Edmunds

AUTO WEEK
May 14, 2012
AUTO WEEK
May 14, 2012

Edmunds-Inside Line

Driving the 2011 NCE Jaguar XJL Convertible
Sedan Roominess in a Convertible Package
By Patrick Paternie, Contributor

Odds are the person who coined the phrase “relegated to the backseat” spent more than a few miles riding in the back of a convertible. It’s often a miserable place thanks to incessant wind, constant noise and typically cramped quarters.

Then there’s the backseat of Newport Convertible Engineering’s (NCE) Jaguar XJ convertible. It’s still wind-blown and loud in back, but in this convertible there’s plenty of room to stretch out. So even if you don’t necessarily feel comfortable, you’ll look as if you are.

An Interesting Perspective
The first time we take a good look at this soft-top 2011 NCE Jaguar XJL it’s from the rear. It’s not the most flattering angle to begin with, given the already controversial shape of the standard taillights, which are usually mitigated somewhat by the sweeping C-pillars.

 

Replacing those metal C-pillars and sloping rear glass with a convertible top only exaggerates the height of the rear end. The result is a not very flattering bustlelike rear quarters, reminiscent of the Murano CrossCabriolet, or Kim Kardashian depending on your preferred frame of reference.

The view improves dramatically from the side. Newport’s Al Zadeh definitely got his sums right with the secret formula he has devised over the years to make the top sit as low as possible without interfering with its ease of operation. Zadeh fabricated an aluminum header to allow the top to mate seamlessly with the stock windshield frame. From there, a gentle arch maintains headroom as the top flows smoothly into the car’s rear flanks. From a distance, it almost looks like a vinyl-covered roof, for better or worse.

Top down, the side view remains pretty sleek, marred somewhat by the protrusion of the B-pillars and attendant roll bar. Even if you were willing to sacrifice safety for appearance’s sake, the B-pillars are still a necessity because they carry the tracks for the power windows.

Given the pedigree of our ride, we chose to cruise along some of Orange County’s most affluent waterfront communities to assess the Jag’s impression on the area’s automotive fashionistas. The car drew admiring looks and comments. What surprised us, however, was that almost no one recognized it as a Jaguar. Most thought it was a concept car.

Cruising Vessel
And what was it like to drive? About how you would think a Jaguar XJL with a convertible top would drive. On rough surfaces, there was some vibration transmitted through the steering column but no cowl shake, top up or down. When raised, the top structure exhibited some shake when we passed over larger bumps. Overall the ride was smooth and quiet with no creaks, groans or wind whistling.

Zadeh considered its conversion the biggest challenge of his nearly 30-year career.

Our biggest issue was coping with limited rear vision through the small oval-shaped glass rear window. Still, that was better than peering over the bulge of the top when lowered. Given the top’s overall length, we don’t think Zadeh could have mounted it any lower, but it still protrudes enough to impede rear vision, including the rear three-quarters view.

With such limited vision from the driver seat, we decided to try out the backseat. Thanks to the unchanged rear doors and the abundant legroom, getting in and out was a breeze. Headroom is not compromised at all with the top raised either. It features three-layer construction that consists of a soft suede headliner, foam insulation and an exterior covering of German canvas.

Lower the top and the experience feels absolutely regal. Just settle back and cruise elegantly along as the rest of the world rolls past. From the backseat, the XJL provides one of the best convertible rides on the planet.

The 99 Percent Solution
“My objective was to keep the car as original as possible,” Zadeh had told us. “Ninety-nine percent of the cars need some alteration of the rear seats; not on this car, it is all intact,” he declared.

Most of the trunk is intact as well, leaving a generous amount of space even when the top is lowered.

 

Because of the Jaguar’s unique aerospace-style construction of bonded and riveted aluminum, Zadeh considered its conversion the biggest challenge of his nearly 30-year career. He used aluminum sheeting and tubing to build up a box frame that runs along the rocker panels to maintain stiffness after removing the car’s huge panoramic roof.

At the rear he added an aluminum platform that bolts into the trunk to support the base of the top along with its operating hardware and hydraulics. And of course the big roll bar that lines up with the B-pillars. According to Newport, the convertible conversion weighs a mere 40 pounds more than the stock sedan.

