Steel top convertibles may not have the same panache as traditional soft top open-air machines. After all the so-called rag tops have a century of nostalgia on their side.

Cloth has been the fabric of open-air automobiles since the horseless carriage.

Nevertheless, the convertible with its steel top stowed out of sight is becoming as common on a sunny day as a two-piece swim suit. Virtually every manufacturer is taking advantage of new folding-top technology when it comes time to re-engineer their convertibles.

The advantages are many. The disadvantages are few. So we predict the folding steel top open-air cruiser will dominate the segment by the end of the decade.

Mercedes was at the forefront of the new technology, introducing the hardtop SLK in 1997 as a 1998 model. A couple of other high-dollar models showed up next, the Lexus SC 430 was introduced in 2001 and the Mercedes SL-Class a couple years later. Trickle down turned into an open faucet.

Over the past year the available models have grown with the introduction of more affordable (we use the term as a comparative) editions including the Pontiac G6, the Volkswagen Eos and the Volvo C70. Even the small Mazda MX-5 roadster gets a retractable hardtop option for 2007. BMW 3-Series has a new convertible hardtop and the Chrysler Sebring convertible has a folding hardtop version available. Retractable hardtops are becoming ubiquitous.

The upsides to this new technology are many, but there are a couple of downsides as well.

The biggest of these, it seems, is the loss of trunk space when the top is retracted. It has to go somewhere. Amazingly, Mazda has figured a way to store the tiny MX-5 top without losing any of its already tiny trunk space. But in most renditions, the trunk is good for storing only small items such as a briefcase or a few sacks of groceries with the top in the down position.

Another disadvantage is that the graceful shape of softtop convertibles is lost in a rather bulky looking rear, a necessity to accommodate the folded steel.

And then there's the extra cost involved and the complexity of the system. Of course the biggest advantage is having the best of both worlds — the security and comfort of a hardtop with the open-air fun of a convertible.

Volkswagen has gotten this new formula down to near perfection with its 2007 Eos. We don't see how it can get any better than the Eos any time soon in the 30-to-40-grand price range.

The Eos, named for the Greek goddess of dawn, is not particularly attractive, put then it's not particularly unattractive either. Volkswagen has emphasized function over form. However we did start to rethink our ambivalence to the Eos design after a couple of teenage girls stopped to swoon over our silver test car.

So we gave them a demonstration of the beautiful dance the roof performs as it stacks and slides into the trunk in about 25 seconds with the push of a button. It returns to a closed position in the same amount of time.

Even with the top up, the Eos can let in the sun and wind via a sliding glass sunroof built into the retractable roof. It's a remarkable contraption.

The Eos is fun to drive top up or down equipped with either a 2-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine or a 3.2-liter V-6. We've driven both configurations.

Volkswagen's turbocharged 4-cylinder, used in various applications, is a superb engine generating 200 horsepower with little turbo-lag. It's a blast to drive mated to either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic. The little bit of extra boost from the 250-horsepower V-6 is not needed according to the seat of our pants. The 2.0-liter turbo is quick — 0-to-60 with the manual has been measured at 6.6 seconds and just a tick or two over 7 seconds with the automatic — and it's fuel efficient rated at 23 mpg city and 32 highway with the manual transmission and 23/31 with the automatic.

There's more than a $6,000 difference between the V-6 model and the mid-level 2.0T edition. And in our estimation it's not worth the money.

The 4-cylinder is suitably quick, and the Eos is more about the open-air experience than going exceedingly fast. And although it's not quite a sports car in back-road twists and turns — a little soft in the suspension, perhaps — it acquits itself quite well.

The interior is outfitted in quality materials and the dashboard layout is acceptable, particularly at night when things are lit up in the traditional Volkswagen blue. The seats are comfortable and we had no problem finding a good driving position. Note, however, that back seat space is tight for adults. The Eos, like most compact convertibles, is basically a two-person machine.

For those stretching their budget, the Eos base model for $28,620 including destination comes well equipped with manual transmission, 16-inch wheels, leatherette upholstery, air conditioning, power windows and mirrors and an audio system with CD and MP3 player.

Standard safety includes antilock brakes, stability control and side airbags.

Move up to the 2.0T like our test model and additional equipment such as power driver's seat, front-seat heaters, automatic climate control and tire pressure monitor comes for $30,620.

With the exception of an automatic transmission, we think this is an ideal setup. While we enjoyed the slick-shifting six-speed manual, we realize that most folks will opt for the six-speed automatic at an additional cost of $1,075.

The V-6 edition, which comes loaded with standard features, starts at $36,850.

The most popular option will probably be the $3,690 sport package, which adds a sports-tuned suspension setup, 17-inch wheels, full-leather seats and brushed aluminum trim, Tiptronic gear shift paddles, Sirius satellite radio and rain-sensing windshield wipers.

Navigation is also available for $1,800.

We applaud Volkswagen because, while it offers some desirable options, it presents its intriguing convertible well-outfitted without the necessity of spending extra cash.

The Eos equals fun and if you can keep it to around 30 grand, it's a great buy. Too many options push the price too close to some heavyweight contenders including the softtop Audi A4 and the well-done Volvo retractable hardtop C70.

The Essentials

Base price: $28,620; as driven, $30,620
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 200 @ 5,100 rpm
Torque: 207 foot-pounds @ 1,800 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/2
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Length: 173.5 inches
Wheelbase: 101.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,505 pounds
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (premium)
EPA mileage: 32 highway, 23 city
0-60: 6.6 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Pontiac G6 convertible, Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder, Ford Mustang convertible

The Good

Retractable hardtop with glass sunroof
Excellent base engine
High-quality interior materials

The Bad

Very tight rear-seat accommodations

The Ugly

Eos can get pricey especially with V-6 model