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      06-02-2007, 03:26 PM   #78
RedStripe
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The New York Times
June 3, 2007
Behind The Wheel | BMW 335i Convertible

A Grand Opening for BMWs Quick-Tanning Machine
By LAWRENCE ULRICH
DRIVING a BMW 3 Series after some time away is like being reunited with a favorite band. The in-line 6 sounds its opening notes and you think, Hey, I remember that song.

The car picks up the tempo and glides through a tricky two-lane passage, and your hips shimmy right along. As the performance approaches a lighter-waving climax, youre reminded that, among sport sedans, the 3 Series is like Dylan or the Clash: the one you can always come back to.

Of course, a company doesnt keep a car on top for 30 years by rehashing the past, but through regular reinvention.

The Bangle school of styling that so provoked BMW purists (their motto: forever square) with its restless kinks and bulges, has grown into a mature, often-imitated style that can no longer be casually dismissed. The look definitely flatters the 3 Series. It was liberally applied to the fifth-generation sedan for 2006. A coupe soon followed, along with a welcome rarity, a wagon as fun and shapely as it is practical.

On an unreasonably cold spring morning, I pulled on a wool hat to avoid spoiling my first date with the luxurious 335i convertible. Starting at $49,875, it is the most expensive and style-conscious of the current 3 Series lineup. (A new limited-edition 420-horsepower M3, featuring the first V-8 ever installed in the series, will top the range later next year).

Having failed for years to outhandle and outfinesse the BMW, the competition has been trying to hammer it into submission. The best of the budget alternatives is Infiniti and its recently redesigned G35. A more powerful G37 coupe on sale in August, with a sedan version to follow will develop a class-leading 330 horsepower from a 3.7-liter V-6.

Such V-6 engines take up less space than in-line sixes of the same displacement. And BMW could no longer stretch its smaller, 3-liter in-line 6 and still fit it under the 3 Series hood. So to keep the sport-sedan stalkers at bay, it had to whip out the automotive version of pepper spray: a pair of quick-spooling turbochargers boost the direct-injection 6 to a nice round 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. Even the burly new M3 with the V-8 will produce 5 less pound-feet of torque (295) than the turbo models.

That makes the 335i the first turbocharged gasoline-powered BMW sold in the United States. The engine makes a vocal argument to being the best turbo powerplant this side of a $130,000 Porsche. Free-spinning and seamless, it evinces none of the power lag or spiky peaks you expect from turbochargers, achieving peak torque at a low 1,400 r.p.m.

The result is a 3 Series that feels roughly as quick, but less high-strung, than the current-generation M3 (rated at 333 horsepower). For the new convertible, BMW cites a snappy 5.5-second run from 0 to 60 m.p.h. when equipped with the terrific six-speed manual transmission only two-tenths of a second behind the 335i coupe. If you dont want to pump a clutch pedal, the $1,275 six-speed Steptronic is among the fastest and smoothest automatics around; dont forget to throw in $100 for paddle shifters.

Trusty brakes feature every imaginable technology, including a self-drying feature that ensures that they are always ready for action on a puddly day. The brakes automatically keep the car from rolling backward when youre starting off on an uphill slope, a feature every luxury car should consider.

Blessedly, the 3 Series can be ordered without the iDrive systems interface and its dreaded rotary control knob. And the Active Steering which adjusts steering ratios to make for easier parking and supposedly better handling is another option whose price, $1,400, isnt justified by the benefits.

For style, speed and handling you can see and feel, choose instead the $1,300 sport package. It adds a firmer suspension, sport seats with power adjustable side bolsters and handsome 18-inch wheels with sticky run-flat performance tires. It also raises the top speed limitation to 150 m.p.h., compared with just 130 m.p.h. without the package.

During my blast north of New York along the Hudson River, the BMWs mad turbocharged rush was a new thrill. More familiar was the unity of power, steering, shifter and brakes that no other car in this class can quite reproduce. The suspension is supple when you want it, firm when you need it, and the car will cruise or command any road, depending on your mood.

With the day warming and my hair whipping, I tried and failed to think of a hotter combination of four seats, open roof and excellent performance at this price. The 3 Series defies the stereotype of convertibles as fair-weather toys, and that real men and enthusiasts must do their serious road hunting from inside a closed-roof cave.

The 3 Series also addresses a longstanding bane of convertibles: the combination of tender thighs and searing-hot seats. The seats, armrests and shift knob feature BMWs so-called sun-reflective technology. The leather is treated with pigments that BMW claims will reduce surface temperatures of dark-leather seats by up to 36 degrees on sunny days or 27 degrees for lighter-colored leathers.

Count the power hardtop as another first on a BMW. On the plus side, the top powers down in a fleet 22 seconds, and it takes just one second longer to click shut. The side and rear glass areas are together more than 30 percent larger than those of the prior cloth-top convertible, minimizing blind spots, letting in light and greatly improving visibility, including the view from the back seat.

But as with most folding hardtops, the roof adds weight and complexity, and seriously reduces the trunk space when stowed. At 3,946 pounds, the Bimmer weighs about 400 pounds more than the coupe. About 300 of that is because of the top, the rest from the stiffened structure that convertibles require to keep tremors at bay. Watching the tops stacking, origami action is breathtaking, but so is the thought of how much it might cost to fix after a decade of use.

With the top down, trunk space drops from 12.3 cubic feet to 7.4, though it seemed smaller. With the roof open, I tried and failed to stow two wheeled carry-ons. A clever $500 Comfort Access option lets you open or close the top with the key fob, or to partly raise the roof for easier access to luggage.

As ever with BMW, the phrase You get what you pay for is both a compliment and caveat. My beautiful bright-blue 335i checked in at $54,540. Worth every penny, Id say, but thats still a whole lot of pennies.

So allow a word of praise for the 328i versions, whether sedan, coupe or convertible. (The 328i convertible starts at $43,975.) The starter Bimmers used to feel like something you settled for, with smaller engines and well under 200 horsepower. But the latest 328i models get a robust 230 horsepower from a 3-liter aluminum-magnesium 6, and the engine is so flexible that youd swear it had 30 more horses in reserve.

Yes, a twin-turbo 300-horsepower BMW convertible is the stuff of summer dreams. The 328i model helps to keep that dream more attainable.

INSIDE TRACK: Solar power.