WHAT IS IT?
This is BMW's latest convertible version of the phenominally popular 3-Series. This time around BMW have engineered a folding metal roof for the four seater Convertible - previous marks of the model have had a conventional folding canvas roof, with a detachable (optional) hard top. Particularly interesting in this case is that roof up, the styling is barely distinguishable from the conventional 3-Series Coupe model.
BMW's 3-Series has always been one of the more spacious, four seater convertibles, the folding metal roof does not change this, at 4.58 metres long and 1.985 wide, it is identical in size to Coupe model, although understandably the rear seat is somewhat narrower.
WHICH SPECIFIC MODEL?
The model reviewed here is the latest four cylinder, 177bhp 320 diesel, in non-sporting SE trim. This car was also equipped with an optional automatic gearbox.
There are only two four cylinder Convertibles available - the other is the slightly less powerful, petrol engine (168bhp) 320i, the base model in the range at £30,660. Footballers or lottery winners may feel like splashing out on the 4.0 litre V8 £55,300, M3 which tops the range and packs 414bhp. In between these two extremes are to be found no fewer than five other engine choices, two of which are diesels.
IN WHAT CAPACITY AM I REVIEWING THIS CAR?
I am reviewing this car with my fleet manager's hat on. Thanks to my invitation to the Millbrook Testing Ground from Fleet News Magazine to their Company Car In Action event, I have been able to compare many cars back to back, using two test tracks that simulate driving conditions that you would be hard pressed to encounter during many thousands of miles of ordinary motoring.
Millbrook is a venue, that having attended for many years, I am thoroughly familiar with. It allows direct comparison between various models. Being "closed circuits", the facilities there also allow you to drive at speeds which would, on public roads, be highly irresponsible. The importance of testing cars in this way is to find out just how a car behaves in extreme conditions i.e. on the limit, for instance in an emergency braking situation on the road, or perhaps a rapid and not anticipated lane changing manoeuvre.
Once you leap over the psychological list price / options list hurdle, the running costs of this model are quite modest. For company car drivers whose firms actually lease their vehicles, the BMW 320d SE Convertible may even look a bargain to run when compared to some much more ordinary cars.
As an example of that, contrast the monthly contract hire rate for the £30,660 320d SE (in basic trim!) of £551 with a £26,847 Saab 9-3TtiD 180 at £552.
Insurance at group 16 (out of 20 groups in total) is a surprise, I was expecting it to be group 12 or 13, the metal roof convertible being just as secure as its Coupe sister.
The 140g/kg CO2 figure means that, as a company car, this model will be less expensive to run than any other alternative at the price. As a private purchase you will be saving considerably on the annual road tax bill.
PURCHASE COST 5/ 10
Whilst BMW give you far more than they used to in terms of technology AND standard equipment, I still find a list price of £30,660 for a 2.0 litre diesel convertible hard to swallow - can one of these REALLY cost £15,800 more to build than an identically configured Astra CC?
As a slight aside at this point, BMW dealers are rumoured, for the first time, to be giving worthwhile discounts on their cars, never be embarrassed to ask - after all the internet brokers, such as Broadspeed.com, will only be too pleased to source one for you at a knock down price.
The list price might be easier to bear......but for the following section!
THE OPTIONS GAME: 2 / 10 or "How much do I need to spend to make it habitable?"
A small fortune!
OK, I would not need to specify the £1515 automatic transmission - nice though it is in this particular car. However, metallic paint at £535, 18" alloy wheels (£890), electrically folding mirrors - standard these days on just about everything! - (£165), front seat heaters (£260), leather upholstery (£1310) and parking radar (£285) were all fitted to this car - its total on the road price is then a staggering £38,190.
Worrying is that none of these extras are very extravagant and all and are standard equipment on many other, much less expensive, cars. However, it does not stop there, the only audio equipment fitted here - as standard - is a single disc CD player and radio. Upgrades, almost certain to be specified, range from £295 for a simple multi-CD changer to around £3000 for a full house integrated satellite navigation and TV in-car entertainment system.
I am all for choice, but being forced to add very expensive options in order to make a car habitable - and indeed to maintain its resale value - as far as I am concerned borders on the unethical.
DEPRECIATION 8 / 10 - Always the biggest running cost.
In a sense it could be argued that this section should rate a 10. However, the depreciation rate of a mere 46% over three years and 36,000 miles - this car being estimated to be worth £18,547 at that stage - depend upon it being very carefully specified in the right colour and with the correct options in the first place.
