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Click to view road test review picture gallery“Why spend £40,000
  on the most furious
  3 Series Convertible
  when you can get
  away with spending
  £30,000 on one that
  has more than an
  adequate sufficiency?”

THERE WAS A TIME WHEN ROLLS-ROYCE described the power outputs of their cars
as being of an
'adequate sufficiency'. They had a point, because at some stage enough is definitely enough. Today, almost every aspect of our lives seems to have spilled over the borders of what is adequately sufficient.
In motoring terms, BMW
's excellent entry-level 320i SE Convertible is a perfect example.

Should you wish, BMW will be more than happy to sell you an extremely fast version of their new folding metal-roof convertible such as the range-topping 355i M Sport. It has 306bhp, does 155mph, hits 62mph in 5.8 seconds and costs £40,670. At the other end of the range, £30,195 will buy you a perfectly good 170bhp 320i SE. This does 142 mph and gets to 62mph in just over nine seconds — 9.1, to be precise.

Like those people who wear a watch that, in truth, only a working
deep sea diver would ever require, many motorists drive cars with far more performance than they will ever use. Not that this makes them bad people. But it does make one sometimes wonder: Do you need to bother? Especially when, in the BMW's case, the 'lesser' model serves up a generous helping of driver enjoyment. An 'adequate sufficiency',
in fact.

For a while BMW eschewed going down the retractable metal roof/ coupé-convertible route, principally because its customers enjoyed having the choice of both variants: fixed roof coupé or fabric 'road-ster'-style convertible. But tastes change and, given the benefits — new levels of security, refinement, visibility, enhanced chassis integrity top-up and, of course, all-year-round practicality — coupé-convert-ibles have, predictably, become the logical choice for many 'convert-ible' drivers.

Not so long ago, cars costing in excess of £30,000 usually came with heavy financial baggage in the form of increased running costs. In the case of the 6-speed manual 320i SE we tested, that's not so. With over 600 miles of mixed driving — often pretty brisk and with quite a lot of town work— under our belt, we recorded a combined consumption figure of 32mpg. Less ardent drivers than us should get much closer to the official combined figure of 42.8mpg.

We should mention that BMW's Auto Start/Stop function is fitted, which cuts down on fuel and emissions by automatically switching off the engine whenever the car is at a standstill. The engine switches
off when the car is stationary and the driver engages neutral and releases the clutch; it restarts again automatically when the clutch is dipped, as would happen prior to moving off. Should you prefer not to use it, you can easily turn it off by pressing the appropriate button. But after the first few times it happens — for example, while waiting
at red lights or stuck in a tailback on the M25 — you hardly notice it.

Unlike cars from the class below, the 3 Series is big enough to accom-modate the folding metal roof without compromising its looks. Most notably it is often around the rear haunches where there is a fashion faux pas in quite a few lesser brands! But it is definitely not so for the BMW. With the three-panel retractable hard-top raised, you could be looking at a genuine all-of-a-piece fixed-head coupé.

Seen from the front, BMW's trademark kidney grille dominates. Thanks to the rakish windscreen and the use of slim bi-xenon headlamp units, the bonnet lip is flatteringly low. But the 320i SE best flaunts its eleg-ant body with the top stashed out of sight in the boot. The rising sill line emphasises the car's svelte wedge shape and visually 'stret-ches' the car, making the uncluttered rear deck a pretty picture in metal.

If you've only previously been in BMW's fabric-topped convertible, in-side the cabin awaits a very pleasant surprise. The most obvious improvement is entirely down to the metal folding roof itself: more light and visibility. The metal roof's structural strength has allowed larger glass areas. There are 30 per cent larger rear side windows compared to the superseded soft-topped 3 Series Convertible; with a 38 per cent improved visibility through the rear windows.

Focused around the two large dials (160mph speedometer with integ-rated fuel gauge, and rev-counter), the refreshingly uncluttered cabin passes muster as a genuine four-seater. Under six-footers — particul-arly if there are four on board — is best. Access to and from the rear seats is easy and there's no danger of tripping over trailing seat belts as they are built in at the front. All occupants benefit from the 320i's soothing ride quality — commendably good, given it was running on
17-inch run-flat tyres — while the driver enjoys a fine driving position. The interior trim, enhanced with smart satin finish alloy highlights, is well finished and looks the business. The powered seats are particularly supportive, with built-in and electrically-operated head restraints and integrated seatbelts and two memory seat/mirror settings for the driver.

Thoughtful touches abound, from damped lids and the three-section, spring open door pockets — all lined — to the single switch that raises or lowers all four windows in one hit and the permanently-charged torch in the glovebox. For the record, all the windows have one-shot auto down functions. Indicators and wipers also feature one-touch operation and the automatic climate control is dual-zone. There's also an auto-dipping rear view mirror and the inside of the hard-top is beautifully finished in a smart black material. The sporty-looking three-spoke multi-function wheel is wrapped in leather and has a tactile, thicker-than-normal rim with good thumb cut-outs.

