Q. We've finally entered the convertible season after a long winter. Any advice about buying one? How about the new retractable hardtop models?  -- E.H., Riverside

A. An increasing number of  convertibles have power retractable hard tops, which provide more security and a quieter interior when raised. However, some convertible buyers want traditional "soft-top" convertible models, which usually cost less and don't have complicated folding hard top mechanisms. The general rule is that, the more complicated a car, the more problems it's likely to develop. Also, decide if you prefer a soft- top convertible with an automatic or manual top. No matter which kind of convertible you pick, check if it has rollover protection and/or side air bags. Also, opt for a glass rear top window with soft-top convertibles because that type window will be easier to clean and won't fade or get scratched as time passes.

Q. There seems to be a larger number of  aggressive drivers since the economy has gone bad. Maybe some are out looking for jobs, but it seems as if they're wasting fuel, besides endangering others. As for me, I drive to get the most miles per gallon, within reason, and stay out of the way of reckless drivers.  -- J.W,  Tinley Park

A. Good advice. Why get mad at someone who cuts you off but who you'll never see again? A study released by the AAA says aggressive driving is a factor in up to 56 percent of deadly vehicle crashes. As for getting good fuel economy, here are key tips: Accelerate smoothly, especially from a standing start because an engine uses a lot more fuel getting a vehicle moving. Smooth acceleration from a stop also causes an automatic transmission to shift to a higher, more economical gear more quickly. With a manual, skip second gear after leaving first and go straight to third or fourth gear. (But don"t "lug" the engine.) Don't start and stop abruptly. Coast often by observing traffic patterns ahead and not rushing to stop signs or traffic lights. Maintain a constant speed. Use cruise control when on flat terrain--not in hilly or mountainous areas. Don't top 65 mph and stay out of the "fast" lane, except when passing. Avoid lines and idling. Turn off the engine if you're stuck waiting for a long train to pass. Some gas/electric hybrids get sparkling mpg ratings partly because they automatically shut off their engine when stopped.

Q. Do you agree that the auto industry should leave well enough alone? For instance, I liked the headlights of Nissan's 2008 350Z better than the "boomerang-shaped" headlights on the 2009 370Z coupe. And there was nothing wrong with Chrysler's old 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine, which it sold to the Chinese. -- J.E., Chicago

A. Some older cars look better--or at least more distinctive--than new ones. But newer ones have major mechanical and safety improvements, besides much less aerodynamic drag, which causes tiring wind noise. As for the 350Z and 370Z coupes, the 370Z is leaner and looks racier, although its door handles look odd. But you're in luck if you want a "Z" styled the way you like it because the 2009 convertible model  retains the 350Z's styling. Chrysler's 2.2-liter overhead-camshaft four-cylinder was sturdy and lively, especially with a five-speed manual transmission. Legendary racer/car builder Carroll Shelby got lots of horsepower from that engine with a turbocharger in the Dodge GLH (Goes Like Hell) Omni. But modern Chrysler four-cylinder engines run cleaner and produce more power.

Q.  Mother's Day recently passed and reminded me that many moms have avoided minivans for years because they don't want to look like a domesticated "soccer mom" driving one. Unfortunately, many turned to large SUVs, which provided room and high seating position, but lousy fuel economy. Popularity of SUVs has declined, so what should moms drive now? -- E.M., Arlington Heights.

A. Few vehicles match a minivan when it comes to driving ease, roominess and acceptable fuel economy. But, considering practicality, size, price, style and fuel efficiency, the National Automobile Dealers Association picks these as the top five "stylish yet kid-minded" vehicles for moms: BMW X6, Ford Edge, GMC Acadia, Infiniti FX50 and Mazda5. They provide "all features any mom would want in a family vehicle--safety, practicality and size--while maintaining the stylish appearance most mothers ultimately desire."the NADA says.

Q. I read that sales of gas/electric hybrids have fallen significantly since last summer, when gasoline prices topped $4 a gallon. Are such vehicles here to stay? -- G.A., Downers Grove

A. In short, nobody knows yet. Four in five adults think financial barriers such as purchase price and/or insufficient cost savings prevent people from buying a hybrid car, says a Harris Interactive online survey of approximately 2,000 U.S. adults, commissioned and released by Johnson Controls, a large vehicle battery supplier. Some 84 percent see incentives and tax credits as effective ways to encourage consumers to buy hybrid autos, it was found. Among adults who aren't hybrid owners, 35 percent would buy a comparable hybrid vehicle if it was priced the same as a gasoline-powered vehicle and 23 percent would be willing to pay more, according to the survey. However, one-third of respondents would expect to pay less. Johnson Controls said the survey found that "most people admit they don't really grasp how hybrids work," and 42 percent express concerns that hybrids might mean inferior performance, lack of speed or a poor driving experience. In the long run, Johnson Controls said it will be "broad market acceptance and scale" that makes the hybrid industry sustainable.  

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