The BMW M3 convertible


by By TOM VOELK / Special to

Posted on August 28, 2008 at 9:40 AM

Updated Tuesday, Sep 29 at 9:29 AM

Driving Northwest: The BMW M3 convertible

It seems every automaker wants to catch BMWs 3 Series. This nearly perfect blend of performance, cornering, style and size perennially leaves the competition a step behind. Slap an M3 badge on it (along with the corresponding body panel changes and mechanical improvements of course) and this car pretty much rules the road.

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In case you haven't heard, those who love to drive widely consider the BMW M3 to be one of the best performance cars on the planet.

Available in coupe, sedan and convertible models, I've chosen the very fast tanning booth for a week's flogging. Perhaps it would be more responsible from a performance standpoint to test the fixed-top cars but I enjoy open air driving, especially when the cabin is as calm at speed as this one. So there.

The obvious fringe benefit to my job is sampling a wide variety of vehicles. Sneaking out of the house early on a Sunday morning to simply drive, as I did with the M3, speaks volumes about how much it has gotten into my blood. This is a car guy's car. It's also a sobering reminder that I really need a raise in pay figuring a well equipped car like this one runs nearly $74,000. Check all the option boxes and the tab just cracks 80 large.

Getting back to my choice of the convertible, weight and balance are critical to performance vehicles and compared to the coupe the droptop is at a disadvantage. The front/rear weight balance percentage changes from 48.8/51.2 for the coupe to 52.8/47.2 for the convertible. The bracing and mechanics that allow the top to flip, fold and pirouette into place in 23 seconds add 441 pounds.

I'll guess this hardware makes the convertible more top heavy than a regular M3 but it remains a joy to throw into a corner. The steering is linear and communicative, the grip fierce and tenacious. A fixed roof is a big part of any regular car's structural integrity so the chassis, which is as solid as the Deutsche Mark, is very impressive. My main gripe with the folding lid is that there's no glass panel feature found in other hardtop droptops.

Wedged under the hood is a sophisticated racing bred 4-liter V8. It pumps out 414 horsepower and 295 pounds-feet of torque at 3,900 rpm with 85 percent of the maximum torque available consistently through 6,500 rpm. Hats off to the engineers, this engine is seven percent lighter than the previous M3's inline-6. Another interesting tech tidbit is that each cylinder gets a separate throttle butterfly. All its power is delivered in a silky manner with a determined exhaust note. A driver can fine tune the throttle response, electronic stability control and ride firmness then store that setting for instant recall with an optional steering wheel mounted MDrive button. My tester comes with a great 6-speed manual featuring smooth clutch uptake. A 7-speed double clutch unit with an automatic mode is optional. Hopefully this "M DCT Drivelogic" system at $2,700 is better than the SMG unit I drove in big brother M6.

Those who like to be pushed back into their seats will love the M3. From a stop sign, the rear wheels will sling it to 60 miles an hour in 5.1 seconds according to BMW (the coupe is quicker at 4.7). It's hard to know what makes my grin wider, the impressive velocity or the perfect snarl of the engine note. High performance cars are often twitchy and finicky in stop and go traffic but the M3 remains relatively docile when the electronics are set for civilian roads. The adjustable ride quality ranges from firm to rock hard track mode. Not for the fuel frugal, I'm seeing 14 miles to the gallon in mixed driving using required premium. What did you expect?

Peering out from the 18 inch wheels (or optional 19's) are terrific brakes, 14.2 inch discs up front, 13.8 in the rear. Stopping power during repeat simulated emergency maneuvers is very impressive.

Aside from some M badging and a speedometer that means business, the interior is similar to a standard 3 Series. Deeply bolstered chairs keep folks from sliding around during high speed high jinx and there's plenty of safety features including airbag protection for your knees. Since the M3 is based on the 3 Series, there are ergonomic quirks like cupholders that are hard to reach, an iDrive user interface that's awkward to use (especially the nav system), and turn signals that take some getting used to. I've come to appreciate the blinkers that signal three times with just a slight tap. Good thing the M3 is fast, average sized adults will have just enough room for short trips in the back seat.

Moving to the trunk there's good news. With the convertible top up cargo room is increased by 50 percent. The bad news? That's only three packs of Costco's finest 2-ply bath tissue. In order to drop the top, a cover needs to snap into place, limiting the trunk to just 2 bundles of TP. But hey, if it's sunny that means you need fewer clothes and luggage, right? With the top stowed away it's difficult to larger items.

These days there's a lot of talk about the Nissan GT-R and many folks want to know how that all-wheel drive samurai compares to BMWs rear drive track star. While the numbers favor the Nissan, the Bimmer does a better job of satisfying the soul (at least mine). Both are great cars and a good example of how the free market system gives us better products. The tie breaker, at least for sun lovers is the convertible. If it's at all possible, I suggest test drives of both but be warned that dealers are being rightfully choosy about who goes for a quick spin around the block in cars like these. Can't really blame them.

Starting at around 66 thousand bucks, sun lovers pay a premium of 12 grand over the sedan. And since all M3s are as rare as blue sky in Seattle, expect skyward adjustment of that price (again, there's that free market system at work). Heck at least all maintenance is covered for 4 years or 50,000 miles. For those who have the means, the M3 is hard to beat. The convertible? It's the performance hardtop to beat.