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2007 BMW 3 Series Coupe Convertible Review


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BMW 3 SERIES CONVERTIBLE COUPE AT THE BMW-PGA CHARITY PRO-AM
South Carolina is for Convertibles and Golf
From a Shunpiker’s Journal
By Steve Purdy and Joe Chagnon
TheAutoChannel.com
Detroit Bureau

Western North Carolina is a beautiful part of the country, nestled along the lower reaches of the Appalachians and defined by the Great Smoky Mountains and its foothills. The Cliffs golf communities are scattered among the valleys just south and east of the Smokies in the lush, green foothills of North and South Carolina. Joe and I scooted down there last week to cover the BMW-PGA Charity Pro-Am golf tournament. We had hoped to play some golf ourselves but Joe pulled up lame just a few days before our departure. We still took our clubs, just in case.

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Our ride was the sexy new BMW 3 Series convertible-hardtop in a striking, electric blue - the fourth generation 3 Series convertible. It’s only an 11-hour drive from our Michigan base to our resort near the golf courses, Fairfield Sapphire Valley, a ski and golf resort just north of the state line between the Carolinas. You know how we love a long drive, especially in such a driver’s car, so it was a breeze. It was too cold for the top down when we left at the crack of dawn but by the time we got to Kentucky we were open-air motoring.

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Our host, and one of the creators of this tournament, is a character of the first order. I first met Bobby Hitt a few months before the Spartanburg BMW factory started producing 3 Series sedans for the US market in the 90s. He led a tour of the gleaming plant for a bunch of us motor heads. Bobby is a newspaper guy from South Carolina, with a rich voice and charming accent whom BMW recruited to help honcho their first effort at manufacturing in the US. Bobby was the perfect guy because he knows everybody and exudes a classic southern charm while getting things done. And he loves a good time.

We’re also looking forward to meeting celebs like Kevin Costner, Wayne Gretzky, Jim Rice, Ben Wright, Cheech Marin, George Lopez and Gary Player, along with more than two dozen other notables, who are playing in the tournament this week. The celebs and amateurs are paired with 168 professional golfers for three rounds of golf at three different Cliffs golf courses on three days. Approximately sixty of the best professionals and the best 14 amateur teams play a fourth round at the Cliffs Valley course on Sunday televised on The Golf Channel. For the professionals it’s all part of the PGA’s Nationwide series leading to a 2008 PGA player card for the top 25 money winners at the end of the 2007 season.

The BMW is a wonderful road car - small, concise, tight and upscale. The 3 Series is, as the tag line says, a driver’s car. We were afraid this convertible-coupe (with a folding hard top) might not allow us enough cargo area for our clubs and essentials for a week-long road trip with the top down, but we managed just fine. The top folds up quite efficiently into the trunk with a few cubic feet of space to spare under the stiff folding panel that must be in place for the top to go down. Joe fit his two clothing and loose-stuff bags under the panel. Our two golf bags and all of my stuff went into the back seat. The rear seat back folds down to protect the leather when cargo hauling and a handy mesh cover with fold-up wind deflector covers it all pretty well. We had space to spare, though not much.

With our sunscreen slathered on we settled into a good speed on the freeway - I-75 to Knoxville and I-40 west into the mountains. The 3-Series is not at all harsh or jumpy at extra-legal highway speeds. We’d characterize it as solid and crisp. The heated leather seats are shapley and firm but not too hard for long-range comfort. The 3.0-liter, in-line 6-cylinder makes 230 horsepower and 200 foot-pounds of torque. That’s more than adequate, though certainly not impressive by today’s standards. A 300-horsepower, turbo-charged version is available if you’re after the really impressive power. That’s the first turbo gasoline engine, by the way, in the BMW stables in 20 years.

The six-speed automatic transmission, called Steptronic, allows manual shifting with just a bump of the shifter. It automatically downshifts one gear as we switch it out of drive then we can manipulate it up or down. That trans works great with spirited mountain driving, but it creeps rather strongly at idle. I sometimes like to pop into neutral at a stop light rather than holding firmly on the brake pedal. This BMW makes us press the brake pedal again to go back into gear – unnecessary and annoying. We love the hill holding function at stop, though.

