Since the first M1 competition coupe back in 1978, BMW has periodically served up limited M-editions of its production cars, super-tuned by its in-house motorsports division. Now, what sets these M-cars apart from the already impressive BMW driving experience, besides more power, better brakes, and even surer handling, is a sharper character that can only be associated with winning. But, there is one other thing that all M-cars sold here have shared up to now: a steel top. But as you can see from these two new M-editions, that has now changed.
Because M-level performance is now available with the ultimate air-conditioning system, a convertible top! Standard equipment on BMW’s newest models, the M3 Convertible, and M Roadster. Of the two, the M3 Convertible is the car closest to the hearts of MotorWeek drivers. Both the M3 coupe and sedan are long-time MotorWeek favorites, and winners of our Drivers’ Choice Award. But the M3 Convertible adds the kind of premium open-air convenience that we expect from BMW.
The fully-lined soft top offers one-button operation, folding cleanly away without the driver having to ever leave his or her seat. While pop-up roll hoops provide automatic overhead protection if sensors detect a bit too much body roll, not something normally felt in a car with the taut M3 suspension, which replaces the standard 3-series cars’ springs, shocks and anti-roll bars, with almost race quality components.
But the heart of any M3 remains a hot 3.2-liter, dual-overhead-cam, 24-valve inline six-cylinder. It cranks out 240 horses, and 236 pound-feet of torque with a manual transmission. 225 pound-feet of torque with an automatic. Both manual and automatic gearboxes use five speeds to put the power to the rear wheels, which pushed our manual-equipped test car to 60 in 5.8 seconds. And through the quarter-mile in 14.5 seconds at 97 miles per hour. All very close to the M3 Sedan we tested last year.
The M3’s signature torquey, creamy-smooth power delivery is a delight! Especially on a track like Georgia’s Roebling Road Raceway. But there we found this car’s shifter to require a bit more effort than other M3s that we’ve driven. Ditto the handling. While it clearly out-turns just about any drop-top that we’ve ever tried, the combination of mild body flex and tremendous grip does force the driver to work harder.
Of course, when you’ve got a car that still works this well, it’s overtime that we’ll gladly put in. We’d just like a bit more feedback, like that of the hard top models. Especially under braking, which would allow us to make full use of the powerful, ABS-equipped, 4-wheel discs. Additional traction for both track and street is provided by standard all-weather traction control, and a limited slip differential.
While all the luxury and efficiency that you expect in a BMW can be found in the slick, leather-lined 4-person interior. >And the price of luxury, performance and fresh air? $45,700.
If you’re willing to sacrifice a couple of seats to save a few grand, however, you might opt for the American-made BMW M Roadster. An even hotter version of the 2-seat Z3 Roadster than the already potent 2.8, and the first M-Car assembled outside Germany.
Wearing most aggressive bodywork, exposed brake cooling ducts, and sitting a full inch closer to the ground, the M Roadster is the bad boy of the BMW line, and backs up that image with the same 3.2-liter, 240-horsepower, six-cylinder engine used in the M3.
But unlike its soft-top sibling, the only transmission choice here is a 5-speed manual, which helps it get to 60 in only 5.6 seconds. And through the quarter mile in 14.3 seconds at 98 miles per hour. Both speed increases over the M3 Convertible that can be attributed to the Roadster being more than 400 pounds lighter.
The underpinnings get a similar rebuild, with new shock absorber rates, and new anti-roll bars. Which are linked directly to the struts to improve suspension response. At Roebling Road that improved response was evident in every corner. Convertible chassis flex was minimal, with both grip and feedback worthy of a real race car.
The lightweight M Roadster rocketed out of corners and down straights. A task made easier by a light, slick shifter that we would have loved in the M3 Convertible. We’ll take the 4-wheel disc brakes, too, which delivered power and feel matching that of, yes we’ll say it again, a race car.
Of course, no competition machine offers this kind of comfort. Like the M3, the Roadster has all the leather and luxury of any Bimmer. But, we’ll pass on the funky two-tone color scheme. But other than the color, we have no complaints about the power top. Just flip a latch and press a button, and it’s out of the way.
If you’d like to drive away in an M Roadster, the price starts at $42,200. That’s $3,500 less than the soft top M3.
But whichever of these hot BMW convertibles that you do choose, the more gentile M3, or the bad boy M Roadster, you’ll get all the power, handling and character that BMW M-cars are famous for, and a healthy dose of fresh air, as well!
Engine: 3.2-Liter,dohc, 24-valve Inline 6-Cylinder
Torque: 236 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 5.8 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 14.5 Seconds @ 97 MPH