Chauffeur Not Included
The 2011 NCE Jaguar XJL Convertible will run you $49,000 plus the cost of the stock sedan. So you’re talking $130,000 to start. That includes a three-year warranty that can also be extended to five years.

To enjoy it fully, though, you should also consider a driver. It’s the only way to fully appreciate how enjoyable it is to ride in the backseat of this convertible. Yeah, there’s still some wind and considerable noise, but you can’t match the view.

Newport Convertible Engineering provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.

Edmunds.com

First Impressions:
Once the top goes down, the Toyota FJ Cruiser becomes the best four-wheel-drive beach transportation money can buy.

Power-operated fabric top
Glass rear window
Lightweight conversion
Four-wheel drive

Once I Was Blind, but Now I Can See

Toyota does have a sense of humor. All it takes to see it is a look at the 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser, a cartoon version of the old FJ40 Land Cruiser. It makes your daily commute feel like a trip to the beach.

Until, that is, the FJ Cruiser’s double-wide C-pillar blots out your ability to make a quick lane change during the crush-hour traffic. There must be some kind of comic irony to be found in a retro vehicle with severely impaired rearward vision.

Someone should do something about this. In fact, why not just cut off the whole top altogether?

Is Placentia Anywhere Near Newport Beach?
Apparently someone at Toyota had similar thoughts, because last year the company commissioned a convertible concept for the SEMA show from Al Zadeh of Newport Convertible Engineering in Placentia, California. Actually, Zadeh did much better than just slice off the FJ’s roof; he went ahead and built a power-operated fabric top to replace it.

This is not the first time an automaker has come to Zadeh to produce a convertible version of one of its vehicles. The FJ represents only a small portion of the alphabet soup of vehicle tops he has engineered during his 24 years in business.

“I have done just about every vehicle from A to Z,” he says, only half joking. Under the letter “A” you will find conversions of the Aston Martin Vanquish for individual customers. He handled the design and engineering of the first convertible version of the Volkswagen New Beetle in 1998. Soon after, he worked on the PT Cruiser for Chrysler. His conversion of the 1990-’99 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is still popular with customers in Dubai. Recently, he’s been meeting a big demand for ragtop versions of the Cadillac CTS and Chrysler 300C. And don’t forget his Nissan Z, which was popular in Japan through the 1980s.

For all Zadeh’s popular successes with convertible versions of exotic modern cars, he got the inspiration for his vocation from an MGB while a student at USC.

“I got tired of carrying towels and having wet pants every time I drove my MG in the rain or the car wash,” Zadeh recalls. “I started thinking about how I could improve the design of the convertible top.”

When work in the oil business began to disappear in 1981, Zadeh changed his engineering career and began to build convertible versions of the Nissan 300ZX, Porsche 928 and even Roll-Royce sedans.

Measure Twice, Cut Once
Zadeh relies on a combination of sketches, computer design and Photoshop-altered images to carry out his development.

“My knowledge base is strong because of all the cars I’ve done over the years,” he explains. “I respect the manufacturer’s original design and try not to deviate from it. Safety is most important, so the mounting points for the seatbelts and backseat points stay in place.”

Zadeh personally carries out the initial conversion to get a feel for the way the car is built and where it needs structural reinforcement. He says that a four-door vehicle usually takes up to three or four months to design.

The four-door Toyota FJ Cruiser posed an additional problem because its unique B-pillar swings out to afford access to the rear seat, so once the top is removed, the upper latch points for the front seatbelts go with it. As a solution, Zadeh has fabricated a roll cage of 1.25-inch tubing over the passenger area to locate the door mount, plus he’s added structural integrity, safety and a dash of Hummer-like off-road machismo.

What Zadeh didn’t add was a lot of weight. “I try to keep the weight within 50-100 pounds of the original vehicle,” he declares. His FJ convertible weighs about 80 pounds more than a stock version.

Because the FJ has body-on-frame construction, there was no need to further stiffen the chassis. The body, however, gets additional bracing at the rear via extensions from the side of the roll cage, a rectangular bar just forward of the rear wheelwells and two similarly sized bars across the back near the tailgate.

