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First drive: Newest BMW redefines open-air motoring

Quick time: The roof lowers inside 23 seconds.

Redesigned 3 Series Convertible introduces BMW's first folding steel roof

25 Jan 2007

LOOK out Mercedes CLK, Audi A4 cabriolet and Alfa Romeo Spider.

The fourth 3 Series convertible in 20 years arrives on March 24 – the same day it does in Europe – redefining what a luxury four-seater drop-top and coupe-convertible should be.

Prices kick off at $94,900 for the entry-level 160kW E93 325i convertible fitted with a six-speed manual gearbox.

A six-speed automatic is available for an extra $2600, while you’ll need another $26,600 for the 225kW E93 335i convertible. Numerologists take note: $266,000 will buy roughly two reasonably optioned-up 335i convertibles.

These prices represent an increase of $4100 and $10,400 above the outgoing E46 325Ci and 330i convertibles respectively, although BMW Australia says that the E93’s sum of improvements, new features and equipment upgrades more than compensate.

The retractable hardtop replaces the electrically operated fabric roof of previous 3 Series convertible incarnations.

Made of lightweight steel by Germany’s Edscha roof company, it is a three-piece design that stacks on to itself, before nestling neatly into the top part of the 350-litre boot (which is hinged at both ends as a result), reducing the available luggage space to 210 litres. BMW claims with the roof down there is enough space for two European-spec golf bags.

The roof whirrs away quietly inside 23 seconds, and erects in 22 seconds, via either a lower-console mounted button or the remote-locking key fob the Germans catchingly refer to as ‘comfort loading and unloading’.

Most coupe convertible roof systems use a two-piece design, but BMW went for three in order to preserve the E93 designer’s intended silhouette. It also solved boot-packaging issues within the allocated space available.

Remarkably, the retractable steel roof adds 140kg to the weight of the convertible, which – in turn – comes in at 200kg over the E92 3 Series coupe that came before it. Surprisingly, this is the same difference in mass between the previous E46 coupe and its (fabric topped, remember) convertible sibling.

Some of this has been achieved by employing plastic front side panels, leading to a 50 per cent weight drop compared to the steel units found on the old model.

Furthermore, according to BMW’s deputy director for the E93 convertible project, Michael Brachvogel, the weight of about a third of a 63-litre tank of fuel is moved upwards when the roof is erect.

This means that the E92 coupe has a higher centre of gravity than its transforming convertible cousin.

Lighter materials like carbon fibre were considered for the roof, but were rejected on the grounds of noise transmission and/or compromised quality.

Mr Brachvogel further revealed that achieving robustness was the aim of his team, with the roof mechanism undergoing a durability regime three times greater than usual: in excess of 15,000 cycles.

To help protect the roof from low-speed rear-end impacts when inside the boot, a 25cm buffer zone exists between it and the bumper.

Going for the steel-roof option allowed BMW to finally incorporate its trademark ‘Hofmeister kick’ in the lower ‘C’ pillar of a 3 Series convertible – the last to do so was the E30 Cabriolet built by Baur during the mid-1980s, and that was not a full drop-top.

The upshot is 30 per cent more side glass, and 38 per cent larger rear window vision than than the previous model.

Retaining the classic 3 Series convertible silhouette, which BMW says must include a flat shoulder line, long bonnet, pert boot and short ‘A’ pillars, was paramount for the new car, and – again – only the three-piece design could achieve this objective. It also sidesteps the encroaching overhead windscreen header that blights so many other CCs.

Only the body panels forward of the ‘A’ pillar, as well as the doors, are shared with the coupe.

The E93 is 50 per cent more rigid than the outgoing E46, with beefed up ‘A’ pillars and door sills, yet the body – which is just 60mm longer than the current E90 sedan – actually weighs less than before.

It also has a subtle new rollover system incorporated into the rear headrests that relies on a rollover sensor that permanently monitors vertical and horizontal movements. Mr Brachvogel regards this as his favourite improvement on the E93.

Also, new are side head/thorax airbags that extend from the base of the backrest to the top of the headrests, effectively creating a side airbag ‘wall’.

The interior is wider and significantly roomier than before and includes a full-length centre console and a new fold-down backrest to increase luggage space without soiling the cabin’s seat upholstery. Optional custom-fit luggage has been devised for the space.

It also provides a larger load-through access to the boot.

When the rear seat is not in use a new-style wind deflector can be fixed over the rear seat.

14 center imageThe convertible misses out on the sports suspension tune ($600), but otherwise has the same mechanical specification as the respective coupe model.

In the case of the 325i, this means the same normally aspirated 2.5-litre magnesium aluminium in-line six-cylinder engine developing 160kW of power at 6500rpm and 250Nm of torque at 2750rpm.

