Scott Mead, Contributor
There's something special about driving a convertible, and the latest addition to BMW's 3 Series lineup is no exception. This third generation convertible is a dramatic improvement over its predecessor, with striking good looks, increased interior room and additional trunk space. After our first encounter, we were hard pressed to give the keys back.
Maybe it was the sensation of speed with the top down, hair blowing in the breeze and the consequent sunburn that made for an unforgettable experience. Actually, those were the added perks. Getting behind the wheel of the new BMW 323Ci convertible, we didn't care about our hair, potential skin cancer or anything else. We were driving pure adrenaline - the ultimate tanning machine.
Like the rest of the 3 Series line, the exterior includes a new aggressive face, trademark 3 Series headlamp scallops and wide fender arches. An optional aluminum body-colored hardtop (with electric rear window defroster, rear reading lights and retractable coat hooks) instantaneously turns the Ci into a snug coupe with a "don't mess with me" look.
Jumping behind the wheel of our test vehicle, we were enveloped by its coddling Montana leather and wood trim. Leatherette upholstery is standard if you prefer to spare bovines their hides and save $1,450. In either case, both interiors are fitted with typical German precision. Settling into the driver's seat, we were immediately placed into a near-perfect driving position in the roomy cockpit, which is nearly 10% more spacious than that of its predecessor. Both front seating positions provide excellent lumbar and lateral support, and we fell in love with the adjustable thigh support, which made our drive feel more like a relaxing day in a bolstered La-Z-Boy chair than in a car seat.
In typical BMW style, the stalk and center stalk controls fell naturally to hand and the gauge cluster was perfectly aligned for effortless viewing. Our only issues with the interior are the placement of the one-touch window switches that surround the gear shift lever (it's nearly impossible for the driver to reach the switch for the front-passenger window in fifth gear) and the cupholder that is rendered useless when the center console armrest is in use.
Rear seating is generous for a convertible with a wide couch that includes lots of thigh support and decent lateral support. However, legroom is lacking for anyone over 6 feet and foot room is tight as well. Unlike the comparable Volvo C70 convertible's front seats, which require two hands to tilt and slide forward for rear entry, BMW engineers have miraculously developed a slide/tilt/swing mechanism that not only makes for good rear ingress/egress with the top up (it's a cakewalk with the top down), but also only requires two fingers to manipulate the seat.
Lathering ourselves in SPF 45, we depressed the convertible top's controls and were treated to a fully automatic experience, from the unlatching of the safety clasps to the concealment beneath the magnesium boot cover. The process is ballet-like, as the aft glass section rises up, the hard convertible cover raises towards the sky, the top unlatches and the entire assembly neatly folds into the well below. With the top up, the convertible's nylon storage well can be neatly folded out of the way for additional trunk storage space.
Anyone who has ever driven a convertible knows that cowl shake is one aspect that's not only annoying, but also unnerving. BMW has nearly eliminated all cowl shake from the 323Ci by fortifying the platform and cowl area. How strong is it? Well, according to BMW, you can place another fully loaded 323Ci on top of the windshield header and A-pillars and it won't budge an inch. Couple that structural rigidity with dual rear pop-up roll bars (which are discretely concealed within the rear headrests) that react in .03 seconds, and rollover protection to occupants is nearly equal to that of a conventional coupe.
Twisting the key, we heard the 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter, inline-6 whir to life before settling down to a 24-valve symphony. Unlike the 400-horsepower V8 found in the super-stellar Z8, the 323's powerplant is devoid of power under 2,000 rpm, requiring a bit of throttle input to adequately get the vehicle off the line.
Once in the powerband, the double-VANOS variable valve timing kicks in, turning the Ci into a drop-top rocket ship. Power is smooth and predictable with a linear torque curve from 2,000 rpm all the way to redline. Even with the wonderful engine performance, the LEV (low emission vehicle) convertible still gets a respectable 19 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. Mated to the standard five-speed manual transmission (a Steptronic five-speed automatic is available), rowing gears is a dream with great gate feel and the typical BMW "clink" as the shifter slides into gear.
Heading for the canyons, the 323Ci soaked up most of the ruts and bumps on the highway, but unlike its 3 series brethren, it transmitted a fair amount of shock to the cabin when traversing potholes - a discrepancy we chalked up to the stiffer springs and shocks used to compensate for the convertible's added weight.
In the twisties, the 323Ci settled into a steady rhythm with the suspension transferring weight fluidly and sticking to the corners like a bug to flypaper. On a couple of aggressive corners we broke into the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) threshold with the system ever-so-slightly applying the brakes to bring the vehicle back in line.
All too soon, we finished our test loop, thoroughly impressed with this latest Bavarian import and not willing to hand the keys back to the BMW representatives. At a base price of $34,990 (not including destination charge), the 323Ci is a great value, especially compared to the Saab 9-3 Convertible ($4,735 more), the Volvo C70 LT (an additional $8,510) or the Mercedes-Benz CLK320 (at a whopping $13,100 extra).
Fitted with the optional $1,200 Sport package (which includes the sport suspension, 17-inch wheels and tires and sport seats) and $1,400 Premium package (including a fully automatic drop-top, auto-dimming interior mirror, wood trim and an integrated garage door opener) Montana leather ($1,450), in-dash CD player ($200), Metallic Paint ($475) and a $570 destination charge, our as-tested vehicle came in at $40,285.
Sure, you can get a decent tanning bed for around four-grand, but you wouldn't have a smile on your face as the tach needle swings towards redline with the imagined sounds of Edelweiss emanating from the rolling hillside.
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