And what a great looking car it is, with a no-nonsense German flair and a powerful stance that implies road competence. The dual round headlights with colored halo are overslung by an intense brow that extends to a point around the side of the fender. The multiple horizontal lines of the body shout movement sweeping easily upward to the rear. With the top up it looks virtually identical to the 3 Series coupe. With top down it looks sleek and natural. That vivid blue paint has an obvious orange-peel. We hope that’s just an early production problem, not a pervasive one.

Base price for the 3 Series Convertible is $43,200. Our test car with automatic transmission, premium package and few other extras, stickers out at $49,825.

THE CLIFFS – A BUNCH OF THEM

The Cliffs are a group of seven upscale, gated golf communities scattered around the valleys in this part of the Carolinas. Truly spectacular home sites and condos with heavenly views surround and overlook carefully manicured golf courses. The newest one, opened recently, sold some building lots at over 2-million dollars. Of course they’re not all that pricey. The BMW-PGA Charity Pro-Am is played at three of these courses: the Cliffs Valley, the Cliffs at Keowee Vineyards and the Cliffs at Walnut Cove near Ashville.

We found Bobby Hitt standing on the deck of the clubhouse at the Cliffs Valley course chatting with some pals as we arrived to pick up our credentials. He explained that the whole idea of doing this huge week-long golf event started as a way to keep a major golf event in the area. BMW was looking for an event to compliment its huge presence in the area.

“BMW is about style and we want to bring lots of people within the BMW bubble,” he explained, “We wanted to do something with celebrities because that would draw more amateurs and the public. And, of course, it all supports our charities.”

It is a logistical feat managing such an event featuring three separate charity outings early in the week, three days of Pro-Am rounds, and a final, televised round with the pros and top finishing Pro-Am teams. All this happens on three different courses about 45-minutes apart. Four full-time, year-around staff members make it happen along with about 1200 volunteers who see this as the social and networking event of the year.

Speaking of networking, after a lovely lunch on the deck and a fascinating conversation with a lady in a high-fashion hat, Faith St. Clair, the volunteer in charge of amateur registration who owns an insurance business in Greenville, Joe and I wanted to rush out to buy some identity theft insurance. But instead we walked the Cliffs Valley course following some young pros getting in a practice round. Large bunker-guarded greens and tree-lined broad fairways, meticulously manicured and dressed off with colorful plantings of perennials, annuals and wildflowers along with ponds and a meandering stream characterize this challenging Ben Wright-designed course that wanders through this scenic valley in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.

On the way back to our condo at the ski area called Safire Valley we scouted the Cliffs at Keowee Vineyards just off Highway 11, 45-minutes to the southeast. It was late. We had a couple hours until dark. We walked the front nine until the light was just too far gone. In the dark we continue walking along hole number nine figuring that it would bring us to the clubhouse. No such luck. In the pitch dark, fatigued from walking up and down the steep hills, with coyote pups yipping in the distance, it took us another half hour of hiking to find our way out.

The Tom Fazzio-designed Koewee Vineyards, course is much different than the Valley course. Fazzio is one of Joe’s favorite designers. The drama of massive stone walls holding back Mother Nature on most holes, small vineyards planted around the course and lovely Koewee Lake bordering six greens and two tee boxes. Perhaps the most scenic of the three courses, Vineyards beauty and course artistry is second to none. Fazzio is best known for his exceptionally aesthetic course designs.

