Lifestyle

First Drive: BMW 3 Series Convertible


3series_2007
Editor's Rating: star rating

A new design and automatic hardtop make this one of the best convertibles on the market—at any price point

Up Front

The BMW 3 Series is on a tear. Fierce competition from Lexus, Cadillac, and Infiniti hasn't managed to push the entry-level Bimmer off the annual best-loved or best-seller lists.

Even the most cynical auto journalists fell last year, utterly smitten, for a new coupe edition. And an up-powered M3 concept is stealing the spotlight at the International Motor Show in Geneva, which runs from Mar. 8-18 (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/8/07, "BMW's New M3").

BMW knows that, in the 3 Series, it has a star mini-brand on its hands. The company has managed to maintain momentum with a series of smartly devised and perfectly executed variants, including a coupe, a wagon, and various all-wheel-drive models.

That strategy of expanding the family has paid off. Sales of all 3 Series last year were up 11.1%, to 120,180 units, from 106,950 in 2005, making it the most popular luxury sedan in the country.

Next up is the 3 Series Convertible, the subject of this review. The roughly 12,000 units of the all-new model the company expects to sell annually won't make much of a difference in the total tally. But with a powerful set of optional engines and one innovative, big-ticket feature—a power-folding, retractable hardtop—the newest 3 is likely to draw attention to itself, the 3 Series brand, and BMW.

The new model, when it is available in April, should cost between $41,000 and $47,000, depending on the power train. That's right in line with competing vehicles with hard lids from Volvo and Mercedes, as well as those without, like Audi's A4. The premium over the $35,300 fixed-top coupe is just about six grand.

Behind the Wheel

Two engine options will be available. The basic model comes equipped with the capable 230-hp, 3-liter inline-6, but the stunning twin-turbo-charged, 300 hp inline-6 will also be available for a premium price. In the real world, those power plants should be good for zero-to-60 times between 5.5 and 7.2 seconds.

The 328i version I drove, with the smaller engine, was a 3 Series through and through—with perfectly balanced steering and great all-around poise. Torsional rigidity is up by 50% over the previous model, and the convertible top only adds about 400 lb. of weight to the mix. Taking the car into mean corners, you can feel these improvements. The six-speed transmission, meanwhile, is as smooth as it is smart.

The stellar driving experience is complemented by elegant design. BMW managed to avoid bringing the belt line too high, which makes riding in the vehicle pleasant and airy, not like hunkering in a tank. Even with the top up, the lack of b-pillars gives the cabin an open feeling. This model has 30% more glass than its predecessor. And the rear deck is also slightly elongated to maintain the stature that previous 3 Series convertibles have had, but which isn't quite the case in the coupe model.

So this new 3 drives like a Bimmer and looks like one. But what about the main attraction?

Folding hardtops have come into vogue over the past 18 months (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/9/07, "A Hardtop Is Good to Find"). Technology once reserved for $100,000 roadsters is now available in penny-pinching models like the Mazda Miata and Volkswagen Eos. But that doesn't mean BMW went with any old top. Partnering with the company that builds its soft tops, Edscha, BMW came up with a design that it claims is the slimmest stacking hardtop around.

That's particularly important because most hardtops trade the advantages of the technology—safety, durability, and all-around practicality—for often severely compromised cargo room. On average, trunk space is cut in half.

Thanks to the design, BMW's implementation only cuts the 12.3 cu. ft. of space available with the top up to 7.4 with it down. Plus, a $500 option that comes with a remote starting feature lets you automatically lift the folded top out of the way to access the trunk. That saves you from having to put the top up entirely—very handy. Better yet, the whole lid folds away in about 20 seconds.

There are a host of top-down specific features, too. The air-conditioning system shifts with the top stowed, taking sun and temperature readings from the vehicle's exterior and to better distribute air flow. In models equipped with a navigation system, the screen is coated with a treatment that makes it visible at any angle even if you have polarized sunglasses on.

Buy It or Bag It?

Fuel consumption should be between 20 and 30 mpg, but my preliminary tests didn't allow me to confirm that by observation. Pop-up roll bars and front-seat side air bags should help occupants stay, more or less, in one piece in case of a crash.

The 3 Series convertible is notable for not asking more of its owners than it delivers. The lack of compromises is frankly astonishing. Some concessions are asked of rear passengers, and 7 cu. ft. of trunk space doesn't go that far, but all in all the model holds its own or outright bests competitors.

Click here to see more of the new BMW 3 Series convertible.

Vella is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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