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2007, BMW, 3-Series Convertibles

You might call it the Tupperware Effect, and it's reinvigorating today's conception of how a convertible is supposed to look and perform.

Heretofore, the convertible has always represented something of a compromise. In return for a view overhead as broad as the sky, convertible owners have had to settle for folding canvas or vinyl tops that often leak; can be noisy at highway speeds; and are vulnerable to tearing or cutting. It's the automotive equivalent of stretching Saran Wrap over the bowl and hoping it seals in the veggies.

With the debut of BMW's stunning pair of 3-series convertibles for 2007, the Tupperware Effect comes of age. That's because the newest, coolest, most technologically bewitching convertibles feature retractable hardtops that do away with vulnerable "soft tops" in favor of folding metal roofs. With BMW's implicit endorsement of this relatively recent configuration, it's fair to conclude that the hardtop convertible's day has arrived.

Aside from a handful of exotic, two-seater sporty coupes with retractable hardtops of their own, what's at stake here is the premise of motoring in two cars at once: a hard-top, two-door coupe; and an open-top, four-seater convertible. Or, to be more precise and Euro-posh about the matter, it's an open-top, four-seater cabriolet. In any event, Volvo kicked off the trend with its C70 cabrio last spring, to be followed by Pontiac's G6 and Volkswagen's Eos later in the year. For 2007, BMW's pair of 328i and 335i cabrios make their appearance, and a 2008 Chrysler Sebring version is on its way.

Except for the Sebring, whose media launch is forthcoming, each of the hardtop cabrios named above boast certain strengths. The Pontiac and VW models anchor the "value" end of the spectrum, with base prices below $30,000. The Volvo comes in at $39,000 and adds its trademark safety engineering into the mix. But in terms of both perception and reality, the two BMW models serve to crown the category. They seethe with that incomparable, Bavarian swagger that distinguishes BMWs from every other car on the road. And they boast engineering accomplishments of watchmaker complexity that are as fun to watch as to experience behind the wheel.

The most conspicuous fireworks concern the remarkable operation of the BMW's hardtop. With the push of a button, either on the center console or on the remote key fob, a 20-second animation sequence begins in which the roof levitates briefly, then drifts apart into three sections that shuffle and stack themselves as if cutting a deck of cards one-handed. The leading edge of the roof surmounts the middle section, and the rear panel then tops them both before the resulting stack descends out of view. The resulting expanse of seamless rear deck belies the fact that so intricate an operation was ever accomplished at all.

And now the fun really begins. With its four seats exposed, the newest 3-Series convertible showcases an all-new interpretation of the coupe-to-cabriolet transformation. In a word, BMW has eliminated the Bathtub Syndrome that plagues most convertibles which have started life as coupes. In top-down mode, this BMW boasts an arrow-strait beltline that preserves a rakish, even aggressive stance. All visual cues, front, side, rear, suggest forward motion, athletic fitness and an elegant economy of surfaces.

Behind the wheel, BMW's signature tautness of feel is instantly recognizable. Leather seating is drum-head tight. Steering is razor-sharp. Instrumentation is instantly legible and accessible. Two powerplants and two transmissions are there for the choosing. The 328i ($43,200 base price) delivers 230 horsepower from a 3.0-liter twin-cam, inline-six using BMW's proprietary Double-VANOS computerized valve-timing gear.

Twin-turbocharging applied to the same motor gives the 335i ($49,100 base price) its 300-horsepower kick. Both models come standard with a six-speed manual transmission, and BMW's sporting reputation means that a surprising number of buyers will go the manual route. The optional six-speed automatic, on the other hand, offers Steptronic clutchless shifting. Paired with the non-turbo in the 328i, the automatic is also the fuel-mileage champ, delivering 20 mpg/city and 30 mpg/highway.

BMW spokesman Tom Purves is the first to admit that performance purists are not the target audience for these new cabrios. For them, the 3-Series coupes are just the ticket, with their lighter weight and purpose-built sportiness. Even so, the new droptops are only 450 pounds heavier than their coupe cousins. The 335i, moreover, is still capable of 5.5-second strafes from zero-to-60. (For the 328i, elapsed time is 6.7 seconds.)

What most distinguishes the new 3-Series convertible, however, is the way it "packages" the outdoor experience. It's not just a matter of wind in the hair. Indeed, with the available pop-up wind baffle installed over the rear seats, it's amazing how little wind swirls into the cockpit to mess up that "do." Sun-reflective "Dakota" leather upholstery is another subtle touch. It may not totally eliminate scalded thighs, but it at least turns the heat down. And with its folding rear seatbacks, the BMW cabrio provides a convenient, relatively spacious interior cargo floor that also helps prevent scuffed interiors.

With only nine cubic feet of trunk space (which compresses to 7.4 cubic feet with the top down), storage is at a premium, as it is with all convertibles. A quirk of these new BMW's, however, is that access to the trunk when the top is down requires initiating the mechanical top-up procedure to a mid-point position. It's neither difficult nor time-consuming; but there's a lot more spinning and folding going on than just lifting the trunk of competing models.

But that's the BMW Way, after all clever, different, self-assured. If it's not what you're used to, BMW cars all seem to say, you'll either come around to BMW's way of thinking, or you'll find another car. In the case of this crop of new cabrios, however, it's hard to imagine anybody letting one go.

2-door compact cabriolet, 4-pass.; RWD; 3.0-liter DOHC inline-6 w/ vvt, 230 hp/200 ft.-lbs., 20 mpg/city & 30 mpg/highway w/ premium; 6-sp auto. transmission w/ Steptronic; trunk: 7.4-9 cu. ft.; std. equip.: 4-wheel ABS & ind. suspension, 17-in. wheels, traction & stability control, front/side/head airbags; base price (w/ 6-sp. manual): $43,200

By Marc Stengel
2007-03-24

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