Can’t Be Topped

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BMW’s very thorough 3-Series has won more motoring titles than Nigel Mansell. In magazine comparison tests, it topped the style of the Lexus 300 and the spunk of the Nissan Maxima and the firecracker Ford Taurus SHO. Those temblors you’ve been feeling all year are the BMW 325 shoving through consumer and dealer satisfaction indices in all classes.

More important, this entry-level lineup of classy coupes and very sophisticated sedans is the edge that this year finally powered BMW well ahead of Mercedes-Benz in U. S. and world sales.

To broaden this success, the genetic compactness, quality, performance and full friskiness of the breed has been transferred to the 325i Convertible.


And for places where outdoors is a lifestyle and temperate breezes a year-round right, the topless Bimmer comes close to perfection.

With a steel lid, the 325’s appeal is being one of those rare vehicles that combines the mundane purpose of carrying uncaring commuters with the rich pleasure of crisp, quick performance for motorists who do.

That the 325 does such with over-measures of comfort--Ritz-Carlton quality, leading-edge safety and driver-friendly technology--seems to be the secret bonuses of ownership.

Without its top, the 325i retains all those qualities while adding the ethereal--your freedom to sniff whatever fresh air industrial man still allows, while becoming a full player with the environment, scenery, God’s climates and all seasons.

That freedom, of course, is the ultimate tug of all convertibles. Ragtops are our escape from suffocating bubbles of glass and metal. Charming rakes, soccer stars, Ralph Lauren and others not expected to park between the lines drive convertibles. Pity other poor sods.

The base price of such liberty is $38,800, relatively affordable when one checks the upmarket options that are standard on this precise, superior German luxury car.


One might also remember that Mercedes’ 300 CE Cabriolet, BMW’s only competition in the league of tough, comfy convertibles, costs twice as much. Also that a 1994 Toyota Supra with fewer options than this Bimmer will top $38,000. So will a Cadillac DeVille and Acura Legend. And they aren’t convertibles.

From solid shoulders on down, the 325i Convertible offers the chassis, all the successful mechanicals and most of the styling of the 325 coupe and sedan. The engine, a 2.5-liter, 24-valve, inline-six developing 189 horsepower, is mated to a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual.

Anti-lock brakes are standard, of course. So are dual air bags, alloy wheels, speed-sensitive steering, leather upholstery, cruise control, power windows, air conditioning with left- and right-side controls and all possible conveniences from coin box to 10-speaker sound system pre-wired for a CD player.


The curse of convertible building has always been car makers who believe that there is nothing to going topless beyond taking a chain saw to a coupe and adding a little bracing and a lot of prayer.

Detroit--although catching European and Asian manufacturers in many areas of design, styling and production--still hasn’t learned how to build a really solid convertible and generally leaves such conversions to outside subs.

One result has been a generation of domestic swaybacks short on original rigidity and long on shakes, rattles and rolls.


BMW--also Mercedes and Audi, which is poised to issue its first cabriolet--does it right by building the car from scratch as a convertible, not as some casual alteration.

That’s why the 325i Convertible doesn’t display the family ducktail. It looks good on coupes and sedans. But in convertible form, it sticks out . . . well, like a zit on a duck’s tail.

Structurally, there are additional and heavier members crossing the floor pan and running its length. Floor stampings are thicker, so are rear wheel housings. Bulkheads are given double walls, and windshield pillars are reinforced into virtual roll bars.

All of which adds 265 pounds to the convertible’s weight. But the car becomes 28% more rigid than convertible versions of the old three-box 325i coupe.

Then BMW addressed matters of convenience and aesthetics.

The top is not a single-sheet tarp, but triple-layered polyacrylic with a creaseless headliner hiding a homey retraction mechanism and bracing bows. Multilayered construction also reduces wind noise and improves insulation.

Raising and lowering the top is as simple as A, B without even the complication of C. Unlatch a central handle at the windshield header and nudge upward. Press a console button. Grin like a twit as the top whirs up and back and stows itself in the trunk. Then a body-colored, fiberglass boot automatically snaps shut to tidy up the operation.


Weather sealing is an habitual problem with convertibles. So are windows snagging edges of convertible tops. But BMW has that covered with typical Teutonic ingenuity: Windows drop a smidge as a door is opened, then automatically snug back into the weather channeling as doors close.

Similarly, with the top raising or retracting, four windows lower six inches so not to impede the process.

The convertible comes with optional, automatic roll bars that pop out in 3/10ths of a second once sensors pick up incipient rollover. Another system unlocks doors and activates hazard flashers and interior lights to assist rescuers.

Central locking includes the glove box because, after all, this is an open car. Practically the entire vehicle is recyclable. And an aluminum shell is available to fit over the soft top and negate Eastern arguments about convertibles being a Western vogue quite impractical in winter.

These touches have always set German cars apart from the pack. Production that favors craftsmanship before robotics also provides virtually unmatched quality. Each widget and whatsit is overengineered, made tougher than necessary, and offers more value than the motoring public appreciates.

That, of course, increases the costs of German luxury cars.

Not buying a BMW 325i Convertible because of financial considerations remains a very valid argument.


On the other hand, was anyone’s spiritual life enriched by owning a Sterling?

1994 BMW 325i Convertible


* Base: $38,800.

* As tested, $42,870. (Includes automatic transmission, leather seats, automatic roll bars, heated seats, two-place air conditioning, cruise control, power seats, on-board computer and alloy wheels.)


* Inline, 24-valve, six-cylinder engine developing 189 horsepower.


* Front-engine, rear-drive, four-passenger, two-door convertible.


* 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, with automatic, 9.7 seconds.

* Top speed, electronically limited, 128 m.p.h.

* Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 18 and 26 m.p.g.

Curb Weight

* 3,429 pounds.

The Good

* Relatively affordable, full load of luxury.

* Solid ride and handling from a car built as a convertible, not a topless coupe.

* One-catch, one-button, effortless top.

* Superior aerodynamics allows open air motoring without wind damage.

The Bad

* Nothing found.

The Ugly

* What BMW is doing to Mercedes sales.