Review: 2011 BMW 328i Convertible

We get our mid-summer kicks in BMW's entry-level 3-Series droptop, itself sort of a swan-song for the company's iconic engine.

Going topless in the sun belt has always been a recreational pastime and a great way to load up on your vitamin D intake. BMW hopes your prescription includes ample dosages of 3-Series Convertible - even if it's just the entry-level 328iC.

Introduced on these shores two years after its European debut in 1975, the 3-Series has been one of BMW's most popular models. Over the last couple of decades, BMW has seen fit to expand its 3-Series lineup to the max with an always-popular convertible. Our test version is no exception.

It was introduced to market in 2006 as a 2007 model and has been continually refined up to and including our 2011 test version. But a new 3-Series is scheduled for introduction this fall, making our tester almost a lame duck model. But BMW doesn't take kindly to such assertions, so we figured we'd have another open-top outing.

What is it?
The BMW 328i Convertible is a four-place two-door coupe with a three-piece hardtop convertible roof. Available in several configurations, it can be had with a choice of in-line six-cylinder engine, or an in-line six cylinder with a single twin-scroll turbocharger.

A high-performance M3 version is also available, but our tastes have been dialed back a bit thanks to the global financial crisis.

This is probably the last outing in North America for this naturally-aspirated 3.0-liter inline-six. Set to be replaced in the next-generation 3er (as the Germans say) with a boosted four-cylinder, it marks the end of an era for a powertrain that defined BMW for more than 20 years.

Our tester was optioned up with the enthusiast-oriented Sport package, which adds 18-inch alloys and rubber, more heavily-bolstered seats, a unique steering wheel and a taut suspension.

What's it up against?
Natural matchups occur with the Infiniti G37 convertible as well as the Lexus IS 250 C, not to mention a pair of front-drive Swedes named Volvo C70 and Saab 9-3.

Germans love to rival each other, but the Audi A5 Cabriolet and Mercedes-Benz E350

Any breakthroughs?
A major breakthrough with the 328i Convertible is the way it is able to extend the usable months for convertible living. Previously, the first chill of autumn usually signaled it was time to garage the droptop for the season. With this hardtop convertible, that time can be extended to make this a year-round vehicle.

A by-product of the hardtop roof is a torsionally rigid unibody, free of so-called chassis flex that plagues many older droptops. In fact, the company claims this to be the stiffest convertible they have ever built.

BMW pioneered the use of sun-reflective leather for cooler seating. Able to reduce the surface temps by up to 36-degrees, it has modified pigment introduced into the leather during production, that is supposed to reflect the infrared radiation of the sun. We like it, but we still like our ventilated seats better.

How does it look?
Let's start with the requisite twin kidney bean grill in front. Now appearing in more stylized versions, you just knew that it was going to show up here. Sleek, if not a little boxy, at first glance this 3-Series Convertible reminds us of the big brother 650i Cabriolet, a much newer designed signed off by a different designer. Shorter than its top-of-the-line sibling, it does not have the 650's longer nose, nor its twice-as-rich price tag.

Character lines carry up from the hood and lead the eye towards the shoulders of the 328i. A side crease lends continuity down the flanks to tie the rear in for a completed view.

The convertible hardtop roof is a three-piece arrangement that takes 22 seconds to stow in the trunk. It's a delicate ballet complete with moving panels, hydraulic motors, a roof, C-pillar, and rear glass, that while in the up position offer a standard size trunk capacity, which tends to cut cargo space in half when the junk is in the trunk. Not surprisingly, the entire array of parts, motors and chassis reinforcing braces add an additional 400 lbs. to the equation.

And on the inside?
Mix in a little bit of the old with the new and it's a pretty apt description of our 2011 328i Convertible. A combination of darks and lights (well, mostly light), the sun-reflecting leather did its job as best as possible to keep us cool in the 90-degree heat. The real dark burled walnut wood trim sets off the interior nicely. Have we told you that we love real wood?

A single gauge binnacle houses a decidedly old-school looking speedometer and tachometer with LCD readout located between the two. Our car was not equipped with iDrive or an in-dash navigation system, which gave us an extra cupholder where the iDrive controller would have been located. Air conditioning registers at the very top, a BMW Professional AM/FM/CD/HD radio audio system, and finally the climate controls populate the center stack. BMW makes you pay extra for SiriusXM capability. Various cubbyholes found throughout the cabin are numerous enough to forget where you left something of importance.

We've never met a BMW seat we did not like, and this 328i is no exception. Sufficiently bolstered to hold us in place while cutting tight corners, they also managed to leave us refreshed upon arrival at our destinations. The back seat is a little less inviting, probably owing to the fact that its seatback is pretty straight up and down with very little diagonal rake.

The steering wheel is a typical BMW leather-wrapped affair with all the redundancies you would expect. We like the leather-trimmed paddle shift levers located on the wheel, so we could have our way with the Steptronic automatic transmission whenever we wanted.

But does it go?
Surprisingly, yes, it does. Our 328i "˜vert came equipped with a 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder engine producing 230 ponies and 200 lb-ft of torque. Using port fuel injection, with Valvetronic and Double-Vanos variable valve timing, it offered good grunt when we stroked it through the paddles. Leaving it in pure automatic mode turned it a bit anemic probably due to its nearly 3,900 lbs. curb weight. By the way, the EPA says you'll get 18-city/27-highway with a combined average of 21 mpg.

Since our model was equipped with the available Sport package, top speed clicks off at 150 mph. Zero to 60-mph comes at 7.2 seconds.

We like the firmness displayed by the 328i's suspension, comprised of dual aluminum lower control arms with an anti-roll stabilizer bar in front. The rear kit also uses a stabilizer bar to hold its five-link rear suspension and gas-charged shocks in check. Vehicle NVH was very good with the roof up, and a conversation could be carried on when the three-piecer was stowed in the trunk. Just in case the wind gets to be too much, a rear seat baffle device was included with our test vehicle.

Despite not having the power of some of its big brothers, the 328i still managed to corner as though it was riding on a rail. The whole package presented a creak-free ride that is thankfully becoming the norm in the drop-top world.

Handling has always been one of the 3-Series strong suits. This 328i Convertible is no exception. With nearly a 50/50 weight bias and one of the stiffest setups to be a part of a flop-top vehicle, we just wish there was more power to back up these good looks.

Why you would buy it:
You own stock in the Hawaiian Tropic Company and think the pairing with "the ultimate driving machine" is an unbeatable combination. Plus, you're running out of time to buy a non-boosted inline-six BMW droptop.

Why you wouldn't:
Because the apple of your convertible eye is the imported from Detroit Chrysler 200.

Leftlane's bottom line
BMW continues to offer a convertible for most, but not all comers. Priced higher than most, they exist for a purpose: To offer drop head motoring for those who appreciate some of the best handling found in any car today.

To that point, the BMW 328i Convertible does not disappoint. It's a great example of how to go topless, and have fun in the sun, at the same time.

2011 BMW 328i Convertible base price, $45,000. As tested, $51,850.
Premium Package, $1,650; Sport Package, $1,300; Paddle Shifters, $100; Automatic, $1,375; Comfort Access, $500; Heated front seats, $500; Metallic paint, $550; Destination, $875.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.