The fully lined power top includes a heated glass rear window. A switch on the lower left of the dash raises and lowers it. Securing it to the windshield is easily done by a pair of latches borrowed from the Toyota Solara convertible.

Sparks Fly
As eager as we were to do some al fresco beach cruising in the FJ, it was hard not to resist the opportunity to watch one of NCE’s workers wield an electric saw in an attack on the FJ Cruiser’s offensive C-pillar along with the rest of the roof.

The whole spark-scattering, eardrum-shattering process (much like a fireworks display during a demolition derby) takes about 30 minutes. This is done after the interior has been stripped and the exterior covered in 3M Welding and Spark Deflection paper. It takes three workers to lift off the amputated roof.

What follows is the more exacting task of fitting the roll cage, bracing, top mechanism and then the reinstallation of the interior.

Great Big Beach Cruiser
With the top down and the windows raised, the FJ convertible is nearly as temperate and draft-free as the hardtop FJ. Judging by the stares we get (well, except for the guy in the Wrangler straining to avoid eye contact), it’s even cooler on the outside.

Some people might like the humpback styling of the stock FJ Cruiser, but the general populace definitely feels the convertible vibe, especially the closer you get to the beach.

Zadeh’s engineering skill and the general sturdiness of the FJ convertible are verified when two sets of railroad tracks fail to induce a hint of cowl shake or vibration. While vehicle performance hasn’t been upgraded, the airy cockpit makes the FJ feel sprightlier. Being able to hear the V6’s raspy little exhaust note adds to the illusion of power.

Although the top retracts almost completely, it still rests above the FJ’s already high beltline, so visibility directly behind the driver remains compromised. Once it’s raised, the top seals well, with no annoying squeaks or rattles. But we must admit that there is only a slight improvement, if any, in terms of the dreaded blind spot.

But who cares when you know the remedy is only a button-push away?

So Good, Toyota Wants One
The success of Newport Convertible Engineering’s FJ Cruiser Convertible has made Toyota think seriously about putting something similar into production itself, and we anticipate a factory-authorized version in the fall of 2009. For the time being, plenty of Toyota dealers are sold on the idea. To meet demand, Zadeh has had to employ two 12-man shifts to pump out 20-25 FJ Cruiser Convertibles a month.

About 90 percent of Zadeh’s sales are new models sold through dealers. The remaining sales are to individual FJ owners who deal directly with NCE. The convertible conversion costs $10,000 and includes NCE’s warranty for three years or 36,000 miles. Just as important, the conversion does not affect Toyota’s warranty on the rest of the FJ.

You know, there are times when you really enjoy driving a life-size cartoon, especially if it’s a big, yellow convertible.

Toyota does have a sense of humor. All it takes to see it is a look at the 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser, a cartoon version of the old FJ40 Land Cruiser. It makes your daily commute feel like a trip to the beach.

Until, that is, the FJ Cruiser’s double-wide C-pillar blots out your ability to make a quick lane change during the crush-hour traffic. There must be some kind of comic irony to be found in a retro vehicle with severely impaired rearward vision.

Someone should do something about this. In fact, why not just cut off the whole top altogether?

Is Placentia Anywhere Near Newport Beach?
Apparently someone at Toyota had similar thoughts, because last year the company commissioned a convertible concept for the SEMA show from Al Zadeh of Newport Convertible Engineering in Placentia, California. Actually, Zadeh did much better than just slice off the FJ’s roof; he went ahead and built a power-operated fabric top to replace it.

This is not the first time an automaker has come to Zadeh to produce a convertible version of one of its vehicles. The FJ represents only a small portion of the alphabet soup of vehicle tops he has engineered during his 24 years in business.

“I have done just about every vehicle from A to Z,” he says, only half joking. Under the letter “A” you will find conversions of the Aston Martin Vanquish for individual customers. He handled the design and engineering of the first convertible version of the Volkswagen New Beetle in 1998. Soon after, he worked on the PT Cruiser for Chrysler. His conversion of the 1990-’99 Mercedes-Benz S-Class is still popular with customers in Dubai. Recently, he’s been meeting a big demand for ragtop versions of the Cadillac CTS and Chrysler 300C. And don’t forget his Nissan Z, which was popular in Japan through the 1980s.

