- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

Barely removed from its plastic rear-window days, BMW introduces its new 3-Series steel-top convertibles.

Curiously, the 2007 328i and 335i convertibles come at a time when fabric and glass-window technology have advanced to the point where convertible soft tops can mimic the coziness of coupes and almost last the life of the car.

But it’s a competitive thing. Virtually every drop-top manufacturer, from Chrysler with its Sebring convertible, to Volkswagen’s Eos, Mazda’s MX-5 and the Mercedes-Benz SL models, feature retractable hard tops. The downside is storage. Metal tops, with the exception of Mazda, take up trunk space that otherwise could be devoted to luggage, golf bags and such, and the new BMW is no exception. It does not even carry a spare; the four tires use run-flat technology.

With the top up, there’s more than 12 cubic feet to stash your stuff. Put the top down, and the space shrinks to about seven cubic feet-all of it under the folded hard top. It’s not easy to get at, either, unless you pay extra for a remote control that operates the top from outside the car. Otherwise, you have to operate it from inside.

To ameliorate the luggage-space shortage, BMW designed the rear seatback to fold down, exposing a pass-through to the trunk. Of course, using the rear-seat area for luggage converts the convertible to a two-seater.

That’s not a bad thing because the two-person back seat should be reserved for children or adults of small stature. Head room is severely constricted with the top up, and it’s likely that most drivers and front-seat passengers will be required to move their seats forward to provide knee room in back.

The BMW 3-Series convertibles date back to 1986, with just two intervening models in 1993 and 2000, so the new versions represent the fourth generation of the genre. As with any BMW, the new convertibles command premium prices. The 328i starts at $43,975 and the 335i has a base sticker of $49,875. Both have six-speed manual gearboxes as standard equipment. A six-speed automatic transmission adds $1,200.

The difference between the two lies mainly in the power output. Both engines are BMW’s traditional in-line sixes, with three liters of displacement. The 328i’s motor is naturally aspirated and delivers 230 horsepower and 19/29 miles to the gallon on the EPA’s city/highway cycle. BMW calculates the zero-to-60 acceleration time at 7.3 seconds.

The 330i’s engine has twin turbochargers and pumps out a lusty 300 horsepower, with burbling exhaust notes that would tickle the senses of any enthusiast. It is rated at 5.5 seconds to 60 mph, and does almost as well as the 328i on the fuel economy scale, with 19/28 miles to the gallon. Both models have a governed top speed of 130.

The tested 328i with the six-speed manual is a delightful combination, in simplicity and performance, for anyone who enjoys driving for its own sake. Clutch engagement is progressive, so it’s easy to drive smoothly, despite some slight resistance in the shift linkage.

There’s plenty of power for any driving situation, although the 328i won’t win drag races with some lesser machines. But that’s not the point. Convertible motoring in this context is all about leisurely driving on twisting roads in sunshine that doesn’t bake the pate.

Top up, the 328i convertible is nearly as quiet as its coupe garage mate, with minimal wind noise. Top down, there’s some slight cowl shake — that sensation of a shaky steering wheel on rough roads — but it doesn’t mar the driving experience.

As with any BMW, the suspension system offers an optimum tradeoff between ride and handling. Cornering is flat and controlled, and the ride, while choppy in harsh conditions, is mostly taut and supple. The brakes feel tight and stop the car with unabashed competence.

Inside, the tested 328i convertible had comfortable and supportive front seats, with good side bolstering and an adjustable thigh support. The optional leather upholstery, as might be expected, got sticky in hot weather.

BMW makes a point of keeping a low beltline so the driver’s head and shoulders can be seen from outside the car. From the inside, it means you can drive your convertible with your left arm on the window sill and your elbow sticking out, just like in the old days.

Interior styling is elegant in its simplicity. On the test car, the trim was brushed aluminum, although three different-colored wood trims also are available at no charge: dark burl walnut, light poplar and gray poplar.

The test car did not have a navigation system, and made do without BMW’s infamous iDrive control system, so the controls were delightfully simple and the instruments easy to decipher.

Safety equipment includes antilock brakes, stability and traction control, brake-fade compensation, brake drying, tire-pressure monitoring, seat-mounted side airbags, automatic seatbelt tensioning and rollover protection.

As always, there is a long list of options that can jack the price considerably. The tested 328i, bumped to $48,875, had only a few: a package that included the leather upholstery and BMW Assist, a communications system similar to General Motors’ OnStar.

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