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Click to view picture gallery“BMW’s new metal-
  roofed drop-top, the
  325i SE Convertible,
  is cool, practical and
  stylish. But what else
  would you expect?”

BMW'S FOURTH GENERATION OF THE 3 Series Convertible has just gone on sale in the
UK with, initially, two models available: the 325i SE, powered by a 3.0-litre, six-cylinder normally-aspirated petrol engine and priced at 33,065, and the 335i SE costing 37,930. These will be joined
in April by the main selling
320i SE (30,630) along with the 330i SE (36,395) and the 36,770 330d SE.

Also in April, BMW UK will intro-duce M Sport variants of each of these five core models. M Sport specification includes 18-inch alloy wheels, a body aerodynam-ics package, sports suspension and other sports trim and adds 2,550 to the retail price. Traditionally, eight out of ten BMW customers opt for the M Sport specification.

The retail prices for the new 3 Series Convertible represent a 10 per cent price increase over the outgoing models but, says BMW UK, once the added specification price adjustment has been factored in the increase is only 2.9 per cent.

Graham Robinson, product manager for BMW UK, said this week at the media launch of the new 3 Series Convertible that in the past retail customers have been the biggest group of buyers. Due in part to fleets not wishing to have vehicles with a canvas roof, company car users have only accounted for 10 per cent of sales. However, as the new 3 Series Convertible is the first BMW open top car to have a folding metal roof, they now expect the fleet sector to account for around 25 per cent of sales as the metal top offers better security.

Historically, 80 per cent of BMW's Convertible customers were male, but in reality the drivers of the cars were split 50:50 male to female and the average users is around 43 years of age. The majority of Convertible customers are expected to choose BMW's six speed auto-matic transmission over the standard six-speed manual gearbox.

Limited supplies of the new Convertible means that the UK will only have around 5,800 units for UK customers this year and such is the pent-up demand that 40 per cent of these are already sold. Overall, the UK is the third largest market in the world for BMW vehicle sales behind Germany and the USA, and the UK is the second largest market after the USA for sales of Convertible models.

In the UK's compact premium sector of the convertible market, annual sales are around 21,000 units. BMW is the market leader, with 8,000 annual registrations.

Jim O'Donnell, managing director of BMW UK, said this week at the media event in Sunny Spain: "From 2001 onwards, for six consecutive years, BMW in the UK has achieved annual record sales and 2007 will be another one for us. Sales so far are marginally down over the same period last year due to our customers waiting for the revised 1 and 5 Series, the all new X5 SUV and, of course, the 3 Series Convertible. "For us, retail sales are holding up strongly, which is not the case for the industry as a whole. There is," he added, "increased interest in the brand from a new generation of entrepreneurs and the self-employed, so we see further growth opportunities in the business-user sector which we are targeting this year. Currently, 43 per cent of our cars are bought on BMW Finance schemes, which are ideal for business users and the retail market."

The new BMW 3 Series Convertible now completes the latest gener-ation 3 Series model line-up. The new Saloon models were introduced in March 2005 and the Touring models followed in August the same year. The Coupé derivatives arrived in September 2006 and were clearly divided from the four-door models by featuring twin-turbo power in the forms of the 335d and 335i (Full Road Test: 335i M Sport).

In this premium C segment, BMW says that owners prefer the choice
of having a Coupé or a Convertible — not a one-model coupé/cabriolet as in the lower C segment served by the Peugeot 307CC, Renault Megane CC and the new VW Eos. Customers in this segment tradition-ally have chosen petrol-engined models over diesel due to the fact that they do not drive as many miles; therefore fuel economy is not so important and petrol engines are generally quieter than diesel units. However, the expected growth in sales from business and fleet car users could change this balance.

For the record, the 6-speed automatic 325i SE I tested boats an official combined fuel consumption of 34.9mpg. Not bad for a car that will do the 0-62mph sprint in 8.1 seconds and run — where allowed — to 151mph. Manual versions will return 35.8mpg, do 0-62mph in 7.6 seconds and max out at 152mph.

These additional new 3 Series Convertible models are all about the design and application of BMW's first metal retractable roof. BMW says the aim was to make it as coupé-like as possible and, from all angles, the bodywork below the shoulder line is similar to the recently launched Coupé variant. Hood up, it looks every inch like the 3 Series Coupé.

Dominating the frontal view is BMW's trademark kidney grille. Using standard-fitment Bi-Xenon headlamps, which take up less space than
a conventional halogen unit, has enabled BMW's designers to lower
the bonnet lip of the car. These Bi-Xenon units also house BMW's now-trademark 'corona rings' that are used as sidelights and day-running lights.