Finally, on another day, we scouted the third course near Ashville, North Carolina called The Cliffs at Walnut Cove. I didn’t notice any walnut trees but just above the 18th green, next to the clubhouse is one of the most beautiful, huge, symmetrical oak trees I’ve seen anywhere. Joe and I copped a cart and drove around the course following the amazing 71-year-old Gary Player for a time on the back nine and marveled at Player’s acumen and this dramatic, challenging Jack Nicholas-designed course. The terraces seem to go on forever as the course zigs and zags down the slopes to criss-cross a rocky, clear mountain stream. This is the longest of the three, stretching 7278 yards, and arguably the toughest. While we were admiring the number 7 hole and watching a skinny young professional practice his 300-yard drive one of Bobby’s hired helicopters swooped in to pick up Mr. Player and his entourage and whisk them off . . . somewhere.

A TOUR OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD

We’ve checked in at the media room and secured our credentials. We’ve scouted two of the three golf courses we’ll be covering. Now it’s time for a little exploration of the neighborhood. By that I mean the foothills and the mountains on either side of the state line between the Carolinas, mostly the North Carolina side. We expect, as usual, we’ll meet some interesting folks along the way.

We didn’t have to look far to find our first character.

What do you think a Yale educated (Masters degree in fine art with specialty in art of the Renaissance), son of a WWII war hero, Vietnam vet, beer loving party guy might be doing in the tiny mountain town of Cashier, North Carolina? Well, we found him carving away at some pretty unusual chain-saw sculptures in what we could call his outdoor storefront workshop. His real name is R. K. Harniman. He used to be known as “The Tree Carver” but that became too cumbersome so now he just goes by “Tree.”

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A handsome fellow with close-cropped white beard and intense blue eyes who looks much younger than we calculate him to be, Tree has won three national championships in his art form, using only a custom, turbo-charged, 18,000-rpm, pointy-barred chain saw. He also won an international ice sculpting competition, much to the chagrin and consternation of his high-faloutin’ Japanese competitors who thought this crude carver of tree stumps had no business in this most sophisticated of culinary arts. He is also in the Guinnes Book of World Records for having carved the largest tree sculpture in the world – a likeness of Sir Walter Raleigh for a shopping mall in Raleigh, NC – and he has exposed the treasures within big hunks of wood for the rich and famous all over the US. And, he’s been doing it for more than 40 years.

He creates his art here, he explains, because this is where people appreciate and can afford his art . He seems amused by the amount people are willing to pay for his works but we agree that just makes them patrons of the arts. Fine art was supported that way during the Renaissance after all.

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And what art it is. He shared some of his portfolio with us as we gasped at the unusual subjects of his art as well as the scale of many projects. He’s currently working on a piece called Screaming Thunder, an eagle atop a globe, to honor POWs and MIAs from all wars. His father, as we said, was one.

Most intriguing about the feisty and irreverent Tree is his reverence for his late father. He shared with us that growing up with his dad was quite a challenge because of the latter’s military values, regimentation and demanding nature but it is obvious that he has an abiding respect for his progenitor and has dedicated a number of his projects to the recently deceased old man.

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Our loop drive for the rest of the day features the Blue Ridge Parkway. After a stop at a great little produce stand just out of Highland for some veggies and a sweet roll to share, we wound through more great mountain roads (Highway 64) experiencing the BMW’s crisp handling. The sophisticated suspension, rear-wheel-drive and 50/50 weight distribution make for a balanced and predictable run through these twisty roads.

We stopped at a little waterfall and while turning around in their gravel pull-off area we scraped bottom again. This is the third time – the first being in a McDonalds parking lot in Ohio. This BMW sure is low-slung, must be about 3 inches of ground clearance. Of course that’s helpful in keeping the center of gravity low.

For lunch we had a couple of nice plump burgers at Mom & Pop’s Burger Shack in Sylva. We enjoyed gracious dining under the metal roof providing shade for a few rough picnic tables. Obviously a popular spot with the working folks the Burger Shack serves tasty and cheap burgers. And the onion rings were a buck and a quarter. With the car full of gas and we full of lunch we mounted the Blue Ridge Parkway where it intersects Highway 74 and we headed east toward Ashville.