For all Zadeh’s popular successes with convertible versions of exotic modern cars, he got the inspiration for his vocation from an MGB while a student at USC.

“I got tired of carrying towels and having wet pants every time I drove my MG in the rain or the car wash,” Zadeh recalls. “I started thinking about how I could improve the design of the convertible top.”

When work in the oil business began to disappear in 1981, Zadeh changed his engineering career and began to build convertible versions of the Nissan 300ZX, Porsche 928 and even Roll-Royce sedans.

Measure Twice, Cut Once
Zadeh relies on a combination of sketches, computer design and Photoshop-altered images to carry out his development.

“My knowledge base is strong because of all the cars I’ve done over the years,” he explains. “I respect the manufacturer’s original design and try not to deviate from it. Safety is most important, so the mounting points for the seatbelts and backseat points stay in place.”

Zadeh personally carries out the initial conversion to get a feel for the way the car is built and where it needs structural reinforcement. He says that a four-door vehicle usually takes up to three or four months to design.

The four-door Toyota FJ Cruiser posed an additional problem because its unique B-pillar swings out to afford access to the rear seat, so once the top is removed, the upper latch points for the front seatbelts go with it. As a solution, Zadeh has fabricated a roll cage of 1.25-inch tubing over the passenger area to locate the door mount, plus he’s added structural integrity, safety and a dash of Hummer-like off-road machismo.

What Zadeh didn’t add was a lot of weight. “I try to keep the weight within 50-100 pounds of the original vehicle,” he declares. His FJ convertible weighs about 80 pounds more than a stock version.

Because the FJ has body-on-frame construction, there was no need to further stiffen the chassis. The body, however, gets additional bracing at the rear via extensions from the side of the roll cage, a rectangular bar just forward of the rear wheelwells and two similarly sized bars across the back near the tailgate.

The fully lined power top includes a heated glass rear window. A switch on the lower left of the dash raises and lowers it. Securing it to the windshield is easily done by a pair of latches borrowed from the Toyota Solara convertible.

Sparks Fly
As eager as we were to do some al fresco beach cruising in the FJ, it was hard not to resist the opportunity to watch one of NCE’s workers wield an electric saw in an attack on the FJ Cruiser’s offensive C-pillar along with the rest of the roof.

The whole spark-scattering, eardrum-shattering process (much like a fireworks display during a demolition derby) takes about 30 minutes. This is done after the interior has been stripped and the exterior covered in 3M Welding and Spark Deflection paper. It takes three workers to lift off the amputated roof.

What follows is the more exacting task of fitting the roll cage, bracing, top mechanism and then the reinstallation of the interior.

Great Big Beach Cruiser
With the top down and the windows raised, the FJ convertible is nearly as temperate and draft-free as the hardtop FJ. Judging by the stares we get (well, except for the guy in the Wrangler straining to avoid eye contact), it’s even cooler on the outside.

Some people might like the humpback styling of the stock FJ Cruiser, but the general populace definitely feels the convertible vibe, especially the closer you get to the beach.

Zadeh’s engineering skill and the general sturdiness of the FJ convertible are verified when two sets of railroad tracks fail to induce a hint of cowl shake or vibration. While vehicle performance hasn’t been upgraded, the airy cockpit makes the FJ feel sprightlier. Being able to hear the V6’s raspy little exhaust note adds to the illusion of power.

Although the top retracts almost completely, it still rests above the FJ’s already high beltline, so visibility directly behind the driver remains compromised. Once it’s raised, the top seals well, with no annoying squeaks or rattles. But we must admit that there is only a slight improvement, if any, in terms of the dreaded blind spot.

But who cares when you know the remedy is only a button-push away?

So Good, Toyota Wants One
The success of Newport Convertible Engineering’s FJ Cruiser Convertible has made Toyota think seriously about putting something similar into production itself, and we anticipate a factory-authorized version in the fall of 2009. For the time being, plenty of Toyota dealers are sold on the idea. To meet demand, Zadeh has had to employ two 12-man shifts to pump out 20-25 FJ Cruiser Convertibles a month.