This is, and will remain a desirable car though and, as such, will command a good resale price at whatever stage it is sold. This is the main reason for the bargain contract hire rate figure quoted above.
FUEL ECONOMY 9 / 10
I have actually been unable to find any quoted fuel consumption figures for the automatic version of this car. Based on the extremely frugal figures for the six speed manual, I have no doubt that, as in any class in which they compete, this BMW will beat all-comers here.
The manual gearbox version posts an overall average 53.3mpg, leading to an incredibly low 128g/kg CO2 figure. This would be one of several reasons in my case for NOT choosing this particular automatic model.
In the real world, behind the wheel of a 320d Convertible, even with an automatic gearbox, you are not going to have to try very hard to average 45mpg, it may be an expensive car, but fuelling it is not going to break the bank - however high the price of diesel gets!
SERVICE & MAINTENANCE COSTS 9 / 10: are you going to make the dealer rich?
For many, mainly historical it has to be said, reasons I still have a fairly low opinion of BMW dealers in general. However, in pure cost terms, a figure of £918 for three years (36,000 miles) servicing is extremely competitive. By comparison, a 2.0 litre diesel Citroen would cost you £1134, a Jaguar £1279 and a Saab £1152, so all in all, no, you are not being ripped off on service costs by BMW.
Let the "fun" begin! You want to know what this car is like to live with and to drive and be driven in.......
STYLING 9 /10: A very subjective category here.
Unlike the previous generation, cloth roof convertibles, the 3-Series Convertible, roof up, is almost indistinguishable from the Coupe. The roof joins are almost seamless and roof up, the uninitiated would never know that this was a convertible car - not from the outside, or when travelling inside it.
I am no fan of Mr Bangle's "flame surfaced" BMW designs, the current 3-Series saloon is a car that, thanks to the styling, I would never buy. However, the Coupe and Convertible, whilst sharing the same family face, are very handsome cars to look at......
......indeed, as my wife would tell you, they are the ONLY cars in BMW's current range that one would currently buy for their style!
I would actually go one step further here and say that, to my eyes at least, the latest 3-Series Convertible is probably the best looking four seat convertible on the market, top up or down. This is a colour sensitive car, the right combination of paint colour and interior making all the difference - remember when choosing your interior colour, more of it is on show with a convertible than in a conventional saloon!
OVERALL BUILD QUALITY AND FINISH 8 / 10 Does it look as though it was slung together?
This is one area that is critical in a Convertible. Due to parts of the car literally having to fold up and disappear within the boot space, build quality, fit and finish are critical elements.
BMW were late onto the market in producing a folding hard top - they have however come up with the best and tightest fitting roof system that I have yet seen. Driving the car with the top down, especially on Millbrook's very challenging Alpine course is a stringent test of a convertible cars' integrity - or build quality. Apart from a couple of purpose built sports cars driven here in the past, the 320d SE Convertible was the first open top car experienced to be entirely free of shakes, shudders and the unpleasant scuttle shake which tends to afflict other convertibles.
I should point out here that this car, an SE, is more softly sprung than the "Sport" version of the same car which, with a less compliant ride, may well pose more of a trial for the convertible body shell.
Looking at the car stationary, there are others offering tighter, more consistent panel gaps. Whilst this particular example had a paint finish to match any other at the event, I have seen new BMW's on the road recently with far poorer, more "orange peel" paint finishes.
SAFETY 10 /10 If it comes to the worst, how well are you and your family going to come out of it.
Of all the convertibles that I have driven, including Saab's very popular 9-3, this felt - to me, as a driver - the safest. An overall impression of strength, combined with the traditional fine BMW driving characteristics instil a great sense of confidence in the car.
Should the worst happen and the car crashes, or finishes up upside down, the windscreen rail is designed to support the weight of the car, whilst steel pillars nestling behind the rear head rests will protect rear seat occupants.
To create a convertible, substantial extra reinforcement has to be put into the body shell, as well as strengthening the car overall, this also stands you in very good stead should any form of side impact take place.
ERGONOMICS 9 / 10 Before I can start the engine and drive away I need to feel at home in the "working environment". The relationship between the controls and how I, the driver, am able to instinctively operate those controls is, all important. This for me is make or break, before I drive a car, if it does not instinctively "feel" right in this department then I will never like it or ultimately buy it.
BMW have trodden a tricky line with the ergonomics in their current range of cars. Expensive as this one is, it was not equipped with any form of satellite navigation system and therefore the much criticised i-drive multi-function screen controller for various non-essential car controls. And as far as I was concerned, having later tried the BMW 635d Sport so equipped, the 320d was all the easier to master.
