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2007 BMW 3 Series hard-top convertible

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ.–Well, BMW has gone and done it, despite its own protestations.

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ.–Well, BMW has gone and done it, despite its own protestations.

After years of arguing that soft-tops were the way to go for convertibles, that they were lighter and less complicated and took up less trunk space, BMW has caved in and built a folding hard-top for the 3 Series convertible.

Customers the world over, particularly in Europe, were increasingly being swayed by the advantages of hard-tops: improved appearance, increased security and more refinement.

The fact that several offerings in the European market were entering at relatively low price points – you can even get a Ford Focus with a folding hard-top on the other side of the Atlantic – meant that, inevitably, luxury car makers like BMW (which offers the 3 Series convertible in four-cylinder and even diesel variations in Europe) would have to follow.

Couple that with the fact that after years of hard work, BMW had managed to engineer a hard-top with a weight penalty the same as the soft-top's – about 200 kg – and you have the new model, known internally as E93 and to us as the 328i and 335i.

The top, as you would imagine for a four-seater cabriolet with a reasonably sized trunk, is something else to watch in action.

Like the Volvo C70 – probably its closest competitor in our market, though some people will no doubt cross-shop the less-expensive Volkswagen Eos, too – the 3 Series' roof splits into three sections so that it takes up less space when folded; its rear window actually is the top part of the assembly as it powers out of the trunk.

Assisted by a fleet of motors, the top folds away and underneath a flush tonneau in less than 30 seconds, and it can be activated by either a switch on the dash or the keyfob.

Over the last several months, we've become familiar with the two drivetrains offered in the 3 Series cabriolet. Two versions will initially be offered: a 328i with a 230 hp 3.0-litre inline-six and a 335i with a twin-turbocharged version of same producing 300 hp. Both come coupled to a choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmissions.

While I'm generally a fan of BMW's manual transmissions, the automatic makes an excellent match for the massive wave of torque served up by the turbocharged engine; its well-spaced gears and smooth changes give the car an effortless feel that's lacking in the manual.

(Then again, you can pretty much drive the manual car in third from walking speed right up past the provincial speed limit.)

The automatic is a better match, too, for the cabriolet's slightly more relaxed mission in life. Top down, the sun on your face and the wind ruffling your hair, you naturally do not end up driving this car as hard as you would the coupe.

It's still smooth, confident and responsive, but its extra weight dulls the responses just a little bit. There's a touch more body roll in corners, the car doesn't jump off the line quite as quickly and there's an ever-so-slight delay between your inputs and the car's reactions.

On the other hand, the body's solidity is hard to fault: relentless reinforcements mean there's very little scuttle shake on rough roads and, with the top up, the level of refinement is excellent.

One thing BMW is keen to stress is the practicality of the new convertible design. The hard-top has allowed for a larger glass area that gives the cabin a more spacious feel and a better view out.

The trunk is relatively large at 350 litres with the roof up; with the roof down, it's still not bad, at 210 litres. The rear seat folds down and there's a standard ski pass-through. You can order an optional windblocker that fits over the rear seats and is much easier to install than the one on the old cabriolet.

With the roof up, the 3 Series convertible presents a far more formal, upright profile than its sleek coupe cousin.

The roof perches on top of a chrome strip that runs around the cabin, making it look almost separate from the car rather than integrated with it.

The hardtop does, however, allow for the inclusion of BMW's trademark "Hofmeister kink" in the rear side glass.

Out back, the trunk is lower and flatter than the coupe; up front, the two cars are almost identical.

Instead of a rising beltline, the shape has a deliberately horizontal shoulder line, which, says program manager Michael Brachvogel, gives passengers the appropriate level of "dignity" as it presents them to the outside world when the top is down.

It also means that all four passengers – rear-seat legroom has increased by 10 mm while elbow room is up 118 mm and shoulder room is up 85 mm – are adequately exposed to the elements for that true convertible feeling.

Certainly, the 3 Series convertible has a very different feel than the coupe. It's not just the slight level of softness in the responses; it's that BMW (thankfully) hasn't tried to isolate the passengers too much from the elements.

Wind buffeting is well-controlled, but despite the steeply raked windshield, when the top is down, you really do have the feeling of being outside. The low beltline is at the perfect height for perching your left arm.

And the noise you hear is a delicious combination of wind rush and music from the engine room. On the 335i that we drove at the car's launch – no 328s were available – the noise and wind rush were also accompanied by impressive levels of acceleration.

Pricing for the new car has yet to be announced; BMW Canada says it will do so closer to the car's spring on-sale date.

I'd guess on a premium of about $5,000 over the 328i and 335i coupes, which list for $43,600 and $51,600 respectively. Its closest competitor, the Volvo C70, starts at $56,495 – right in the same territory and with a turbocharged five-cylinder engine as standard.

 


Laurance Yap, a freelance journalist (yap@mac.com), prepared this report based on travel provided by the auto maker

 

 


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