About 90 percent of Zadeh’s sales are new models sold through dealers. The remaining sales are to individual FJ owners who deal directly with NSC. The convertible conversion costs $10,000 and includes NSC’s warranty for three years or 36,000 miles. Just as important, the conversion does not affect Toyota’s warranty on the rest of the FJ.

You know, there are times when you really enjoy driving a life-size cartoon, especially if it’s a big, yellow convertible.
Just add sunshine and the Toyota FJ Cruiser is transformed into the world’s best beach cruiser.
Newport Specialty Cars has created a full-size, power-operated fabric top for the FJ.

When the top is in place, the FJ Cruiser still retains its familiar profile.

Because the FJ Cruiser has truck-style body-on-frame construction, NCE’s FJ convertible feels solid and secure even without a roof.

No more blind spots, as the NSC FJ convertible lets you enjoy the view.

Watching NSC’s specialists fire up the cutting torch gets us fired up for the mayhem about to ensue.

You have to wonder: What becomes of all the hardtops that have been removed?

The FJ Cruiser’s interior is completely removed during the conversion process.

An interior superstructure of steel tubing reinforces the suddenly topless bodywork and locates the seatbelts.

Some tricky engineering goes into the design of the top and its power mechanism.

Bracing across the bodywork helps resist the flex that causes creaks and groans.

The fabric top is stitched together right on the premises in Placentia.

Once the fabric top is in place, the FJ Cruiser still has an attractive profile.

The top features a glass rear window to enhance visibility in all kinds of weather.

A Toyota FJ Cruiser Convertible is not the sort of thing you see every day.

Once the sunshine comes in, the artful design details of the FJ Cruiser can be fully appreciated.

The FJ’s unique door arrangement means the new steel superstructure now locates the front seatbelt mounts.

Notice the dramatic increase in headroom for rear-seat occupants.

arge tonneau cover prevents the inside of the top from becoming greasy, but naturally it’s unwieldy.

The convertible top reduces cargo area, but how much room do you need for a couple of beach towels and a Frisbee?

Once the top is down, the NCE FJ Cruiser Convertible feels light-footed and free.

Naturally people will stare, especially envious Jeep Wrangler drivers.

When you’re at the wheel of the NCE FJ Cruiser Convertible, every day is a beach day.

by Patrick C Paternie

Edmunds.com

If you’re looking for the perfect parade car for Earth Day, Toyota Prius Convertible from NCE is it.

Imagine gliding silently behind the Precision Hemp Weaving Society’s float and just in front of the Marching Compost Band, while the Recycling Queen waves to the crowd. It’s almost too politically correct and too environmentally responsible. It is, however, too perfect.

If you’re a fiend for clean air, then the match between the Toyota Prius and open-air motoring is just what you want. Even better, NSC’s drop-top conversion even works pretty well when you’re not in an Earth Day parade.

Clever in Yet Another Way
As the flagship of Hybrid Synergy Drive, the Toyota Prius represents some pretty clever engineering on the part of Toyota. Yet it’s taken another dimension of cleverness by NSC in California, to transform the five-door Prius hatchback into a four-door convertible.

Al Zadeh, President and chief engineer of NSC has a degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Southern California, but for the last 30 years he’s chosen instead to turn cars, trucks and SUVs into convertibles. Some of the decapitated machinery he’s produced has been dang near brilliant, and his convertible conversion of the Acura NSX is so sweet it’s hard to believe that Honda didn’t intend for the midengine sports car to be built that way. Meanwhile, some of the conversions are just plain bizarre, as he’s built a full-size Chevy Express van convertible that is awkward in ways it would take Isaac Asimov to imagine. But by now, NCE’s Zadeh knows every trick in the beheading book.

We drove NCE’s flip-top Toyota FJ Cruiser last year and found it to be generally sturdy and heinously fun. But the FJ is basically a truck, a body-on-frame vehicle that requires only straightforward reinforcement to retain its structural integrity. The Prius, on the other hand, is a front-wheel-drive package built within a sardine-shape unibody that could implode if not judiciously reinforced once the roof is removed.

Considering how much amperage runs through the Prius, that act of lopping off the roof isn’t something to be done lightly. But cut it Zadeh does, taking the roof off completely from aft of the rear doors right up to the windshield header. He retains the window frames around the side glass, however, and then neatly incorporates a stub of the excised hatchback to form a trunk lid. He also builds up a reinforced hoop out of two sections of 1-by-2-inch steel to brace the sides of the body.

Keeping the window frames intact does mean that there’s a lot of structure visible above the beltline of the Prius even with the top down. But this design also means the windows seal securely, and that means a lot less wind noise when the top is up.

Tops in Tops
While the rage in production convertibles these days is retractable hardtops, Zadeh still has faith in the classic fabric soft top. Not only is it more straightforward to design a soft roof that stacks behind a car’s seats, but also there’s much less in the way of expensive hardware and labor.

The Prius convertible’s power-operated top is a five-bow design that incorporates the windshield-header latches from a Toyota Solaraconvertible. It’s covered in three layers of material — German-made canvas, 0.75 inch of insulating foam and a conventional headliner. The heated rear window comes straight out of an Audi TT.

NCE has done a remarkable job of retaining the original shape of the Prius roof line. At first glance, the NSC Prius might be mistaken for an example of the Toyota hybrid that has been inexplicably “blessed” with some kind of dealer-installed canvas-trimmed landau roof. And don’t think there aren’t Toyota dealers out there selling Priuses so equipped (and perhaps further enhanced with Vogue whitewalls).

Tops in Top-up
Once the top is up, this NCE conversion proves to be a relatively taut and rattle-free Prius. Yes, there’s some cowl shudder when you go over railroad tracks and a slight rustle along the top as the wind travels over it, but it doesn’t feel like the car is about to shake itself apart. Think second-generation Chrysler Sebring convertible, and you’re just about where the NSC Prius is when it comes to top-up structure.

Visibility is compromised somewhat by both the excision of the rear quarter windows normally embedded in the C-pillars of the Prius sedan and the replacement of the rear hatch window with that Audi-sourced porthole. Even so, Zadeh has retained the small window that runs across the Prius’ butt between the upper portion of the taillights, and this makes for better rearward visibility than you might expect.

Because part of NSC’s reinforcement is that hoop made from box-section steel, the rear seat no longer flops forward for additional storage. What’s left is a small-ish trunk, and it gets even small-ishier when the top goes down into it.

Tops in Topless
Press and hold a small button installed just to the left of the steering wheel and the NCE fabric top elegantly folds back in just about 30 seconds. The top takes some wrestling to get under its tonneau cover, but it doesn’t stack very high and looks well finished when it’s down.

Toyota expended a lot of effort to make the current Prius aerodynamically friendly and the car’s large, extravagantly raked windshield does a wonderful job of keeping turbulence out of the convertible’s cockpit when the top is down. This NSC Prius is an exceptionally quiet convertible even when the 1.5-liter internal combustion engine is whirring away. It’s especially quiet for an aftermarket conversion; the lack of wind noise is close to astonishing. Let’s call it “astonishing adjacent.”

But despite NSC-added reinforcement down each rocker panel, the structure does feel more loosey goosey when the Prius’ top is down. Again it’s no worse than in some production convertibles of recent vintage, but it’s no better as well.

NSC claims that its conversion doesn’t add any net weight to the Prius, and during our time with the car it felt as quick and maneuverable as any Prius we’ve ever driven. That means not-that-quick and not-that-nimble, but not-that-bad.

In Character
We have to admit that we failed to arrange a rainstorm (or a car wash) to test the water-tightness of the top, and we didn’t drive the NCE Prius far enough to make any generalizations about the impact of open-air motoring on fuel economy. But it does feel tight and we can’t think of any reason why fuel mileage should suffer terribly.

No one has ever confused the Prius with a car that’s thrilling to drive — at least not in the conventional manner. It’s mild-mannered and ultimately a bit distant in the way it responds to you. Of course it does offer terrific utility and clearly superior fuel economy. If only Prius owners weren’t so smug about the politically correct virtues they presume their cars to have.

It turns out, however, that those virtues match up quite well with a convertible top’s sun-worshipping indulgence. Think of NCE’s Prius as a hybrid with the addition of solar power.

By John Pearley Huffman

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