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2008 BMW 328i Hardtop Convertible Review

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Touring the Blue Ridge Mountains
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

The Southern Appalachians is one of those regions within easy driving distance from our Southern Michigan base where we can find great mountain roads to test special cars. So my pretty blonde arranged a stay at Lake Lure in the Blue Ridge Mountains for our thorough test of this cool blue BMW 328i convertible/hardtop. It’s an easy 11-hour drive: south on I-75, east at Knoxville onto I-40 as far as Asheville then a winding 30 mile ride through the mountains on US 74 just past Chimney Rock to Bill’s Creek Road along the east side of Lake Lure and finally Buffalo Creek Road into the Fairfield Mountains Resort. We stayed there nearly 20 years ago when my pretty blonde’s Firebird was new and we had a great time exploring the mountain roads climbing Chimney Rock and visiting the magnificent Vanderbilt estate in Asheville. Let’s see what we find and how this BMW fares.

[About a year ago my pal Joe and I tested the BMW 3-Series convertible/hardtop on a road trip to South Carolina to check out the BMW PGA Nationwide Tour golf event. We spent a great deal of time on the mountain roads with the top down driving with aplomb. Read about that road trip and travel adventure here at TheAutoChannel:

An amazing amount of stuff fit in the trunk, at least with the top up. We left just after dawn and arrived just before dusk. Our run along the freeways was quick and easy. We managed a solid 28-mpg on premium fuel averaging 75 to 80-mph with the top up and AC on low. The 328i’s highway road manners are excellent. Acceleration is strong, though this is the 3-Series’ smallest engine making about 230 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. Like all BMW engines it sounds melodic at high rpms. Performance is certainly more than adequate with the six-speed Steptronic automatic transmission keeping us in the optimum rpm range. A slick 0.30 coefficient of drag helps that mileage as well.

Somewhere in central Ohio I noticed the “service engine soon” light was on. Some earlier driver absconded with the owner’s manual so we had to wait until we found a BMW dealer to figure out what that means and what might be the fix. More on that later.

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While waiting for my pretty blonde to complete her routine the next morning I had a chance to peruse the window sticker for our test car. The base price of the 328i Convertible is listed as $43,500. Our Montego Blue Metallic paint job costs $550 extra but the beige leather interior is standard. We have an extensive list of options adding up quickly to a bottom line of $54,450. The Steptronic automatic transmission accounts for $1,325 and the navigation system costs $2,100. The other big ticket is the Premium Package which includes the garage door opener, digital compass mirror, automatically dimming mirrors, lumbar support and BMW Assist with Bluetooth accommodation for $2,750. The $1,300 Sport Package includes 18-inch wheels shod with performance tires (225/40R18 Bridgestone Potenza), sport seats and a sport suspension.

The weather here is mighty warm and clear so far so we put the top down on our way out for the day. It’s certainly a smooth operation – just push the button on the console forward and within a few seconds the trunk opens up backwards, the top separates itself into three sections and stack neatly into the hold as the rear section closes. It’s almost like a little mechanical ballet. I continue to be amazed at the ability of engineers to design these complex systems to be so dependable. With the top up you can hardly distinguish it from a 3-Series coupe. With the top down, you’re ready for cruisin’.

We made a wonderful culinary discovery at breakfast. A no-frills little local diner on the road to Rutherfordton called The Coastal & Country Restaurant was nearly empty mid-morning. While we were engrossed in our respective omelets – hers a veggie, mine a western – my pretty blonde was browsing the menu where she found an item called “liver mush.” Now, if you know what that is, you’re probably from this small section of Western North Carolina where liver mush is a beloved staple and virtually unknown outside this region. After Bill, the trucker at the next table, described the delicacy our friendly waitress offered me a sample. Of course I said sure. Like Mikey, I’ll try anything. Made of finely ground pig liver and a few other pig parts (snouts and spleen according the package at the grocery store we found later) mixed with a coarse corn meal and fried crisp, this crisp little rectangle looked like a dark-brown hunk of Spam but it had the distinct flavor of liver and the discernable grittiness of the corn meal. I liked it, perhaps because I’m fond of good liver. A small portion would be plenty because of its richness. For most folks, I’m sure, it would be an acquired taste.

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Another unique charm of this area of the Carolinas is the tenacious kudzu vine. Looking like a large-leafed wild grape the kudzu establishes itself where there is plenty of sunshine and proceeds to envelope everything. It drapes itself over trees, shrubs, buildings, whatever’s in the way and ends up looking like a soft, thick, green blanket making haunting, cartoonesque shapes like green ghosts. Kudzu was imported from the Orient for ornamental purposes but it got away and found a congenial environment here where it is flourishing.