For the colder months, excellent 3-stage seat heating is provided for both front seats. it warms all the way up your back beautifully in seconds. For driver or passenger, this is a cabin that's easy to live with. And although it's not the rarity it once was, the Start/Stop engine button will always be fun to use. Even the lozenge-shaped electronic key is a miniature work of art with alloy detailing. 'Entry Level' cars usually mean Expect Less — but certainly this is not the case with the 320i.

The neatly fitted and accurately interlinked sections of the retractable hard top are made of thin-grade steel that, in total, weighs just 75kgs. That's light enough to ensure refined operation, yet strong enough to provide genuine security and structural integrity. But not at the ex-pense of compromising the Convertible's handling and agility. Closed or open, the new 3 Series Convertible conforms to BMW's trademark 50:50 weight distribution that helps deliver the same sharp handling, grip and composure as its Coupé sibling.

So when the road becomes tight and twisty, the 320i is ready for it: the manual six-speed 'box, despite a longish gear lever throw and a very slightly notchy feel, is slick in use and there's sporting feedback from the communicative steering — so its easy to make the most of the chassis' rear-drive dynamics. Very good brakes, with just a tad sharp bite on first application, can also be taken for granted.

On a car costing over £30,000 you'd expect a good level of kit as standard. Happily, that's what you'll find here: standard equipment in-cludes four one-shot electric windows, electric door mirrors, auto-matic lights and wipers, on-board computer, Xenon headlights, power-ed seats with driver's memory function, 'Welcome' and 'Follow-Me-Home' lighting, cruise control, rear parking sensors and a set of smart 7-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels shod with 225x45 Bridgestone run-flat rubber.

Naturally, there's also a comprehensive set of active and passive safety equipment. You also get automatic climate control, which is worthy of a special mention because it is exceptionally efficient. It keeps you cool on really hot days or cosy and warm in wintry condit-ions. And it works equally effectively in both open or closed car mode.

Al fresco motoring pleasures are available in seconds. Twenty-two of them, if you wish to be precise. Folding away the metal roof is no hardship. Press a button on the centre console (or use the 'unlock' button on the key) and 22 seconds later the roof will have concertina'd itself into the upper part of the boot. With the top up, there are 350 litres of boot space; and even when down there's still a useful 210 litres. Stored something large in the boot under the folded hard-top? No problem; press the boot lid opening button on the key and the hard top will power lift to a halfway point to enable the items to be removed easily before the roof is returned to its original position. Thought of everything, haven't they?

Well, actually, they have. Because, assuming you specify the optional leather upholstery — as most buyer surely will — you can also opt
for BMW's innovative SunReflective technology. A world first, this uses embedded pigments in the leather to reflect infra-red radiation in the sunlight, thereby reducing the temperature of the exposed seats and arm rest surfaces by up to 20 degrees Centigrade — that's 68 degrees Fahrenheit. So you can leave your Convertible with the top down on baking hot days and immediately drive off on your return without risking scorched skin. Very Cool!

In addition to the SunRelfective feature, the new Convertible also offers a number of practical features for coping with larger-than-ordin-ary loads. For one thing, the rear seat backrest folds flat to reveal a large bench area suitable for items too bulky for the boot. Folding the rear seat backrest flat also exposes a 40 x 26cms aperture between the boot and the rear seats — perfect, in fact, for transporting golf clubs or a set of skis.

Retract the metal top, raise all four electric inward-sloping side win-dows and flip the rear wind-blocker into place and you have a refined full-convertible with very minimal wind intrusion. Top dropped, there's
a complete absence of any body-flexing.

And with the top automatically raised and locked in place, torsional rigidity is so good that the Convertible drives just like the 'real' Coupé. Tellingly, several first-time passengers were convinced that it was a genuine coupé, so well is the metal folding roof integrated.

Which brings us neatly back to our starting point. Whether you buy
the most or least expensive version, the 3 Series Convertible is practical, amazingly refined and one of the most desirable convertibles on the market. In addition, the no-compromise and well-engineered convertible roof is impressive and it's a pleasure to drive — top up or down. Who could ask for anything more? Well, how about. No. Just kidding! The 320i SE definitely has more than an 'adequate sufficiency'.

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BMW 320i SE Convertible | £30,915
Maximum speed: 142mph | 0-62mph: 9.1 seconds
Overall test MPG: 32mpg | Power: 170bhp | Torque: 155lb ft

CO2 157g/km | Insurance group 16
Visit BMW's website Click to go there now

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