With its fourth-generation 3-series convertible, BMW joins the trend toward retractable hard tops--following the likes of the Mercedes-Benz SL, the Volvo C70, and the Volkswagen Eos. The switch is a curious one for BMW, as it adds weight and loses what even BMW's U.S. chiefTom Purves admits is the "romance" of a raised soft top (as on BMW's own 6-series). And unlike the aforementioned models, the 3-series droptop isn't doing double duty as a coupe. BMW will very happily sell you a fixed-roof 3-series two-door, if you wish.
While a retractable hard top may be a surprising choice for BMW, it's not without benefits. The solid roof makes for a very quiet closed car. Its slim C-pillars provide far better visibility than you get with a soft top. And it creates a sleek profile, although it's marred somewhat by the cutlines created by the roof panels and the wrap-over trunk lid.
You also have to admire the execution of this steel top. It's divided into three sections, which neatly flatten and stack before disappearing under the deck lid. BMW was able to preserve 7.4 cubic feet of trunk room with the top stowed (slightly less than the softtop's 7.7 cubic feet), but you'll need slim luggage to slip it under the stowed roof. (Order the Comfort Access package, and the stowed top lifts slightly to aid luggage loading.) Trunk capacity with the roof raised is 12.4 cubic feet, a big improvement over the previous model's 8.9 cubic feet. Additionally, the rear seatback folds down to turn the space behind the front seats into a flat-bottomed cargo hold, and there's an optional trunk pass-through that is usable even with the top down.
A retractable hard top is heavier than a soft top, and so, compared with the coupe, the convertible's weight penalty of about 400 pounds is more than the previous model's roughly 340 pounds. The extra heft slightly dulls the edge of this very sporty car. The wiggle-free structure, however, will impress drivers of the previous 3-series cabrio and will amaze owners of the second-generation model.
Clearly, BMW thinks the 3.0-liter six is the right size powerplant for this car, since five of the six engines it offers in the 3-series convertible are 3.0-liter sixes. For us, choices mirror those in the coupe: a 230-hp 328i and a 300-hp 335i. Europeans skip the 328i, but they do get the 335i, a 268-hp 330i, a 215-hp 325i, a 228-hp 330d, plus a four-cylinder 320i.
The only version BMW bothered to bring to Arizona was the 335i--but, hey, with an engine this good, favoritism is understandable. Even with the convertible's extra poundage, the twin-turbo's 300 lb-ft of torque blasts the 335i from 0 to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds with a manual transmission or 5.7 with the automatic (according to BMW). Still more impressive is the utterly seamless turbo integration and the fantastic sound the engine makes as it zooms up the tach, rendered all the more intense when it's not muffled by the roof or windows.
Both the 328i and the 335i are available with BMW's well-regarded six-speed manual, but for our drive, we opted for the new ZF six-speed automatic that was introduced on the coupe. There is no shame in choosing this autobox; it's an absolute sweetheart. It whips off shifts nearly as fast as VW/Audi's dual-clutch automatic, and it matches revs on downshifts. The optional shift paddles are beautifully executed: push forward for a downshift, pull back for an upshift--no need to move the gear lever out of D. Unfortunately, the 328i gets a less-sophisticated six-speed automatic (no paddles, no rev-matching, slower shifts).
We're not as thrilled about some other options on our test car, specifically the overly helpful active steering, which is a stain on one of the 3-series' finest attributes, and the always annoying iDrive, which comes with navigation.
The optional leather upholstery is now an even cooler option, withheat-reflecting technology that can lower its surface temperature by as much as 36 degrees. Riders soaking up rays in the rear seat will enjoy more shoulder and elbow room than before, although knee room remains tight.
But really, who cares about them? This is still a car that's all about the driver. The stellar twin-turbo six, the razor-sharp automatic, and the suspension's athleticism clearly make this the BMW of hardtop convertibles.