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The views, as anyone familiar with that road will attest are amazing. We pulled out at every opportunity to soak it all up. At the outcropping called Devils Courthouse we hiked up to the tip and admired the panoramic views chatting with three lads from Colombia, South Carolina. Two were college students and the third had just graduated and is getting married in a few days, so they were cruising the Blue Ridge Parkway as a last guy trip together – sort of a bachelor trip. Just below the tip a Peregrine hawk was tending two youngsters in her rock-cliff nest. Along the path we found a variety of trillium I’d never seen before hiding under the overhanging brush.

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A few stops further we ran into some motorcyclists, one of whom, Tim Caron an internet marketer from Tennessee, was on a brand-new BMW two-wheeler. We photographed these two slick vehicles side-by-side as we talked about the thrill of driving these mountain roads in either a motorcycle or a convertible. The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of those great mountain roads popular with the two-wheeling crowd.

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Looking Glass Rock is what I’ve been looking for on this drive and finally there it was, just a few miles before we intended to get off at Highway 276 - a huge outcropping of smooth, high, curvaceous granite, that when glazed with sheets of rain or occasionally ice is as reflective as a looking glass. Sitting alone in the near valley it’s one of those rock formations that once seen sticks in your mind. It looks sort of like Atlanta’s Stone Mountain with more trees and less carving. It puts me in mind of what a Native American guide told me a few weeks ago in Sedona, that all things, including rocks, have a consciousness, a spirit. If ever there was a rock with a spirit it’s this one.

Joe was antsy wondering if there was a way to get closer to the rock – perhaps even hike to it. I was skeptical - a bit of a role reversal in our personalities. He’s usually the skeptical one. Well, on the way down Highway 276, which happens to be right behind that rock, we turned onto a short side road to explore a fish hatchery. In the parking lot a couple of older fellows were sitting on the tailgate of a pickup – probably a couple of hatchery workers ending their day. We pulled up and asked if there was a way get close to the rock.

“Sure,” one of the fellows said. “Just turn up ‘at gravel road and when she splits take the right fork. A few miles back you’ll see a trailhead. It’s a long pull up but it’ll take ya right to the nose o’ that rock face. You can even kiss ‘er if you want to.”

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He was right. It was a long pull up, and up, and up. . . and up some more to the nose of Looking Glass Rock. It was an amazing, nearly shear face of solid rock but because of its curvature we could only see about a hundred feet of it. Bummer. We didn’t kiss the rock but we pressed against it and quietly felt the majesty, and perhaps even the spirit, of that massive hunk of granite.

It was dark by the time we came down from that hike. The dust was flying on the dirt road but we were back on smooth pavement in no time. The top was down as the tiniest crescent of a moon appeared. Ain’t open-air motoring grand? We passed a large glowing mound of honeysuckle on the ditch bank and the sweet aroma wafted into the car. The BMW’s Xenon adaptive headlights burned back the dark in bright mode and showed our way around the tight corners of the mountain roads taking us back to our base at Sapphire Valley.

BACK TO THE GOLF

Young David Hearn led the pack at the Valley course on Thursday, the first day of competition, with a masterful 9-under par, 63.

“Got off to a real good start,” he said modestly.

We asked whether this format of three days playing with the amateurs and celebs makes it tougher to concentrate than the more common format of playing unofficially with the amateurs the day before competition begins - then playing just with the pros during four days of competition.

“Not at all,” he said. “It’s really quite relaxing . . . doesn’t hurt my concentration at all.”

“These Cliffs courses are a pleasure to play,” he added.

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Joe and I wandered the course following a variety of groups. We watched as a handsome, young pro missed his eagle putt from 4-feet away on the long par 5, number 17 hole. It just amazes me what some of these lanky pros can do with that ball. Then we followed the cute super model/actress, Joanna Krupa, who smacked the ball well . . . about every third shot. She had the biggest gallery. Her content may lack substance but her form was admirable.

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Day two on the Vineyard course drew quite a few fans, perhaps because Kevin Costner and Gary Player were there. Player, being the consummate professional and Senior Tour player, was intense and reserved. Costner, on the other hand, is a pleasure to follow and is a real crowd pleaser. After finishing every hole he tossed his ball to someone in the crowd and bantered easily with everyone. A couple of groups behind Costner our host and pal Bobby Hitt launched his best drive of the day just as I shot his photo. He’ll want that photo for his wall.

