2006 BMW M3 Convertible Review


2006 BMW M Series Convertible (select to view enlarged photo)

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

2006 BMW M3 Convertible

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for BMW

Is the BMW M3 convertible a kinder, gentler M car? Yes it is, but only relative to the serious, take-no-prisoners M3 coupe. The convertible is still an extremely capable sports car, with first-class chassis dynamics and engine performance. If its drop-top, and the extra 365 pounds in associated hardware and lower chassis bracing mellow it out, it's only by the tiniest bit. If the M3 coupe is a laser scalpel for the carving of corner apexes, the convertible is merely a finely-honed conventional surgical scalpel. It's still sharp enough, and then some.

The M3 convertible does have a slightly broader focus than the coupe. It's perfectly happy to have the top dropped (quickly, at the touch of a button, no manual latching or unlatching necessary, thank you) for a spirited but not excessively fast drive on a sunny day. With 333 horsepower to the rear wheels from its unique high-revving 3.2-liter inline six-cylinder engine by way of a six-speed transmission, and a precisely-tuned sports suspension that is also quite comfortable on less than perfectly-paved roads, plus room for four people and a bit of luggage - or two and plenty - it's a grand car for touring less-explored and more interesting roads.

With few exceptions - newly-configured option packages for both coupe and convertible models and standard leather upholstery in the coupe - the BMW M3 is unchanged for 2006. Engineered and built by BMW's M high-performance and motorsports division, it's based on the E46 3-Series, and with the recent introduction of the next-generation E90 3-Series there is reason to suspect an all-new M3 at some point in the future. But the current version has plenty of staying power. Five years after its introduction, even with some much newer competitors, it's still the benchmark in the premium sports coupe and convertible class.

While an M3 convertible can be enjoyed on an uncrowded back road, or even club track day, it's also completely at home in everyday traffic. Its broad powerband, quick reflexes, and excellent brakes add safety as much as performance. My test car had the optional SMG sequential automatically-controlled gearbox, which gave the ability for automatic shifting in traffic, and quick manual control when desired, with no clutch pedal. The SMG can improve both sport and luxury aspects of the car. In a week of relentless rain, with only sporadic sun, the convertible top was snug and dry, and came down quickly when the sun came out. It went back up just as fast, when the clouds came back moments later. With performance and comfort, and fresh-air motoring, the BMW M3 convertible has it all.

APPEARANCE: There have been no changes to the M3's lines since its debut, and none needed. Both the coupe and convertible have the basic lines of their E46 3-Series counterparts - which are also unchanged for 2006. But there are differences between the regular cars and the M cars that, while not immediately apparent to non-enthusiasts, are readily noticed by those who know. In a class where race-inspired styling can be overdone, the M3 is functional and conservative. But those who know immediately recognize the large extra air intakes in the flat lower front fascia, there for cooling air and improved high-speed aerodynamics. And then there is the power dome in the middle of the aluminum hood. At the rear, quad exhausts are the giveaway. The M3's fender flares are larger than those of its standard counterparts, but not overly so. And the vent grilles in the front fenders, inspired by the BMW 507 sports car of the 1950s, are the finishing touch. The proportions of the convertible top ensure a handsome appearance whether it's up or down.

COMFORT: The main reason for the M3's existence is driving, serious driving. And in coupe or convertible form, an M3 is a near-perfect office from which to conduct serious high-performance driving exercises. At its over-$50,000 price, the M3 convertible must also hold its own against cars that are primarily luxury vehicles, and it does so. Firm leather covers both the power-adjustable front seats and the rear bench. The front sports seats are firmly and provide excellent comfort and support, and any driver can find the perfect driving position. The rear seat is spacious enough for two adults under 5-10 or so, and there is even a reasonable amount of trunk space. Top up, the convertible has the usual large rear quarter panel blind spots, but judicious use of the mirrors helps considerably. Top down, visibility is excellent, and there is just the right amount of wind in the hair.