All of the primary controls are where you expect to find them and work entirely conventionally. The automatic gear selector works intuitively too - the only one on the day that did!
As with BMW's of old, the basics remain spot on, this is a very driver focussed environment, it appears that when you move up the range, or load the 320d with more complex options, then the ergonomics start to fall apart.
The final two points are lost here due to the Spartan instrument pack seeming to be out of proportion with the rest of the dashboard. The speedometer and rev counter, with my ideal seating and steering wheel height set-up, were partially obscured at the top by the steering wheel rim too.
VISIBILITY: 8 / 10
This was the only open top car driven this year and as such I can only remark on what a massive difference having no roof or pillars around you makes in terms of all round visibility. Even the extra-strength windscreen pillars pose no blind spot hazards; from this point of view too the 3-Series Convertible is a safe car to drive.
Putting the top up changes the picture slightly. To the front and sides the visibility remains excellent, to the rear and rear three quarter, due to the rear pillars and smaller rear window, the vision is noticeably more restricted than in the 3-Series Coupe.
SPACE: 9 / 10:
Inside this is one of the most generously proportioned "Coupe Convertibles" on the market. A strict four seater, due to the narrowing of the rear compartment to accommodate the roof, none of the four passengers would complain of being cramped - roof up or down.
Boot space with the roof up is very large indeed - with it down it is severely curtailed. However, I cannot imagine four people travelling any great distance in this car with the top down taking all of their luggage too. In practice you would travel with the top up, deposit your luggage and then do any sight-seeing with the top down.
"Our" car was not equipped with the very efficient wind break device, a mesh screen that mounts across the rear seat and flips up behind the front seats. Whilst this makes travelling long distance at speed, top down, very comfortable due to the elimination of any back draught, it does also reduce the BMW Convertible to a two seater.
STYLE 6 / 10:
To my eyes at least, the interior styling of BMW's current crop very much reflects the less desirable elements of the exterior styling. Unfortunately whilst appreciating the lines, top up or down, of the Convertible, I could never say the same for its frankly austere interior.
The dashboard is plain and ill-equipped as standard, looking as though it has been lifted from a very much cheaper car. Things improve a little viewing the rest of the interior though, the seats and door panels are nicely styled, and look even better if you have splashed out on an optional leather interior - as present in this car!
MATERIALS, FIT & FINISH 7 / 10: Aspreys or Ratners?
Now it is all getting a bit tricky to rate. This car had a beautifully put together red leather interior, not only were the seats swathed in it, but so too were the door panels. £1310 well spent then I guess! However, the standard car comes with rather dull and plain looking grey cloth upholstery, not half as stylish, good to look at or indeed sit upon.
The parts that were not covered in costly leather were somewhat more utilitarian in finish, the coarse black grained dashboard taking us back to the impression of a much less expensive car.
If some of the materials fail to live up to the cost, then the quality of finish goes some way to making up for it. Everything is tightly fitting and well screwed together in here, there were no creaks or rattles.
AUDIO & CLIMATE CONTROL SYSTEMS 9 / 10: Strange grouping?
Again, without the i-Drive system in place, these controls are simpler and more intuitive to use. Whilst the audio system is a very simple radio / single CD player, the controls for it could not be faulted.
Of paramount importance on any convertible is the heating - and cooling - system. A world first on this car is that BMW have a unique and separate set of heater sensors fitted to the car to optimise the performance of the climate control system when the roof is down. From our experience this simply means that you can set it and leave it. In the old days (with Escort and Astra Convertibles) I remember constantly fiddling with the heater controls on my convertibles in an attempt to keep the interior temperature at a constantly comfortable level.
ON THE ROAD........
......Time to start it up and to offer you a driving assessment.
NOISE, VIBRATION & HARSHNESS 10 / 10 Silk purse or sow's ear?
The fact that this car has a diesel engine is - apart from the economy advantage - totally irrelevant. Even on start up, with the top down, you are unaware that this is a diesel. It is extremely quiet and refined at all speeds, there is no engine vibration at all and the engine is superbly compatible with the smooth shifting automatic gearbox.
There is no additional harshness, shake or vibration due to this being an open top car either. You have the uncompromised choice of a top up coupe or a top down convertible here, no penalty appears to be paid for the roof conversion.
This car was fitted with optional 18" alloy wheels which have ultra low profile tyres, no additional noise appeared to be created by them, nor was there any harshness to the ride quality usually suffered with BMW's standard fit, run flat tyres.
