One of the major tenets of the Shaker communal groups whose innovative farms once flourished in America was, "Every force evolves a form," and I think this phrase neatly sums up a dynamic at work within BMW. The "force" in this case radiates from BMW's 30-year-old subsidiary called M, renowned for its massaging of production-line BMWs into exceptional performance machines. And the particular evolved "form" is the new M3, which has just joined our long-term fleet in convertible configuration.
Called the "lifestyle" M3 in a BMW press release, the Convertible does indeed incontrovertibly [sorry] change your approach to, if not your style of life, then at the very least your style of performance motoring. Speed doesn't matter quite so much as in a fixed-roof car, and you end up watching more of The Weather Channel than the financial networks. You search local maps for the squiggles of hidden roads instead of heading straight for the fast lane of the high road, and you become so in tune with engine, exhaust and tire feedback that the slightest variation in pitch or volume is seized upon and noted. (This, of course, can be infuriating to spouses and significant others, who also vie for that invaluable in-car ear-time.)
Prepared to suffer these changes, we accepted (with a mixture of glee and fear) BMW's offer to trump our sorely missed 330i long-termer with this silver beauty. The entire staff twitched in unison when it was delivered, and we rushed to examine its many delights. Lifestyle car it may be, but it still has the same gear which makes the M3 Coupe so brutally lovely: a 333-bhp 3.2-liter inline six mated to a six-speed gearbox; revised suspension and dynamic stability aids, including a new M Variable Differential Lock; big 18-in. wheels and tires; and body, interior and and trim treatments. The sticker on our 2001 car, reflecting the higher standard content of the M3 Convertible when compared to the Coupe, was $53,400.
However, the good news here is that our optioned car's full price isn't a whole lot more. With its several extras (metallic paint, $475; xenon headlamps, $500; AM/FM/CD player, $200; Harman-Kardon sound system, $675) plus destination charge of $645 and gas guzzler tax of $1,000, the sticker reaches $56,895. Unfortunately, because of the car's relative rarity, we've heard of dealers asking for way more than that for an M3 Convertible, and we've even been shouted at by other drivers and pedestrians, asking if our car were for sale.
We can understand the demand. This is a simply gorgeous car, particularly with the top down. From the nose to the A-pillar, it's identical to the M3 Coupe, but a more steeply rising beltline accentuates the car's wedge and gives it a visually lower stance. It appears to be leaping forward even at rest. To further separate the car from its sibling, front, side and rear M-specific spoilers, vents, grilles and gills add subtle yet aggressive touches.
Even with top up, the car imparts a sense of caged fury. The fully lined, fully automatic folding soft-top, which is deployed via a set of buttons on the center console or through the remote control, has a heated, glass rear window. As in the "regular" 3 Series ragtop, trunk space is maximized by a variable top compartment that holds the folded top and then swings up out of the way when the top is deployed. A removable aluminum hardtop, wind deflector, roof-rack carrier system and trunk-to-interior ski bag are also available.
As befits a luxury car, the standard equipment list is stuffed with good stuff: 10-way power front sport seats with two-way manual thigh support; power easy-entry rear seat control; central locking with keyless entry; tilt/telescoping multi-function M sport steering wheel; on-board computer; 10-speaker stereo; anti-theft system; dual front and side airbags; Rollover Protection System; seat-integrated front safety belts with automatic pretensioners and force limiters; halogen free-form foglights; M Mobility System, which includes tire pressure monitoring; auto-dimming inside rearview mirror; heated M-style rearview mirrors with passenger-side auto tilt-down when reversing; electric interior trunk release; and pre-wiring for a CD changer, cell phone, alarm system and garage door opener. There's probably more, but you get the point.
Standard running gear is M Double Spoke alloys with a satin chrome finish, 18s all around, with 8.0s up front and 9.0s in back. The Z-rated Continental tires measure 225/45 and 255/40, front and rear, and were developed specially for the M3.
Our car was delivered with almost 1,500 miles on the odometer, the breaking-in process entrusted to BMW technicians. As this goes to press, Southern California is enjoying one of its fabled Indian summers, and so far the M3 Convertible experience is nothing less than beautiful.
For the Shakers, an object's beauty emanated from its utility. In "Shaker Light," Guy Davenport wrote that "what we perceive as character and dignity in Shaker design is their triumphant demonstration that form is good sense." Here too there seems to be a connection between Shaker thought and BMW's approach to the design and manufacturing of automobiles.
Though BMW cars are stuffed with amenities, are indeed a luxury brand, they're first and foremost sensible transportation modules, their forms designed for the act of driving. BMWs are purposeful in their mechanical detail and unadorned by aesthetic excess. They have been designed and engineered to become, again using Davenport's words, "the most useful form...as proof that beauty and usefulness are the same thing."