New open container law
Marc K. Stengel, Sat, 24 Mar 2007 08:00:00 PDT
You might call it the Tupperware Effect, and it's reinvigorating today'sconception of how a convertible is supposed to look and perform.
Heretofore, the convertible has always represented something of acompromise. In return for a view overhead as broad as the sky, convertibleowners 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 andhoping it seals in the veggies.
With the debut of BMW's stunning pair of 3-series convertibles for 2007, theTupperware Effect comes of age. That's because the newest, coolest, mosttechnologically bewitching convertibles feature retractable hardtops that doaway with vulnerable "soft tops" in favor of folding metal roofs. With BMW'simplicit endorsement of this relatively recent configuration, it's fair toconclude that the hardtop convertible's day has arrived.
Aside from a handful of exotic, two-seater sporty coupes with retractablehardtops of their own, what's at stake here is the premise of motoring intwo cars at once: a hard-top, two-door coupe; and an open-top, four-seaterconvertible. Or, to be more precise and Euro-posh about the matter, it's anopen-top, four-seater cabriolet. In any event, Volvo kicked off the trendwith its C70 cabrio last spring, to be followed by Pontiac's G6 andVolkswagen's Eos later in the year. For 2007, BMW's pair of 328i and 335icabrios make their appearance, and a 2008 Chrysler Sebring version is on itsway.
Except for the Sebring, whose media launch is forthcoming, each of thehardtop cabrios named above boast certain strengths. The Pontiac and VWmodels anchor the "value" end of the spectrum, with base prices below$30,000. The Volvo comes in at $39,000 and adds its trademark safetyengineering into the mix. But in terms of both perception and reality, thetwo BMW models serve to crown the category. They seethe with thatincomparable, Bavarian swagger that distinguishes BMWs from every other caron the road. And they boast engineering accomplishments of watchmakercomplexity that are as fun to watch as to experience behind the wheel.
The most conspicuous fireworks concern the remarkable operation of the BMW'shardtop. With the push of a button, either on the center console or on theremote key fob, a 20-second animation sequence begins in which the rooflevitates briefly, then drifts apart into three sections that shuffle andstack themselves as if cutting a deck of cards one-handed. The leading edgeof the roof surmounts the middle section, and the rear panel then tops themboth before the resulting stack descends out of view. The resulting expanseof seamless rear deck belies the fact that so intricate an operation wasever accomplished at all.
And now the fun really begins. With its four seats exposed, the newest3-Series convertible showcases an all-new interpretation of thecoupe-to-cabriolet transformation. In a word, BMW has eliminated the BathtubSyndrome that plagues most convertibles which have started life as coupes.In top-down mode, this BMW boasts an arrow-strait beltline that preserves arakish, even aggressive stance. All visual cues, front, side, rear, suggestforward motion, athletic fitness and an elegant economy of surfaces.
Behind the wheel, BMW's signature tautness of feel is instantlyrecognizable. Leather seating is drum-head tight. Steering is razor-sharp.Instrumentation is instantly legible and accessible. Two powerplants and twotransmissions 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'sproprietary Double-VANOS computerized valve-timing gear.
Twin-turbocharging applied to the same motor gives the 335i ($49,100 baseprice) its 300-horsepower kick. Both models come standard with a six-speedmanual transmission, and BMW's sporting reputation means that a surprisingnumber of buyers will go the manual route. The optional six-speed automatic,on the other hand, offers Steptronic clutchless shifting. Paired with thenon-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 arenot the target audience for these new cabrios. For them, the 3-Series coupesare just the ticket, with their lighter weight and purpose-built sportiness.Even so, the new droptops are only 450 pounds heavier than their coupecousins. The 335i, moreover, is still capable of 5.5-second strafes fromzero-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 thehair. Indeed, with the available pop-up wind baffle installed over the rearseats, it's amazing how little wind swirls into the cockpit to mess up that"do." Sun-reflective "Dakota" leather upholstery is another subtle touch. Itmay not totally eliminate scalded thighs, but it at least turns the heatdown. And with its folding rear seatbacks, the BMW cabrio provides aconvenient, relatively spacious interior cargo floor that also helps preventscuffed interiors.
With only nine cubic feet of trunk space (which compresses to 7.4 cubic feetwith the top down), storage is at a premium, as it is with allconvertibles. A quirk of these new BMW's, however, is that access to thetrunk when the top is down requires initiating the mechanical top-upprocedure to a mid-point position. It's neither difficult nortime-consuming; but there's a lot more spinning and folding going on thanjust lifting the trunk of competing models.
But that's the BMW Way, after all clever, different, self-assured. If it'snot what you're used to, BMW cars all seem to say, you'll either come aroundto BMW's way of thinking, or you'll find another car. In the case of thiscrop 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, 230hp/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