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BMW M3 Cabriolet a sunshine supercar Less-rigid body, more weight fail to dampen driving experience

MONT-TREMBLANT, Que. — Can you make a gorgeous, great-handling, beautifully-built, 333-hp sports coupe like the BMW M3 a better car by cutting off the roof? Convertible fans will say, "Absolutely!" For these wind-in-the-hair, rainwater-in-the-ear, bugs-in-the-teeth enthusiasts, "top-down" is the key to driving entertainment.

Performance purists might beg to differ. First, body rigidity, so critical to handling prowess, is inevitably compromised by the elimination of the roof. Second, the added weight of a convertible, partly a function of reinforcements in the floorpan to regain some of the lost structural strength, plus the weight of the top-lowering motors, can blunt the urgency of the experience.

BMW has decided to leave the decision up to the individual customer; the M3 Cabriolet is now in showrooms, alongside its coupe brother.

The M3 cabriolet is effectively a merger of the M3 coupe, which provides the powertrain, suspension, and certain styling details, and the 3 Series cabriolet, itself a development of the 3 Series coupe, which supplies the body, automatic power top, and the integrated roll-over protection.

The purists do have some valid debating points on their side.

The M3 cabriolet weighs a healthy 1,715 kg, some 166 kg (365 pounds) more than its steel-roofed sibling.

As a result, the factory-supplied 0-100 km sprint time of 5.5 seconds is three ticks slower than the coupe's 5.2. Trust me — unless you drive around with a stop-watch in your hands all the time, you won't notice.

The cabrio's drag co-efficient of 0.35 is higher (worse) than the coupe's 0.32. This might affect higher-speed acceleration slightly — again, not so that you're likely to notice — but not top speed, which is a) electronically limited to 250 km/h in both cars, and, b) irrelevant in Canada anyway.

While BMW claims the new 3 Series cabrio has a stiffer body than the former-generation 3 Series coupe, it is not as rigid as the current coupe.

We put it to what must approach the ultimate test — Highway 364, from St-Sauveur north of Montreal, to this garishly-renewed ski resort town. This road is so badly paved it could have been reconstructed piece by piece from downtown Sarajevo.

The M3 cabriolet exhibits a smidgen of steering wheel shake on bumps of a certain amplitude and frequency, but the rear view mirror never wiggles, the car doesn't squeak, and it feels vastly better buttoned-down than any other convertible of its size.

Even top-up, which often is pretty unpleasant in some Flexi-Flyer ragtops, it's quiet and drum-tight, even if rear three-quarter visibility is somewhat reduced.

In other words, the M3 Cabriolet drives pretty much like an M3 Coupe — which is to say, brilliantly.

There's power everywhere — from down low in the rev range, right up to the 8,000 rpm red line. The straight-six engine sounds great too — smooth and strong, with just a hint of an edge to the exhaust note.

Handling is terrific. If you do get in over your head, a veritable alphabet soup of electronic traction, braking and cornering aids are on tap to try to bail you out.

Ride quality is high as well, considering the cars' handling prowess.

Perhaps the only serious mechanical drawback to the M3, coupe or cabrio, is found in the shift linkage of the six-speed manual transmission, a unit lifted from the old-generation M3. Reverse is to the left of the first-to-second gate and forward, leaving an empty gate to the left and back. If you try a quick downshift from third to second, it's all too easy to wrong-slot the lever into this cul de sac. A stronger detent is called for.

Interestingly, this problem afflicts the bigger M5 and the Z8 roadster as well.

Equipment levels are generous and virtually identical on both M3 models, apart from the sports seats which are standard on the cabriolet, optional on the coupe.

If you're upgrading from the old-generation M3, one equipment anomaly you might note is that the air conditioning system is no longer dual-zone, with separate temperature settings for driver and passenger. BMW says its research indicates the 3 Series customer is less likely to see the value inherent in this feature than more luxury-oriented 5-Series buyers, so BMW has dropped it from the 3s. Sounds odd to me.

Another slight drawback of the cabriolet is that the price of admission is exactly $10,000 higher — $79,800, versus $69,800 for the tin-top.

If you are profligate with your own money, options such as metallic paint, a CD-based navigation system, a six-CD trunk-mounted changer and the removable hardtop can nudge your M3 convertible over the 90-large mark.

But I'd imagine that if you can afford one of this pair of vehicles, price will hardly be an object, should you decide to choose the other.

You ragtop-fanciers must decide if you're mainly into sunning yourself or whether outright performance is critical; a 3 Series Cabriolet, with one of the lesser engines is still a pretty stout performer, and a boatload of bucks cheaper than an M3 cabriolet.

But if an M3 is for you, all that remains is to decide which of the two camps you fall into. Not that it'll make much difference for the moment; unless you already have your order in, forget it — both coupe and cabriolet are sold out in Canada for the 2001 model year.

But if you're talking to your friendly local BMW dealer about next year, remember what a treat it is to drive top-down on a starry, moonlit night ellipsis}.

Jim Kenzie can be contacted by e-mail at: jim @ jimkenzie.com

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