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New models - BMW - 3 Series - 330Ci convertible

Convertible lifts lid on power, price

Sales target: BMW expects to sell 250 convertibles for the rest of 2000 and over 450 in a full year.

BMW has increased the performance, price and specification of its latest additions to the 3 Series range

BMW logo12 Sep 2000

BMW's 3 Series range has gained its latest and most expensive member yet with the Australian launch of the 330Ci Convertible.

The four-seater drop-top is powered by the latest generation of BMW's inline six-cylinder engines - the 2979cc M54, which has significant power and torque increases over the 2.8-litre engine it replaces.

The new engine already powers the top-line Z3 roadster, which went on sale in August, and is now also employed in the 330i sedan and 330Ci coupe - previously the 328i and 328Ci respectively - which were launched alongside the convertible.

BMW has significantly increased the recommended retail prices of these models, although softening the blow by also upping the specification levels.

Nevertheless, the price rises are dramatic: The five-speed automatic transmission-only sedan rises almost $7000 and the manual or auto coupe about $3000.

But the biggest hike is reserved for the convertible, which makes the transition from the old generation E36 to the new E46 convertible.

The line-up has been pared back from Executive and Hi-Line to a single model available with either manual or automatic transmissions. The cheapest version was the manual Executive at $92,940. The manual 3330Ci is now $103,355 and the five-speed auto with Steptronic sequential manual selection $105,995.

The new features added to the 3.0-litre sedan and coupe are a minor facelift, 17-inch wheels, Park Distance Control, Xenon headlights with headlamp washer system, rain sensor activated windscreen wipers and an on-board monitor capable of receiving the optional satellite navigation system.

The sedan now has a three-point middle rear seatbelt along with the rest of the 3 Series sedan range, while the convertible misses out on the monitor but adds new design front seats with an integrated belt system, rollbars incorporated in the rear headrests and heated front seats.

The fully lined hood, including scratch-proof rear window glass, folds away or opens in just 25 seconds ? quicker than any other four-seat convertible, according to BMW. A light alloy hardtop is a $4200 option.

All three models have as standard leather upholstery, multiple airbag system, six-stacker CD, multi-function steering wheel, climate control air-conditioning and cruise control.

BMW corporate affairs manager Mr John Kananghinis rejected suggestions the price rises were an attempt to reclaim profit margins eroded by GST price adjustments.

"In most cases we've maintained the same margin or sacrificed some margin to ensure we add the additional specification in the cars ... we can that show to the dollar," he said.

The M54 is a double overhead cam, 24-valve engine with the latest version of the VANOS variable intake and outlet valve timing. It produces 170kW at 5900rpm and 300Nm at 3500rpm, compared to 142kW and 280Nm for the 2.8.

Other technical highlights are streamlined intake and exhaust manifolds and fully electronic "drive by wire throttle". BMW claims increased service intervals, fuel consumption equivalent to the old 2.8 and emission levels low enough to comply with the stringent Californian ULEV standard.

The engine also copes with fuel grades varying from 87 to 98 octane, although the maximum power rating is achieved only using premium (95 octane plus) unleaded.

All three 3.0 versions use the same sports suspension and brake system as well as a host of electronic aids including anti-lock brakes, stability control and cornering brake control.

BMW expects to sell 250 convertibles for the rest of 2000 and over 450 in a full year. It also expects small increases in sedan and coupe sales.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS

BMW claims the stiffness of the new generation 330Ci Convertible is equivalent to the previous generation coupe, and it certainly shows in the driving.

Despite a 17-inch wheel and tyre combination and firm suspension settings, the convertible lacks that distinctive open-top trait - scuttle shake. Instead it sits flat and firm without untoward vibrations and looseness.

Despite the extensive use of lightweight materials, the convertible is still 150kg or more heavier than its 3.0-litre sedan and coupe compatriots.

And that shows up in driving too. Transfer from the auto version of the convertible to the manual coupe and the change is remarkable.

The engine turns from impressive to outstanding, the ride and handling from positive to dynamic. BMW's PR blurb describes this as a car reminiscent of the original E36 M3 - and it is easy to see why.

The engine spins up beyond its 6000 redline with turbine smoothness and incredible willingness, allied to a gearbox which matches it beautifully in terms of change feel.

The handling and grip are in the outstanding class with excellent communication back through the enveloping seat to the driver.

Back to the convertible and the feeling is more cruise mode. With the roof up this is quiet by convertible standards and that extra weight certainly makes it feel more settled and bulky on the road.

Drop the top and there is a disappointing amount of wind turbulence in the cockpit, although BMW offers an optional wind deflector we did not have a chance to try. And a disturbing design fault allowed water to be trapped at the top of the windscreen and spray onto the front passengers when the roof was lifted.

There is plenty of familiarity between the three. Inside they seem virtually identical in their typically BMW textured luxury, while outside the family resemblance is obvious.

But such is BMW's attention to detail that the sedan and coupe share no body panels while the convertible and coupe are different from the A-pillar back.

PRICING330i sedan: $89,380 330Ci Coupe: $92,380 Auto: $94,980 330Ci Convertible: $103,355 Auto: $105,995

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