BMW is notoriously deliberate when it comes to releasing new models. When it comes to the 3-Series, the company’s best-selling line with a multitude of configurations, change comes out of Munich in a slow trickle.
Observers of this venerable German marque should be used to it by now: the sedan bows, followed by the coupe, with convertible and M-branded models on the distant horizon.
The future is now here, and the 3-Series range is complete. For a company whose progress can be charted in exacting fashion with familiar nameplates and engines, the past year has been tumultuous by comparison. Turbochargers appeared on BMW’s smaller road cars for the first time since the 1970’s, and there is now a V8 powering the new M3.
The convertible is also making a leap into uncharted territory. The big story for the new E92 drop-top is its retracting hardtop, replacing the conventional soft-top used on the outgoing E46 model. Come to think of it, it’s the first hardtop convertible BMW has ever made.
You might be thinking, “jeez, its about time,” but this is BMW we’re talking about, a company that half-bakes nothing. Hardtop convertible tops have been around for some time, even on lower-priced luxury models like Mercedes’ first-generation SLK roadster.
However, there are two main drawbacks to such a system. The first is added weight as compared with a soft-top. A multi-paneled metal roof, and the complex mechanisms required to break it up and stuff it in the boot of a car, aren’t light by any stretch of the imagination. Given BMW’s sporting pedigree, a too-high curb weight is a consequence to be avoided at all costs, given its nasty effects on acceleration, handling, and braking.
Weight gain in a convertible is unavoidable, even with a soft-top system, due to the additional bracing and chassis re-inforcements required to compensate for the loss of a roof. Thankfully, however, the penalty isn’t anything we couldn’t live with. The heaviest convertible – the 335i with the 6-speed Steptronic – weighs 3,957 lbs. That’s only 375 lb. more than its hardtop counterpart.
Performance is largely unaffected, particularly in the 335 models, which are equipped with the 3.0L twin-turbo torque monster motors that make 300hp and 300 lb-ft. of torque starting at just 1500rpm. A 335i convertible with a manual gearbox sprints to 60mph in 5.5 seconds according to BMW, which is just a couple tenths (give or take) slower than the fixed-roof version.
The second main historic drawback to retractable hardtops is the drastic reduction in trunk space when the roof is opened. Stuffing a sandwich of metal panels (three in the BMW’s case) into the boot via an hydraulic mechanism requires a good amount of room. BMW has a clever antidote for this as well.
Inside the trunk of this 3-Series, there is a movable shelf. The shelf separates the usable trunk space from the space required for the folded roof, so when packing, you’ll know exactly how much room you’ve got.
Nobody really looks for flexible cargo-carrying abilities in a drop-top, but BMW engineered them in anyway. The 3-Series has the next best thing to a split folding rear seat. The one-piece seat cushions flip down at the pull of a handle to reveal a pass-through that’s 15.75 inches wide – enough to accommodate a golf bag (the standard for trunk space everywhere) when the roof is up. When the top is down, the pass-through’s space is more limited.
Now, to the top itself. It is a marvel of modern machinery, made of three panels of lightweight steel and operated by a hydraulic system. The roof opens in just 22 seconds, closes in 23, and piles itself smoothly into the boot.
BMW claims that “the three-element steel roof structure ensures lower noise levels even at high speeds, enhances safety, creates a more luxurious and comfortable cabin and helps stiffen the chassis to provide precise handling.” Packaging is surely a chief concern also, as we don’t see how the car could do with a fewer number of larger panels.
Each of the three panels rests above the other to create a compact metal stack. The boot opens rearward, clamshell-style, and can be opened conventionally once the whole opening/closing process is over and the hardtop is locked. The boot’s lid has a soft-close feature as well – kind of a no-brainer with advanced hydraulic kit like this.
Another cool feature is that the roof can be opened by remote control – depending, of course, on the options you choose. It’s not a one-touch operation, though. Interior and remote controls for the top must be depressed for the duration of whatever operation you choose.
All of this performance and techno-wizardry comes at a price, but it’s rather less than we had expected. BMW official pricing starts at $43,975 for the 328i, and $49,875 for the 335i. Not too pricey when you consider that even the 328i is pretty speedy, scooting to 60mph in 6.7 seconds when equipped with a manual transmission.
BMW’s cars have always been about more than simply raw numbers, but in the case of the new 3-Series convertible, the numbers are pretty darn good. A four-seat hardtop convertible that weighs under two tons, gets to sixty in under six seconds, and costs under fifty grand is what we’d call another overachiever from the folks in Munich.