In recent years, manufacturers ranging from Volkswagen to Ferrari have dabbled with convertible hardtops. At the moment, in fact, four models in the $50,000 range are fighting for market share in the four-seat luxury segment. The Volvo C70 was the first to arrive, and even now, three years after its debut, it still looks handsome, offers more trunk space than the competition, and boasts the most comfortable seats this side of a La-Z-Boy outlet. But the Volvo is showing its age in several ways - a five-speed automatic transmission when its rivals have six or seven gears, a nav system that seems like an afterthought, and, worst of all, a creaky, rattle-prone structure. The C70 is the lightest car in our quartet, and the turbocharged 2.5-liter engine makes good power - 227 horses and 236 lb-ft of torque way down at 1500 rpm. But all that grunt is routed through the front wheels. Can you say "torque steer"?
By mounting the five-cylinder engine sideways, Volvo got a trim and tidy package but at the expense of a turning radius the size of a battleship's. The nautical metaphor works equally well to describe the car's lack of composure as the limit is approached. During a brisk run through high-speed sweepers, the C70 gets into an uncomfortable corkscrewing motion, and the air is ripe with the smell of roasting brake pads after one bury-the-pedal stop. Meanwhile, West Coast editor Jason Cammisa, shadowing me in the BMW, is driving with one hand on the wheel and feathering the throttle to avoid punting the Volvo in its lovely Swedish derriere.
It's worth noting that, at nearly $55K as tested, the BMW is the most expensive car in our comparison, this despite the fact that we opted for the po'boy 328i rather than the top-of-the-line twin-turbo 335i. Also, our BMW is equipped with the sport-package suspension, which is a double-edged sword since, in addition to firming the handling, it adds hard, aggressive seats to an interior that already seems a bit too Spartan for luxury shoppers. But the few hardtop convertible owners interested in using their cars for go as well as show will appreciate the BMW's exemplary body control, confidence-inspiring brakes, and ideally weighted steering.
BMW's signature in-line six is turbine-smooth, but it displaces only 3.0 liters and doesn't benefit from forced induction, which condemns the 328i to a role as the weak sister in this group. With only 230 hp, the BMW gives up nearly 100 hp to the Infiniti, and a mere 200 lb-ft of torque means a discouraging lack of midrange oomph, even compared with the less powerful C70. Still, the BMW feels livelier than the engine ratings suggest. Smaller, too. Oh, and a manual transmission is available for those who want to shift the old-fashioned way. (It's far better, by the way, than the H-pattern gearboxes offered by Volvo, Infiniti, and Lexus.) But we're perfectly content with the six-speed automatic, which bangs off satisfying redline shifts in sport mode and feels seamless while cruising along Pacific Coast Highway up to Crystal Cove.