Even with the top down at 100mph on a windy day the 320d Convertible remains a comfortable place to be thanks to its superbly well isolated cabin and the very comfortable seats.
PERFORMANCE 7 / 10 Sh*t off a shovel or a constipated tortoise?
One probably does not expect fantastic performance from a 2.0 litre diesel engine, but 177bhp and a £33K list price had lead me to expect more than was on offer here.
On the other hand, the performance of this car was perfectly adequate for a leisurely top down cruiser - I have never understood people specifying really fast, big, engines in a car like this anyway.
On reflection I think that I would say that the engine and gearbox make this car such a smooth pleasure to drive that ultimately its' lack of performance does not actually become an issue. For my every day use, this, the 2.0 diesel, is the model that I would choose in this range - but with the standard six speed manual gearbox rather than the (very good) five speed automatic which was fitted to this car.
If you want a really fast 3-Series go for the twin turbo petrol engined 335i, in a Coupe body, an incredible power unit that still offers class busting fuel consumption and CO2 levels. The 2.0 litre diesel fitted here is adequate for the Convertible.
RIDE & HANDLING 9 / 10
It was here that I was most impressed of all. All convertible cars that I have driven to date have, in this area, been compromised. If the 3-Series 320d SE is, then this very comprehensive test track experience did not find it.
The ride, even in this comfort "SE" model is reassuringly firm, but compliant and extremely well damped, even those handsome 18" wheels did not detract from that. What many manufacturers and car drivers fail to appreciate is the importance in the relationship between the seat design and the cars suspension. BMW have this spot on in this case, a major reason for the whole car feeling so "as one" - a remarkable achievement, especially in a Convertible.
I would urge anyone contemplating specifying the sports suspension pack on any 3-Series to take a long test drive in each car before signing up for it. Under all UK driving conditions the SE will provide a more compliant ride and simply feel a nicer car to drive because of it. In ordinary and, here at Millbrook, extraordinary driving conditions the handling on the standard suspension remains superbly controlled with very little roll.
Adding to the general sense of well-being behind the wheel of the BMW 320d SE Convertible is the perfectly weighted and direct steering.
In short the car goes, corners and stops just where you expect it to.
CONCLUSION - Would I buy one myself and would we want to drive it to Poland in a day?
No and conversely, probably yes!
In my opinion, as a total non-badge snob, I could never justify the extraordinarily inflated price of this car. At £38,000 as equipped, the BMW 320d SE Convertible simply does not make sense, I would rather have a diesel Astra Twin Top for sunny days and something like a Subaru Legacy to use as an every day car.
However, as a long distance cruiser I am quite confident that this car could cover well over 1000 miles in a day and get myself, my passenger and our luggage there safely and in some degree of comfort. My argument remains though that so too could so many other cars costing about half the price!
Against my better (financial) judgement, I actually found myself liking this car, so too did my wife, but not to the extent of desiring it as is BMW's aim.
FINAL SCORE: 134 / 170 - 78.8%
The truth of this is that in isolation - not taking purchase and option costs into account - this car scores very highly indeed, far better than I was expecting it to before actually driving it.
However, living in the real world, costs have the ultimate sway here and the loss of so many points in those early categories left it as an also-ran rather than topping the list as it almost certainly would have done if its price were £10,000 less.
Putting that score into perspective are the following cars based on identical scoring criteria:
ALFA ROMEO 147 1.9JTD Lusso (5 Dr) - 67.8%
BMW 320d SE Convertible - 78.8%
FIAT PUNTO GRANDE SPORTING 130 Mjet - 75.9%
HONDA ACCORD i-CTDi Saloon - 80.0%
HONDA CIVIC 1.8i VTEC SE - 78.2%
HONDA CIVIC 1.8i VTEC S i-SHIFT - 68.8%
HONDA CIVIC IMA SE - 73.5%
HONDA JAZZ 1.4 SE CVT-7 (Automatic) - 74.7%
SUBARU IMPREZA WRX STi - 72.35%
SUBARU OUTBACK 2.0D RE - 85.3%
SAAB 9-3 TiD Vector - 68.2%
SAAB 9-3 TiD Linear CONVERTIBLE (2007 Mondel) - 74.1%
VAUXHALL ASTRA TWINTOP 1.9 CDTi DESIGN - 78.8%
VAUXHALL VXR8 - 84.1 %
VAUXHALL MONARO VXR - 71.1%
VW PASSAT TDi 140 S ESTATE - 71.7%
VOLVO S60 D5 SE - 70.6%
Richada / Dooyoo © March 2009.