The advantage of the BMW-PGA Nationwide Pro-Am for the amateurs is that they can play just about all the golf they want for the whole week, including three, or maybe even four, rounds with the pros. The entry fee is steep, but it covers a lot of golf and plenty of social events. Russell Rice, a business jet dealer from Dallas, Texas, played the courses seriously. He sees this as a treat he can provide himself as a break from an intense business life. His pretty wife just enjoyed her stroll following him around, chatting with the other spectators and soaking up the ambiance of this high-zoot event.

The advantage for the pros is that they can win a really big purse - $117,000 – and the keys to a brand new BMW X5 crossover SUV worth close to 50-grand. We’re not talking about a lease here. The winner gets the car. A total purse of over $600,000 is spread among the leaders and the top 25 money winners of the Nationwide Tour will beautomatically qualified to compete in the PGA Tour, the big league.

REVIEW AND CONCLUSIONS

As you may have gathered we were enamored with this part of the Carolinas - the winding roads, the breathtaking vistas, the charming people, the equally charming towns, the flora and the fauna. My pretty blonde and I will be down there again in a couple of weeks and I’ll show her around the great spots Joe and I . She’ll love it too.

Bobby Hitt told me earlier in the week that the goal of the BMW-PGA Charity Pro-Am was to make it the best event of its kind in the country - the best of the PGA’s Nationwide Tour events and the best community event ever to grace this part of the Carolinas. I asked if he feels like that goal has been met. “I sure do,” he offered without hesitation. I certainly wouldn’t doubt that assessment.

The car, as well, is designed by BMW to be the best of its kind. It’s tight, agile, good-looking, classy and mighty functional, particularly right for us driving enthusiasts. Performance is all we expected, and our expectations were high. After all, it is the newest 3 Series, the target most makers of small sport sedans shoot for. EPA estimates are for 20 to 30 miles/gallon and we consistently managed 25 even with our spirited mountain driving and open-air aerodynamics. And, we got more stuff into it than we could have expected.

Sunday afternoon, after a long week of events and a close competition Bobby Hitt presented the sparkling cut-glass trophy and the keys to the new BMW X5 in front of The Golf Channel cameras to the young Australian Nick Flanagan from New South Wales. Obviously not in his element in front of the camera, Flanagan nevertheless accepted the keys and the trophy graciously. His low-key style was endearing. He came in at 15 stokes under par in this 72-hole tournament beating the next closest challenger, Nicholas Thompson, by only one stroke.

Janet Jones-Gretzky and her pro partner, Darren Angel won the Pro-Am/Pro-Celeb portion of the tournament donating their $10,000 winnings to one of the participating charities.

Just about 42,000 fans showed up to watch the tournament this year and hundreds of thousand of dollars were generated for local charities. But best of all, Joe and I got to run around the Carolina foot hills in this great BMW 3 Series convertible - with the top down most of the time. And no one got a sunburn.

Sunday afternoon, after a long week of events and a close competition, Bobby Hitt presented the sparkling cut-glass trophy and the keys to the new BMW X5 in front of The Golf Channel cameras to the young Australian Nick Flanagan from New South Wales. Flanagan says he has never owned a car. After birdies on 6 of the last 8 holes Flanagan came in at 15 stokes under par in this 72-hole tournament beating the next closest challenger, Nicholas Thompson, by only one stroke in an amazing come-from-behind charge for the win.

For all the details on the BMW-PGA golf tourney check out their high-content Website: www.bmwcharitygolf.com. You might want to play next year.

Check out the gracious golf living at: www.cliffscommunities.com. Homesites starting in the $300,000s.

Sorry to report, our new friend “Tree Carver” doesn’t have a Web presence. But watch for him in the news. He’s always doing something news worthy.

© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions All Rights Reserved