc Cabriolet’s folding softtop, confirmed to Automotive News Europe that it received an order from the U.S. for a convertible SUV, for which it was investing about 40 million euros in its facility in Plymouth, Michigan. “We needed additional manufacturing space for this big project,” Webasto Chairman Holger Engelmann said.
Engelmann also provide a bullish outlook for the niche to ANE in 2016 when talking about the Range Rover Evoque cabriolet, which has a folding softtop from Webasto.
VW’s Theuner said he expected others to watch and see how well his concept will work. “It’s difficult to forecast how competitors will react,” he told ANE. “But we have no problem if we are the only ones in that segment as it would doubtlessly emphasize the T-Roc Cabriolet as a unique proposition in the market.”