PORTLAND, OR – Although the ’07 Volkswagen Eos, shown here at a North American press preview, includes some innovative features, retractable hardtop convertibles aren’t new.

Peugeot Automobiles built them in Europe before World War II. Then there was the Ford Skyliner of the 1950s, prone to malfunctions when its roof automatically folded up and down, aided by enough cables to build a small suspension bridge.

Spurred by technological advancements and simpler plant installations, retractable hardtops are featured on more and more cars. They are popular because of their push-button convenience, year-round appeal and better security compared with softtop counterparts.

“It’s a growing segment,” says auto analyst George Peterson, president of AutoPacific. “It makes a convertible a 24/7 car.”

The 1998 Mercedes-Benz SLK is considered the first successful hardtop convertible in the U.S., followed by the equally premium Lexus SC 430, Cadillac XLR and Chevy SSR.

But this has been the year of more affordable versions, such as the Pontiac G6, Volvo C70 and now the VW Eos, which is billed as the world’s first 4-seat hardtop convertible with an integrated sunroof.

“The Eos is on the forefront of a burgeoning car segment,” says Brett Scott, Volkwagen of America Inc.’s general manager-midsize vehicles.

As with its other new-vehicle introductions of late, VW is going into overdrive to tout homeland engineering. “The Eos is German engineering at its finest,” says David Wicks, VWA’s sales director.

VW also is pitching the price. The Eos starts at $27,990, undercutting the Pontiac G6’s ballyhooed starting sticker of $28,490.

A fully loaded Eos, with an optional 3.2L V-6, will cost $40,000. The car’s average transactional price will be about $31,000 for models with a standard 2.0T 4-cyl. engine, says Wicks.

The Eos is expected to be a showroom attraction, but not necessarily a big seller for VWA. Wicks forecasts 12,000 deliveries in 2007.

“It is an entry into a segment in which we never competed before, and it will show customers another side of VW,” he says. “It will attract new buyers to our showrooms and be positioned next to other exciting VW products.”

He also predicts the vehicle, named for the Greek goddess of dawn, will lure in more male VW customers.

VW sales skew towards women in the U.S. Asked about that a few years ago, Frank Maguire, then VWA vice president-sales and marketing, said a bit defensively: “There’s nothing wrong with selling cars to women.”

But the worry is that there are enough male consumers who would no more wear a dress than buy a vehicle with a reputation as a “chick car.”

“VW seems almost embarrassed that more women than men like its cars, but it shouldn’t be because its women buyers tend to be young, educated and relatively affluent,” says Peterson.

The old VW Cabriolet had 80% female ownership. The VW Beetle tilts 62% to women buyers. Wicks sees the Eos enjoying a 50-50 gender mix.

“That’s a projection for a new car in a relatively new segment,” he adds. “But our ad agency research indicates there is an equal appeal to men and women. We want to make sure we don’t skew Eos marketing one way or the other.”

Scott thinks the more powerful 250 hp V-6 engine will attract a lot of male buyers.

VW research indicates men generally like vehicles that are expensive, fast and express individuality. In contrast, women tend to be more attracted to vehicles that are affordable, safe and social.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com