The convertible’s 200kg weight deficit means that its 0-100km/h sprint of 7.8 seconds is 0.9 seconds slower than the coupe.

In 335i guise, with its 3.0-litre twin-turbo direct-injection Valvetronic unit delivering 225kW at 5800rpm and 400Nm at a low 1300rpm, the convertible races from standstill to 100km/h in 5.8 seconds – 0.3 seconds behind the coupe, and can still achieve an EU fuel-consumption average of 9.9L/100km, down from the 325i convertible’s 8.1L/100km average.

The optional ZF six-speed automatic Steptronic gearbox now shifts 40 per cent faster than before, and is available with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifts.

BMW Australia says there are no plans to release the 170kW/500Nm 3.0-litre direct-injection in-line six-cylinder turbo-diesel version, or a lower-powered 2.5-litre 323i convertible. Although, a spokesperson did admit that the company would be watching the demand for Saab’s newly introduced 9-3 TiD convertible with great interest.

Like the coupe, the convertible drives via the rear wheels, enjoys 50:50 weight distribution, sits on a 2760mm wheelbase while the suspension is struts up front and a five-arm rear axle.

The convertible is also available with active steering which varies the steering angle according to speed.

Both models are equipped with electronic stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes, cornering brake control and a cruise control system which provides braking during downhill inclines.

Standard features include 225/45R17 17-inch alloy wheels, seat heaters, leather upholstery with sun-reflective technology that reduces cabin temperatures by up to 20 degrees, front and side-wall airbags, rear parking sensors, anti-roll bars front and rear, brake-pad wear indicator, Bi-Xenon headlights, iDrive with radio, GPS navigation and display screen, and of course run-flat tyres.

For your extra $26,600, the 335i adds 18-inch wheels, cornering headlights, front parking sensors, upgraded audio and GPS with TV, bolstered sports seats, and Bluetooth.

The trick wind deflector is an option, as is metallic paint.

BMW assembled a team of engineers at the E93’s international launch in Arizona, and is are confident that all bases have been covered with the development of the company’s latest convertible.

One of the few items that was deemed desirable when the project started in 2003, but did not make it on the production car was roof-racks. The increased weight and pressures that luggage would have put on the linkages meant that the engineers abandoned this quite early in the car’s gestation period.

BMW Australia has forecast about 500 sales this year, with 60 per cent going to the 335i convertible.

All E93 convertibles are made at BMW’s Regensburg plant in Germany.

Why the new convertible is the way it is
BMW figured that a market exists for a proper sports coupe and a slightly softer – but a still dynamically exemplary - convertible model, still with the refinement and security of a folding hard top.

Room for a smaller, cheaper ragtop – in the guise of the upcoming E88 1 Series convertible – also forms part of BMW’s latest convertible and coupe strategy.

Hence the latest 3 Series convertible’s modish (and expensive) retractable hardtop.

This has allowed BMW’s engineers to devise an all-out driver’s car with the E92 coupe, which will probably lend itself first to the M3 treatment come Geneva Motor Show time in late February.

Of course, this does not mean that the E93 convertible is soft.

BMW is at pains to point out that the comfort bias of the drop top is merely measurable in degrees, and that driver enjoyment is still the priority.

The same is true for the E88 1 Series convertible, which will go head-to-head with the new Volvo C70 and Saab 9-3 convertible in the sub-$80,000 sector when it is released sometime during 2008, after an expected Frankfurt Motor Show debut in September.

Conversely, fans of the small BMW coupe, as exemplified by the E21-E30 3 Series two-door, should be delighted with the prospect of the E88 1 Series coupe, also due out at the same time as its ragtop sibling.

Finally, below the 1 Series is BMW’s hyper-successful new Mini.

The current R52 Mini cabriolet is only less than three years old, so the new-generation model based on next month’s R56 Mk2 edition will complete BMW’s three-pronged convertible crusade when the R57 version arrives in late 2008/early 2009.

BMW 3 Series convertible pricing:
325i $94,900
325i (a) $97,500
335i $121,500
335i (a) $124,100
Drive impressions:
LIKE a regular on ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,’ the fabulous, star-studded career of BMW’s evergreen 3 Series continues unabated.

It’s not all puff either, for we can state with confidence that the latest convertible version, the E93, enjoys the same pole position among its peers as the outgoing M3 does against its rivals.

Or, put another way, is simply the best four-seater convertible in its class.

Sure, there have been 3 Series duds – pre-2001 318i, 325e or any Compact iteration, anyone – but as a whole, the model that was once synonymous with the go-go 1980s has come to define the times.

Considering what the sun seeking 3 Series is designed to do, the 335i convertible fulfils its brief with breathtaking brio – more so, in fact, than its highly respected predecessor, which continues to be the most rounded four-seater ragtop you can buy, despite its advancing years.