Our initial exploration of the area gave us a chance to check out the BMW’s navigation system. Our local maps did not show any roads crossing the mountains to our north but the navigation system showed Buffalo Creek Road heading that way, so we gave it a try. When that road bent too much east and finally gave out the navigation system showed another road, Cedar Creek Road, bending west then north, just the direction we wanted to go. Cedar Creek Road turned to dirt just a few miles before intersecting Bat Cave Road, but the navigation system made no distinction between the pavement and the dirt. We took that road north to the town of Old Fort where a coupe of small textile plants still survive and a huge furniture factory employs many locals. We looped around to Marion and back south along Sugar Hill Road to Buffalo Creek Road to Lake Lure. The navigation system was reasonably accurate and easy to follow throughout the route. Like all these systems it’s a bit limited when trying to navigate longer distances on lesser roads. And like most of the German systems it is unnecessarily complex and less than intuitive in some functions.

After parrying the advances of the aggressive tag team at the time-share sales office we headed into a BMW dealership near Asheville to have them take a look at the “service engine soon” light problem. Our navigation system took us right to Fletcher BMW where the charming young service guy, Zach Pennstrom, took it right in, scoped it and fixed the problem while we had lunch nearby. It turned out to be a faulty “DMTL” pump which has something to do with fuel tank fumes – no big deal.

The German-built 3-Series Convertible, by the way, is warranted for 4-years/50,000-miles including roadside assistance with 12-year coverage on rust through. It would be hard to fault BMW’s notorious quality which has earned them the prestige the brand engenders.

Asheville, North Carolina, is a beautiful mountain town of about 80,000 souls and the urban center for the Blue Ridge Mountains. The French Broad River (geologist think it may be the third oldest river in the world) runs by the edge of town. The area has been honored repeatedly as one of the best places in the country to live because of climate, environment, health care, lack of crime and other factors. I was curious about the odd river name so asked an old bearded fellow we found downtown. He told me the story:

Shortly after the Revolutionary War the first territorial governor of this area was a middle-aged, single, pioneering fellow. He was very competent and was pressed into service by the federal government to go to France with Ben Franklin on some kind of mission. While there he met and married a beautiful French woman named Yvette Monpetitechou who was excited about coming back to the wilds of the Western Carolinas. Once back here she was so beautiful and charming that she became the darling of the territory. They wanted to honor her by naming the major river of the area after her but since they could neither spell nor pronounce her name they decided to just call it – you guessed it - the French Broad River.

Well, that’s what the old guy said anyway. He might have been pulling my leg.

We picked the wrong day to drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway to the mountain town of Boone. Or did we? The sky was overcast as we left the condo and we could see dense cloudiness on the mountaintops. Once we turned onto the Parkway at Highway 221 we rapidly rose in elevation and soon were in such a dense fog we could see less than thirty feet ahead much of the time. We pulled off at an overlook but could see nothing but the stone rail and perhaps six feet beyond. I put the windows down and turned off the car. There we sat enjoying the quietest, most serene scene imaginable. The limited visibility and the soft smells of the forest made it seem even quieter as we could see the clouds drift through the car right in front of our noses. I got out and soaked up the scene until she insisted we move on. No sound encroached but that of a gentle breeze in the treetops.

Then the rain came – in torrents much of the time. The BMW’s rain-sensing windshield wipers worked magnificently adjusting to the stop and start of the rain and the intensifying and lessening of the fog without any input from me. The performance tires gripped well. I felt not a hint of hydroplaning. The 3-Series is a fine rain runner.

We finally made it to Boone (named for Daniel Boone, of course) where the town’s lower elevation resulted in less heavy but still thick skies. Boone is a bustling college town with narrow, clogged streets and lots of little shops and eateries. In the center of the downtown area we found the famous Mast General Store. One of the locals had recommended it as a local icon. The squeaky wood floors are covered with rows and rows of barrels filled with what we used to call penny candy and other sweets we didn’t even know they made anymore, like candy cigarettes, candy buttons and bracelets and those little wax soda bottles filled with sugar water. The store also features outdoor supplies and clothing along with old fashioned toys and lots of other great old-timey stuff to browse through.