SAFETY: Excellent handling and stability, four-wheel vented antilock disc brakes and dynamic stability control ensure active safety, and the M3 has all of the passive safety equipment expected of a modern sports-luxury car. Additionally, the convertible has the Rollover Protection System, two rollover bars behind the front seats that deploy automatically if sensors detect an impending rollover.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Some people believe that cars with McPherson strut front suspensions can't handle. Yet BMW has been using struts in front, with a multilink independent rear suspension, since the 1500 of 1962, a direct ancestor of the later 3-Series. And during that time, BMWs have been the benchmark cars for sports sedan and coupe handling. So the M3, like the E46 3-Series, uses MacPherson struts in the front, with a multilink rear setup. But almost all suspension components are unique to the M3, and stronger than those of the regular coupe or convertible to safely handle the increased loads generated by the M3's greater capabilities. Calibration is firm, but it's not at all harsh, and it's comfortable enough, in a sports way, for the M3 to be a very reasonable everyday car. It's also a fine choice for performance driving including time trials, driving schools, and autocrosses. Even with the loss of the coupe's structural top, the convertible exhibited only insignificant cowl shake, and then only on the poorest and roughest of roads. It's just as precise in its turn-in and grippy in its cornering abilities as the coupe.

PERFORMANCE: Inline six-cylinder engines have been a BMW specialty since the 1930s, but the 3.2-liter S54 is like no other. Sure, it has 24 valves, actuated by dual overhead cams, each with BMW's VANOS variable cam phasing system. But nearly every part of the M3 engine was designed with the highest performance in mind. The result is an engine that makes 333 horsepower at 7900 rpm - just below its 8000 redline - and 262 lb-ft of torque at 4900 rpm. The figures suggest and strong midrange and screaming top end, and the figures don't lie. Still, there is more than merely adequate low-rpm torque for easy everyday driving, with plenty of reserve. Need to accelerate quickly? Not going to be a problem. With or without SMG, the gearbox is a six-speed Getrag manual. SMG adds Formula One-derived computer-controlled electronic and hydraulic control mechanisms to enable fully-automatic operation, or driver shift control without direct use of the clutch. There is no clutch pedal. Manual shifting is done by a short shift lever in the console, or two plastic paddles on the steering column, behind the steering wheel. Shift speed and clutch engagement sharpness may be adjusted with a button on the console. Shifting can be smooth and leisurely, or it can be fast and assertive, and the system matches revs perfectly when downshifting.

CONCLUSIONS: Even after five years, the BMW M3 stands at the top of the premium sports coupe and convertible class.

SPECIFICATIONS
2006 BMW M3 Convertible

Base Price	   $ 56,600
Price As Tested    $ 67,070
Engine Type	dual overhead cam 24-valve inline
		6-cylinder with variable valve timing 
		and 6 individual throttles				       
Engine Size   	3.2 liters / 198 cu. in.
Horsepower	333 @ 7900 rpm
Torque(lb-ft) 	262 @ 4900 rpm
Transmission	6-speed manual 
                with electro-hydraulic shift control
Wheelbase/Length 107.5 in. / 176.9 in.
Curb Weight	3781 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower11.4
Fuel Capacity	 16.6 gal.
Fuel Requirement  91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires	   F:P225/40 ZR19 R: P255/35 ZR19
Brakes      Front: vented disc / Rear: vented disc, ABS
Suspension  Front: independent strut
		   Rear: independent multilink
Drivetrain  Front engine, rear-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy  - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		16 / 22 / 16
0 to 60 mph				5.4  sec (mfg)

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Cold Weather Package - includes: 
  heated front seats, retractable headlight
  washers, ski bag				$  750
Power front lumbar support			$  400
Xenon headlamps					$  700
Navigation system				$1,800
Harmon-Kardon sound system			$  675
19-inch alloy wheels				$1,750
SMG sequential manual gearbox			$2,400
Destination charge				$  695
Gas-guzzler charge				$1,300

Complete specifications on the 2006 BMW M3 Convertible and other vehicles are available at the New Car Buyers Guide!

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