Of course, the more delicious of the two-pronged E93 3 Series ensemble is- the sublime 335i convertible- which will cost you Porsche Boxster S money.

And the usual BMW bugbears, namely expensive desirable options (like $1600 metallic paint) remain.

Yet, no convertible drives feels or drives as wellas this retractable hard top 3 Series.

Speaking of which, our only reservation is a philosophical one, since it concerns the very thing that also helps to make this car special: can you live with a reduced boot load as a result of having the roof live in there when you want to drive alfresco? In all previous models, it is possible to do both since the cloth roof simply folds into a small recess behind the back seats. That’s why the outgoing E46 3 Series convertible has the measure on its successor as far as everyday practicality is concerned.

And even though the Germans have come up with something of a solution- devising a fold-down rear seatback to accommodate extra luggage- this comes at the expense of the rear passengers. In a nutshell, you cannot go topless with four and their luggage, unless everybody’s packed nothing more than a cut lunch.

However, the flipside is compelling.

You can drive in freezing weather conditions and feel as if you are in a snug family coupe or-you can drive with the roof down, all windows up, and brilliant little wind deflector folded out right behind the front seats, and not feel cold or buffeted at 120km/h, in same said icy, wintry environment.

There’s more too.

Underneath the sculptured bonnet – everything forward of the A-pillars, as well as the doors, are the only body items shared with the coupe – beats the immense heart of the 3.0-litre twin turbo-charged in-line six-cylinder engine.

Having ZF’s wily six-speed automatic as an accomplice, this powerplant is like how you might imagine a jet engine shrunk down to fit within a car to perform like.

Spooling up speed after a smart (but not startled jackrabbit quick – that’d be the 200kg extra weight of the convertible talking) start off the mark, the 335i’s pace through the gears is unrelenting, rolling down the road like a flicked marble on a hard tiled surface.

With the roof up, the refinement is exemplary. Roof down, you are convinced that BMW has expertly walked the fine line between celebrating the sunshine and keeping the wind out of your hair.

Based on the coupe’s toweringly capable platform, the E93 drop top steers with conviction and agility, so flowing through a series of capturing capturing mountainous roads will soon have you forgetting that you’re in a convertible.

Encountering just a few rough roads, there is little rattle and shake with the roof down or up, while the ride – though quite firm on the 18-inch wheeled 335i as tested – never crosses into uncomfortable territory. Them runflats are sure getting better, Ma!BMW took the opportunity to make the convertible slightly softer than the harder-edged coupe that it believes will appeal to drivers seeking a sportier experience. That said, the BMW drop-top is in a league of its own in this area compared to the Audi A4, Mercedes CLK and Saab 9-3 ragtop rivals.

As with all E90 3 Series-based vehicles at the moment, there are some plastic surfaces that don’t quite belong in a car of this price or stature.

But, really, the convertible’s cabin is a beautifully presented, extremely comfortable and functional place to be – especially now that BMW has improved its iDrive driver-interface system with a series of ‘favourites’ buttons-giving you instant access to a range of functions that previously would have required a foray into the computerised menu system.

More buttons for reduced i-Drive dependability… hmm, seems as if BMW is bowing to the barrage of controversy regarding this system.

If you are familiar with the previous convertible – or any other four-seater drop top for that matter – you will appreciate the significantly increased side glass area afforded by going retractable hard top. Back seat passengers no longer feel as if they’re sitting inside a dark pit when the roof is up, while improved rear vision is another welcomed upshot.

Gee, we are struggling to find fault with this car.

Erected, the three-piece roof design results in the inevitable (though precision tight) shutlines that mar the otherwise taut, clean surface.

We fear that the base 325i model may feel a little breathless due to the hefty weight gain that the retractable hardtop conversion brings, while the electric front seats move a tad too slowly when access to the rather-roomy rear is required – yet praise is also due to an improved seat-folding mechanism.

Which sums up the progress of the 3 Series convertible, a model which has, just experienced its biggest change since BMW ceased using the out-sourced Baur Cabriolet arrangement of the E21 and earlier E30 editions, for the first full drop-top in 1987.

Except for the reduced luggage capacity when four people are in the car, improvements abound in virtually every area – with better rear vision standing out as a big step forward.

In 335i guise at least, the convertible drives better, rides just as well (on handy runflat tyres – there’s no use deluding yourself in thinking that owners will want to change a flat tyre, yet better surviving a 120km/h blow-out is certainly desirable), accommodates more comfortably and securely, and – to some eyes – even looks better.

In fact, it might be the best looking out of the modern 3 Series iterations to date, upcoming M3 probably notwithstanding.

And like that car, with a lowering hardtop, the 335i convertible is raising the bar for its class.

With the M3, 320d and now 335i convertible, all guilty of being hopeless overachievers, the 3 Series’ brilliant career continues to carry on.

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