Not all automakers are subscribers to the idea that a convertible is merely a coupe with a soft top. While there is certainly no shortage of drop tops which have been derived from the 'remove roof and serve' philosophy, there are some manufacturers which put a great deal more effort into their topless offerings. This helps them avoid many of the tedious characteristics associated with less carefully built convertibles: cowl shake, body flex and excessive rolling through corners. Some convertibles are designed from the ground up to not require the roof as a primary structural component, and this greatly enhances the vehicle's overall rigidity.
Over the past two decades, BMW has released some of the most attractive, fun to drive and exquisitely-styled convertibles to be found on modern roads. The BMW 3 Series has become a perennial candidate for drop top treatment, as its smaller platform size, sporty image and young demographic have served to make it a popular fun in the sun vehicle. As the 3 Series coupe has grown from tiny compact to a car that is nibbling at the lower range of the mid-size market, the convertible has evolved along with it, becoming more of a grand touring vehicle than a sports car but living up to its classy reputation quite well.
Two of BMW's most recent convertibles have had a much different genesis. The BMW Z3 was intended to provide the company with its first roadster in decades, a small and nimble vehicle with a sharp, shark-like shout and aggressive front quarter panel gills. The Z3 was available in a wide range of flavors from mild to wild, allowing a greater number of buyers to sample the car that best fit into their budget. The vehicle also acquired a favorable reputation amongst amateur racers thanks to its light weight and excellent response to aftermarket modifications.
In contrast, the 6 Series convertible was built to provide a luxurious top down motoring experience that was more concerned with mowing down mile after highway mile at autobahn speeds than deftly negotiating the twisties. This imposing rag top is as solid as the coupe whose chassis it shares, and the vehicle is an excellent example of modern convertible engineering.
This article provides those shopping for a used convertible with an overview of each of these vehicles from BMW, highlighting their strongest features and making a case for why each of them is deserving of a test drive.
2001 - 2006 BMW M3 Convertible
The M3 has long represented the pinnacle of BMW's sports coupe development. Neither vastly overpowering nor supremely slimmed down, the M3 stands as an all-around performance vehicle that has something to offer almost everything driving enthusiast. Wearing a somewhat bulging version of the standard BMW 3 Series body, the M3 is also largely a wolf in sheep's clothing, particularly if ordered in a non-descript color.
Taking center stage under the hood of the 2001 - 2006 BMW M3 convertible is a 3.2-liter inline six-cylinder engine that produces 333 horsepower at a very high 7,900 rpm. Torque output is 262 lb-ft at just under 5,000 revs, making the M3 an easy car to launch off of the line and one that is also quite capable of highway passes that occur in the blink of an eye. The BMW M3 can hit 60 miles per hour in just 4.6 seconds when accelerating from a standstill, and the vehicle is electronically limited to 155 miles per hour - quite fast enough for the wind to blow a driver's hair back.
The 2001 - 2006 BMW M3's suspension is tuned more for tight cornering than comfort, and when combined with the vehicle's stiff chassis the ride can be a little bit bumpy. Other than that, both driver and passenger will appreciate the high-grade Nappa leather than comes standard with all M3 convertibles, along with attractive M-branded gauges and automatic climate control to help keep occupants warm with the top down on a cool evening. There are two rear seating positions, but unless one is transporting children it is probably a better idea to just leave them empty - leg room is tight.
When it comes to a used high-performance drop top, it is hard to approach the gutsiness and refinement of the 2001 - 2006 BMW M3 convertible.
1998 - 2003 BMW Z3
The Mazda Miata drew a lot of attention from sports-oriented automakers when it first hit the scene in 1989, and its popularity grew to the point where BMW became convinced of the need to sell their own compact roadster. Introduced in 1996, the car featured a combination of older BMW suspension components and engines mixed with a fresh visual style that was unlike anything else the company had to offer. Over time, the Z3 would be increasingly improved until it offered the power and performance that buyers were looking for.
The 1998 Z3 was the last to feature a 1.9-liter, four-cylinder engine option in the base model. Rated at only 138 horsepower, this unpopular power plant was replaced the following year by a 170 horsepower, 2.5-liter straight six. Either year of the vehicle could also be upgraded with a more powerful 189 horsepower 2.8-liter mill. In 2001, BMW removed the 2.8-liter unit and added a new range topper, a 3.0-liter engine good for 225 horsepower. All versions of the car are available with a 5-speed manual transmission or an optional 5-speed automatic.
The 1998 - 2003 BMW Z3 is the most agile vehicle from that particular era of BMW design, a convertible which pushes owners to pilot it faster and faster in a vain attempt to find a driving situation it can't handle. The vehicle's dash and gauges saw a refresh in 2001, and this newer design combined with the better engine options makes later cars a better deal for used shoppers. The rest of the interior is small but livable, less luxury oriented and more focused on convenience and easy of use. Heated leather seats, included in the optional sport package help to warm up cold bodies on chilly fall days spent with the roof retracted and a canopy of bright red, orange and yellow leaves above.
In terms of fun factor and styling, the 1998 - 2003 BMW Z3 is a great car for drivers in search of a used convertible toy for weekend jaunts on twisty roads.
2004 - 2007 BMW 6 Series Convertible
Not all convertible lovers are interested in taking every corner's apex at full throttle, or bouncing around in a stiff yet responsive chassis. There are some buyers who prefer to sample the outside air from the cockpit of a very well appointed, very powerful grand touring car. The 2004 - 2007 BMW 6 Series convertible provides a commanding and regal position from which to observe the world pass by at rapid but serene speeds. This full-size vehicle is the pinnacle of BMW's luxury open top program.
The first two years of 6 Series production saw the vehicle offered exclusively with a 4.4-liter V-8 engine that was capable of producing 325 horsepower and 330 lb-ft of torque. While this would be enough for most buyers, in 2006 this motor was supplanted by a 4.8-liter unit that punched out 35 more horses. A 6-speed manual or automatic transmission are both available for either engine. No matter which motor the vehicle is equipped with, the 2004 - 2007 BMW 6 Series convertible is seriously quick, demonstrating an almost endless urge to accelerate that will leave most drivers holding onto the steering wheel with white knuckles. Traction and stability control work together to keep the 6 Series right side up even in treacherous weather conditions.
The 6 Series convertible's interior is for all intents and purposes the proverbial lap of luxury. For drivers concerned with staying constantly informed about their vehicle's status, a heads up display projects important data onto the windshield where it can be easily read while the vehicle is in motion. Beautiful heated leather seats, a sound system loud enough to deal with the wind rushing by the driver's head, and features like active cruise control and parking assist load up the vehicle's features list.
The 2004 - 2007 BMW 6 Series isn't inexpensive, but nor is it easily matched in terms of features, presence or power by other used full-size convertibles.