The classy convertible returns
There are several reasons why the new 2007 BMW 335i Convertible has been built with a retractable hardtop instead of a conventional cloth top.
Most of them are practical but boring, like security and wind noise. But for Albin Dirndorfer, BMW's project manager for the new 2007 3 Series Convertible, it is all about elegance.
"Elegant people don't want to hop around their car, fastening latches or covers," Dirndorfer explains during the introduction of the 335i convertible here in Scottsdale, Arizona. "Elegant personalities have their own style, and this car looks right with the top up or down," he continues.
We don't remember doing much hopping around with the last 3 Series convertible, but we know what he means. Then Dirndorfer describes the drip moldings on the new top as "the perfect accessories, like an elegant woman's handbag," and we're thinking he's going a little too deep into the whole "elegance" thing.
Lost in translation
We can see why Dirndorfer felt the urge to take his "elegance" metaphor a little too far. The new 335i convertible is an attractive mix of complex engineering and fine design.
With the top up, the convertible's roof line is nearly identical to that of the coupe. Unless you look carefully at the cut lines of the hardtop and the distinctive angle where the rear glass meets the deck lid, you would never be able to tell the convertible apart from a standard 3 Series coupe.
Although built from lightweight steel, the hardtop's three folding panels don't make the structure of the car any more rigid when the top is deployed. This chore is accomplished by chassis reinforcements built into the floorpan and rear bulkhead.
This additional structure, plus the hardtop and its operating mechanism, pads on 452 pounds to the 3,571-pound 335i coupe for a total of 4,023 pounds.
In order to maintain optimal front-to-rear weight distribution, plastic quarter panels are used up front. According to BMW, these new panels are not only 50 percent lighter than equivalent steel versions, they're also dent-resistant.
Go ahead and mark this as the only time BMW will ever draw technical inspiration from Saturn.
With 30-percent-larger side windows, BMW says overall rearward visibility has been increased by 38 percent. After a few hours behind the wheel we're 100 percent sure it's easier to see out of the 335i convertible than its rag-top predecessor.
In fact, when you're in the driver seat, the convertible feels nearly identical to the coupe. Headroom isn't compromised and the interior headliner fits perfectly without any exposed hardware.
When it's time to drop the roof, you can pull the short lever mounted on the center console between the seats, or you can even use a switch on the key fob if you're standing beside the car.
It takes all of 22 seconds on the way down and 23 ticks on the way up, so the hardtop easily passes the stoplight test. Good thing, too, as the top won't work on the move since the rear deck obscures the license plate as it opens up. (This is a federally mandated restriction, we're told.)
If you've ever seen a card dealer cut a deck with one hand, you have an idea of what the Edscha-engineered hardtop looks like as it retracts and is stowed beneath the rear deck.
The front piece slides over the middle panel, while the back piece goes on top. Then the steel sandwich stacks itself neatly under the deck lid, leaving a perfectly crisp profile from the car's nose to its tail.
BMW's designers specifically pointed out that the low beltline of the new convertible keeps the backseat from feeling like a deep-sided, leather-lined hot tub, as with most convertibles. They're right, because the view from the backseat is great, but legroom is in short supply and the hardtop mechanism pushes the backrest slightly forward.
Cargo room is also down a bit due to the complex top. The 12.3 cubic feet of trunk space available with the top up is reduced to 7.4 cubic feet once the top is stowed, where it intrudes into the trunk. Still, this is more cargo volume than the Volvo C70, the only other hardtop in the class.
An enlarged cargo pass-through for the rear-seat backrest is a new option for a BMW convertible. It's about twice the width of the standard pass-through behind the armrest cutout, although the rear seatback has to be folded down to take advantage of it. It's big enough to swallow a set of golf clubs, but you're better off taking your SUV to the course instead.
Taking the edge off
The twin-turbo, 300-horsepower 3.0-liter inline-6 in the 335i convertible might have the mass of 4,023 pounds to move around, but there's not a quicker four-seat convertible short of a Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG. BMW claims this new convertible with its six-speed manual transmission will accelerate to 60 mph 5.8 seconds, just 0.3 second slower than a coupe with a six-speed manual.
We think the optional six-speed automatic is the better setup for this car, though.
This new ZF-engineered transmission makes very quick, precisely timed shifts in the automatic mode, and shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel let you shift manually. It's interesting that a company known for offering manual gearboxes in nearly all of its models has introduced an automatic so good that it nearly makes a stick shift seem obsolete.
The convertible's structural reinforcements prove their worth on the road, because there's zero cowl shake and no noticeable flex in the body either. BMW says this convertible has the highest torsional rigidity of any convertible in its history, and we can tell you that it drives that way.
Meanwhile, air turbulence in the cockpit is well controlled, too, especially with the rear-seat wind blocker in place.
Push this car hard on the road and it feels like the convertible has been dialed back one notch compared to the coupe. There's a bit less road feel and the car makes slower transitions from turn to turn. Blame the extra 452 pounds or the 225/45R17 tires (the Sport package will offer front 225/40R-18 and rear 255/35R-18 run-flat tires), yet the car still drives great. It invites you to thrash it in the same way as the 3 Series coupe does.
Small price to pay
Set to go on sale in April for around $46,000, the 2007 BMW 335i Convertible will enter the market with few direct competitors.
Sure, there are convertibles like the Audi A4 cabriolet, Mercedes-Benz CLK and Volvo C70, but none of them put together 300 hp, a retractable hardtop and a stiff, driver-oriented chassis all in one package like the BMW.
Factor in all that elegance, and it's not even close.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.