DRIVE TIME CAR REVIEW


Dropping the Top on BMW

Mark Solheim

Safe? That's a given. With the 3-series convertible, you'll also get plenty of power, fun in the sun and not too much wind in your hair.



Miami's South Beach was an inspired choice for the launch of the BMW 3-series convertible. Driving a luxury droptop is almost de riguer amid the swanky hotels and nightclubs. And this is definitely Bimmer ragtop turf. An astounding 8% of the previous-generation 3-series convertibles were sold in the Miami area. Even the bartender at the poolside bar who mixed a Mai Tai for me said she drives a 2003 325i.

The 2007 redesign has many enhancements, but perhaps the most impressive is the retractable hardtop, offering the security and silhouette of a hardtop and fun-in-the-sun pleasure of a convertible. (Four of the five new-for-2007 convertibles featured in our slide show are hardtop convertibles.) The 328i starts at $43,975, while the 335i starts at $49,875.

The other noteworthy feature of the BMW is the backseat. Unlike the roadsters covered in the July issue of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine, two additional passengers can ride to dinner or out clubbing without contortions.

Driving adventure

Leaving the hotel, the caravan of Bimmers driven by auto journalists heads south, to the Florida Keys. My driving partner and I choose the six-speed manual 328i for the first leg of the journey.

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After a few blocks with the top up to test the wind noise levels (very low), I suggest we drop the top -- actually, more like tripping the switch of a Rube Goldberg contraption as the three roof panels separate and the deck lid opens to magically swallow all that metal. With the large wind blocker in place, the breeze barely musses your hair.

The 230-horsepower in-line six-cylinder engine doesn't look powerful on paper, but BMW technology mated with a manual provide more than enough oomph for most drivers. It can handle zero to 60 miles per hour in 6.7 seconds, says BMW, and gets respectable fuel economy, too: 29 mpg on the highway and 19 in the city, according to the EPA rating.

Inside the cabin, the optional Dakota upholstery ($1,550 in the 328i; standard in the 335i) has "sun reflective technology" to keep seating surfaces cooler in top-down sun exposure. The ten-way power front seats are supportive and comfortable, and there are two memory presets for the driver's seat and outside mirrors. Notwithstanding that it's a German droptop, two serviceable cupholders pop out of the dash.

After lunch on the verandah (with ocean view) of an Islamadora restaurant, we snag a 335i automatic (a $1,275 option). I briefly try the paddle shifters but soon tire of the activity and get lulled into letting my index fingers remain at rest. The extra power of the 300-hp twin-turbo is evident but not essential for most drivers. If you do choose the power option, fuel efficiency is almost as good as on the 328i. And you get more standard features, including Dakota leather and Logic7 Surround Sound audio system.

Safety first

Both trims have traditional Teutonic -- and high-tech -- safety values. Seat-mounted side-impact airbags protect torsos in side crashes as well as heads in a rollover. Electronic stability control helps prevent skids. Lift your foot off the gas pedal suddenly and "brake standby" prepares the brakes for emergency stopping.

Dynamic cruise control keeps a safe following distance between you and the car in front of you. Optional active cruise control automatically adjusts your speed when it senses speed variations in the traffic flow.

"Brake drying" helps keep the brake pads dry by drawing them closer to the rotors when the rain-sensing wipers are activated. And visibility is surprisingly good for a convertible, due in part to BMW's insistence that the driver and front passenger not sink too low into the cockpit.

See the BMW 3-series convertible and four other droptops in our Convertibles That Carry Four slide show.

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So Honda has taken a gamble with its eighth-generation Accord. The company figures it can win more buyers with a larger, more "refined" Accord. The car essentially has grown to suit baby-boomers' expanding torsos and evolving tastes. Now that the 2008 Accord is in dealer showrooms, the question is, will the gamble pay off?

Baby got back

The sedan's redesigned exterior reflects the Accord's more mature, more sedate feel. The back end is higher and looks thicker and wider. The hood is elongated and taller. The car has grown by 3 inches in length and 1 inch in width. That translates into more interior space, edging the model into the large-sedan class.

Honda's press office spins this growth much the way you'd tell a man he hasn't grown heavy, he's now "husky." The Accord, it says, has "grown larger to meet the needs of an audience that values hospitality, with 'equal' front and rear seating comfort for four adults."

By Honda's measurements, rear-occupant "knee space" has increased by 3 inches, putting the Accord within striking distance of the Lexus LS 460 and other large luxury sedans. Passengers get 1.5 inches more width, and the front seats are farther apart, allowing for a wider center console. For the young at heart, there's still the coupe. Unlike earlier-generation Accord coupes, which modified the sedan's lines only slightly, the 2008 coupe has unique sheet metal. The raked roofline extends to the rear end for a fresh, sporty look.

Under the skin

Despite the sedan's AARP-ready appearance, it is still a fine performer on the road. The 3.5-liter V6 engine adds 24 horsepower for a total of 268 (equal to Camry's), and acceleration is as quick and smooth as ever. Increased rigidity and a new double-wishbone front suspension keep the handling responsive and the ride refined.

Fuel economy is superb, thanks to Honda's Variable Cylinder Management technology. The latest version allows the V6 engine to operate on three or four cylinders instead of six, resulting in fuel economy of 19 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine produces up to 190 hp and gets 22 mpg city, 31 highway with the standard five-speed manual.

Safety gets a boost, too. Electronic stability control, which helps avoid skids, is standard across the Accord lineup. Six airbags are also standard, including front side airbags that protect your torso and pelvis individually. Inside, the navigation system no longer uses a touch screen; it is controlled either by voice command or with a dial. A Bluetooth hands-free phone connection is available only with navigation.

The 2008 Accord's sticker is firmly in midprice territory. The sedan starts at $20,995 for the four-cylinder manual LX and $26,595 for the EX V6 (automatic transmission only). The V6 model with navigation and leather costs $30,895. The coupe starts at $22,495 for the four-cylinder version and $28,945 for the V6.

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