We’ve spent another tank of fuel since arriving in the mountains and now we’re getting 27-mpg. The EPA estimates the range to be 18-mpg in the city and 27-mpg on the highway. This entire tank was spent winding up and down through these endless mountain roads. On most of these roads we’re able to manage little more than an average of 35-mph in spite of the BMW’s crisp handling and precise electric steering. We must remember as well that I have my pretty blonde on board and charging hard and fast through these roads can trigger a bit of motion sickness for the person not in control of the steering wheel. So I’m taking it relatively easy.

BMW’s standard Advanced Safety System integrates the deployment of the multiple safety features so we could charge these twisties with complete confidence. We have an anti rollover system and all that previously mentioned electronic stuff assisting the already good drivers who buy this kind of car to drive even better. And it will tend to keep the lesser skilled folks from getting into trouble. The 3-Series Convertible has not been rated by NHTSA for crash and rollover ratings.

Our final tour before heading home was back to Asheville – or ‘Aishvul’ as the locals pronounce it. Nestled into the Blue Ridge chain Asheville is rife with exceptional architecture. Best known, of course, is the Biltmore estate - the largest single family dwelling in the country - built by the Vanderbilt family in the 1890s. We’ve visited the mansion and its spectacular gardens on previous visits and the admission charge is mighty steep, so we passed on that one.

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Another amazing structure is on the other side of town became our lunch spot. Built atop one of the foothills overlooking the city, the Grove Park Inn was built in less than a year by 400 workmen, a team of mules and a crane. It’s now a large, luxurious hotel and conference center with a beautiful golf course and world renowned spa. Rooms start at about $300/night. The unusual stonework appears to be random patterns of large rough-cut stone, mined and cut nearby, with huge boulders as headers above each window and door. The dark wood-trimmed cavernous lobby features two stone fireplaces the size of a cliff wall.

We had a lovely, relaxing lunch at an “edge table” on the Sunset Terrace of the Grove Park Inn overlooking the valley. She had a grilled salmon BLT with warm redskin and artichoke potato salad and I had a filet mignon sandwich with onion rings. Before we got started Chef Nate Charlier brought us a little appetizer of Foie Gras on a poached pear with fig compote. Delicious! He spent time with us discussing the Inn’s constantly changing menu including the rack of elk imported from New Zealand we noticed on the menu during our previous visit.

I felt especially big after that great lunch and while the bolstering of the sport seats is a bit much for this big guy I found the BMW Convertible an admirable ride for this whole project. Handling and performance were ideal for these wonderfully entertaining mountain roads. But we’re out of time and we head out in the morning.

We had a bit of an adventure on the way home that you might enjoy. We topped off the tank at our resort since gas prices were jumping as a result of the hurricane’s devastation of the Texas coast where so many refineries were at risk. Shortages were being reported and I wanted to take no chances. I also reset the trip computer so I could try to maximize the mpg. Once out on the freeway I even set the cruise control at 70-mpg, an unusual thing for me to do. When we turned north onto I-75 at Knoxville I noticed were getting over 29-mpg.

A few hours up the road I noticed we were over 30-mpg . . . then over 31. What’s up with that? I’ve never had a car that managed a number that far over the EPA estimates. I had noticed there was a mighty wind in the trees along the road but we felt no buffeting in the car so I thought little of it. Then, we began to see wind damage around us – shingles being stripped off roofs, a big tree broken and blocking two lanes of the freeway. I had figured we could get to about Dayton before fueling up but we stopped just north of Cincinnati. The on-board computer showed 32.3-mpg. That was one whale of a tail wind.

As we exited the freeway the traffic signals were out, meaning of course that power was out everywhere. A gas station was right there and had cars at the pumps but as I got out of the car I noticed no one was pumping gas and the owner was putting out a “closed” sign. No electricity – no gas pumping. I was also nearly knocked off my feet by the wind and worried what might be flying through the air at me.

We checked about every second exit all the way to the south side of Dayton and found no power anywhere. Being nearly out of gas – perhaps 20 miles left – we were about resolved we’d be spending the night, maybe in the car. Just then we spotted a gas station with a lighted sign below us off the freeway. I was in the wrong lane and had to go about five miles out of the way to get back (with the invaluable help of the navigation system) and found the station open with no line and gas to spare, probably the only one in town. The fellow in the GMC Yukon who pulled up to the pump next to me was from north of Dayton and had come all the way through town. He could not find a station with power anywhere. We got lucky in finding enough gas to get home.

The further north we went the less the wind intruded and the more the rain came. We were pleased and relieved to be home but sad to have to give the fun 328i Convertible back to the good folks at BMW.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved