We take a top-down approach in our search for a SmartMoney Award winner.

SPRING IS HERE. The crocuses are popping up. And the tops are going down on a stylish new crop of six-cylinder convertibles. These soft-top four-seaters range widely in price. But even at the low end, you get decent sound insulation and rear windows made of glass, not plastic.

Chrysler Sebring Convertible Limited. It may seem unfair to compare this car with the others here because the Sebring's base price of $31,275 (all prices include destination charge) is the lowest by $11,000. But the low price would be an advantage if it weren't for the loose steering, tepid performance and uninspired handling. That's because the car has a lot to offer at this price: handsome styling, a roomy interior and trunk, and excellent interior design. But the front-wheel-drive Sebring seems underpowered, and its sloppy handling creates a feeling of being not quite in control.

Chrysler Sebring Limited

  • Engine: 2.7-liter V-6, 200 hp
  • Transmission: 4-speed automatic
  • Ride/Handling: 2 stars
  • Int./Ext. Design: 4 stars
  • Comfort: 4 stars
  • Trunk Volume: 11.3 cubic feet
  • Base Price: $31,275
  • Overall Rating: 3 stars
  • Comments: Semiautomatic top requires snapping shut by hand, but it's easy to operate and acceptable given the price. Comfy interior, leather-wrapped steering wheel.

BMW 330Ci. The Bimmer wins on performance. Its 225-hp engine is the most powerful in this group. And it comes with a silky standard six-speed manual transmission. (A five-speed automatic is optional.) As a result, the 330Ci feels agile and aggressive, with acceleration that's fully satisfying but not bone-jarring. If you want to trade a little performance for a lower price, the 325Ci carries a base price of $38,495, $6,300 less than the 330Ci. Both rear-wheel-drive cars always feel securely in control at any speed.

So why only third place? The bland, boxy styling takes the BMW philosophy of function over form a little too far. And the snug interior feels cramped. The 330Ci's firm seats support your back very well, but the lack of thigh support can cause some discomfort on a long drive. The fully automatic soft top goes up and down easily with the flick of a button.

So if you value performance above all else, and will trade some styling and comfort to get it, the 330Ci is the ragtop for you.

BMW 330Ci

  • Engine: 3.0-liter in-line 6-cyl., 225 hp
  • Transmission: 6-speed manual
  • Ride/Handling: 5 stars
  • Int./Ext. Design: 3 stars
  • Comfort: 3 stars
  • Trunk Volume: 9.5 cubic feet
  • Base Price: $44,795
  • Overall Rating: 4 stars
  • Comments: Zero to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, fastest in this group. Transmission channels power effortlessly, but interior reminiscent of tight-fitting jeans.

Mercedes-Benz CLK320 Cabriolet. What's the difference between a convertible and a cabriolet? About $7,300.

It's a bad joke, perhaps, but that's how much more the CLK320 costs than the BMW 330Ci. For this price difference you get better styling, more interior luxury and comfort, and more whiz-bang gadgetry. But the CLK320's performance and handling are inferior to the BMW's.

The rear-drive CLK320 feels a bit sluggish from a standing start. At low speeds the car seems like a dog that's being slightly restrained by a leash, though that feeling disappears at highway speeds.

But if you'd rather have "show" than "go," the CLK320 provides it. The styling is sleek and eye-catching. The multilayer roof seemed to shut out road noise a little better than those of the other cars here. But what's really nice is the interior.

The seats are form-fitting and supportive. And the extra interior space gives the CLK320, at least compared with the BMW, an extra measure of comfort.

Mercedes-Benz CLK320

  • Engine: 3.2-liter V-6, 215 hp
  • Transmission: 5-speed automatic
  • Ride/Handling: 4 stars
  • Int./Ext. Design: 5 stars
  • Comfort: 4 stars
  • Trunk Volume: 8.6 cubic feet
  • Base Price: $52,120
  • Overall Rating: 4 1/2 stars
  • Comments: Interior wood trim standard, but no manual transmission offered. Features "automatic seat-belt presenters," little electronic arms that make it easy to grab the belt.

Audi A4 3.0 Cabriolet. The Audi wins because its styling is almost as good as the CLK320's, and its performance is at least acceptable versus the 330Ci's. What's more, the Audi A4's base price is a couple of thousand dollars less than the BMW's and a whopping $10,000 less than the Mercedes-Benz's. That's the price for the front-wheel-drive version. For about $2,000 extra you can get the A4 with Audi's Quattro all-wheel drive. That option, not available on our other contestants, puts the base price about equal to the rear-drive 330Ci.

Acceleration in the front-drive A4 is similar to the CLK320's, but the car feels quicker, perhaps because the handling is more nimble. Performance is enhanced by a continuously variable transmission, which lacks discrete gears but instead varies continuously to optimize performance. Think of a lamp with a dimmer switch.

The Audi's handling can't match the BMW's, but the A4 offers superior comfort and interior design. The A4 is a bit wider than any other car in this group, creating a slightly chunky look but adding more "wiggle room" inside.

In short, the balance of comfort, luxury, performance and versatility — along with a price advantage — make the A4 Cabriolet our top choice.

Audi A4 3.0 Cabriolet

  • Engine: 3.0-liter V-6, 220 hp
  • Transmission: Continuously variable
  • Ride/Handling: 4 stars
  • Int./Ext. Design: 4 stars
  • Comfort: 5 stars
  • Trunk Volume: 10.2 cubic feet
  • Base Price: $42,520
  • Overall Rating: 5 stars
  • Comments: Blends the best aspects of its German rivals.