At the rear, the Coupé look is also carried over, with the swage line ending at the rear lamp clusters and the shoulder line reaching around the entire rear section. The two-piece rear lamp clusters extend into the bootlid and house horizontal LED light rods that are used for rear running lights and brake lamps.

With the roof down, the 3 Series Convertible's form is most definitely elegant. The strong shoulder and swage lines visibly stretch the car while the rising sill line emphasises the wedge shape.

BMW says their new three-panel retractable hard-top sets new levels of refinement, visibility, and security in the Convertible market. And furthermore, the folding metal roof provided the opportunity to increase the glass area for improved visibility while retaining structural strength. Consequently, the rear side windows are 30 per cent larger than on the outgoing 3 Series Convertible, whilst visibility through the rear windows has been improved by 38 per cent.

BMW and Webasto engineers have achieved a low weight for the retractable hard top — the roof panels are constructed of thin-grade steel and weigh just 75kgs in total — that ensures it is refined in operation and secure, but does not compromise the handling and agility of the car. Opened or closed, it carries on BMW's well-known 50:50 weight distribution ethos.

The complete opening process takes just 22 seconds via the lever in the centre console or using the unlock button on the key. Cars fitted with optional Comfort Access can also reverse the process and close the roof using the key button.

The roof folds into the upper part of the boot cavity with a concertina action. With the top up, 350 litres of boot space is available and, when down, the new 3 Series Convertible still offers a useful 210 litres of storage capacity. To access larger objects placed in the boot before the roof has been lowered, the retractable hard top can be opened to a halfway point enabling the items to be easily removed before the roof is returned to its original position. This operation is activated by the boot lid opening button on the key.

The new 3 Series Convertible also offers a number of unique, practical features for the transportation of larger-than-usual loads. Firstly, the rear seat backrest folds flat to reveal a large bench area suitable for the storage and transport of items too large to be carried in the boot — customers can in addition, also specify a through-load function. Folding the rear seat backrest flat exposes a 40 x 26cms aperture that connects the rear boot compartment with the rear seats — ideal for transporting skis or a set of golf clubs.

In another world first, the 3 Series Convertible is available with the innovative SunReflective technology on its optional leather upholstery. Embedded pigments in the leather reflect infra-red radiation in the sunlight in wavelengths of more than 720 Nanometers to reduce the temperature of the seats and arm rests by up to 20 degrees centigrade.

So the newcomer is cool, practical and stylish. Thanks to it having the same torsional rigidity, with the hood up it drives just like the Coupé — and delivers the same first-rate roadholding, grip and composure. There is a total absence of any body-flexing and hood down with the electric windows up and the extra cost rear air diffuser screen in place, it is a refined full-convertible with minimal wind intrusion.

Even though the elbow room and the width have increased in the rear over the old models, it can still feel cramped and legroom is more suited to children.

The climate control system is exceptional: it keeps you cool on really hot days and warms you up nicely in chilly but sunny and dry con-ditions. Sadly it doesn't offer the excellent Mercedes pioneered 'scarf heat' facility which keeps the neck and head warm when required.

Standard equipment is, however, pretty generous and includes four electric windows, electric door mirrors, automatic lights and wipers, an on-board computer, Xenon headlights, powered seats with driver's memory function, 'Welcome' and 'Follow-Me-Home' lighting, cruise control, climate control, rear parking sensors and a set of run-flat tyres. There's also a comprehensive array of active and passive safety kit.

As with all premium cars these days, purchase costs are high and the long list of 'must have' extra cost options loads the purchase price quite heavily — the two models I tried this week both had extra costs options totalling over 7,000. Most BMW buyers will not consider this a hardship and many won't mind the tight-ish rear seat legroom or that the roof has to be partially opened to access luggage in the boot.

What they will appreciate is the quality of the engineering, the tor-sional rigidity, the convertible roof operation and the bigger dimensions and consequently increased interior space. They can take for granted the great driving performance and the Convertible's elegant looks. So while BMW-badged style and excellence do come at a considerable price, that has never — and will not now — stop this latest 3 Series Convertible becoming a huge sales success. — David Miles.

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BMW 325i SE Convertible | 33,250
Maximum speed: 151mph | 0-62mph: 8.1 seconds
Overall test MPG: 34.9mpg | Power: 218bhp | Torque: 199lb ft

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