A couple of years ago at an event for Chrysler dealers, I saw two prototype Plymouth sedans that floored me. One was a Neon, the other a Breeze. Both cars were equipped with large folding canvas soft tops. It is unbelievable what a canvas roof can do to transform a car. Those two Plymouths almost were like convertibles. The interiors suddenly felt open and airy. And the cars had fun written all over them. The Neon, already one of the most cheeky compacts, would have been every high school kid's dream with that canvas top, and the Breeze would have become more than just a decent economy car. In Europe, folding canvas roofs have been popular for years. In fact, Chrysler engineers borrowed the roof treatment from a spindly little French car called the Citroen 2CV. But Chrysler decided not to offer the canvas roof because engineers could not eliminate wind noise and water leaks. Now another automaker is testing the market to see if American buyers will warm up to this innovative item. BMW has added an electrically operated folding canvas roof to the menu of options available on the $20,000 318ti hatchback. The roof comes as part of the California Package. I recently tested a 318ti with the California Package. Not only was the car a blast to drive, but it also was a real head-turner when the roof was peeled back. It gave the car a breezy, youthful feel and greatly enhanced the car's value. PERFORMANCE, HANDLING BMW engineers installed a better engine in the 1996 318 line. The 318ti is outfitted with a peppy, fast-revving 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine that has 16 valves and double-overhead cams. Horsepower is rated at an impressive 138. Our test car's engine was coupled with an easy-to-shift five-speed manual transmission. The 318ti is no pocket rocket, but it offers very respectable performance. Road & Track magazine clocked one at 8.6 seconds in a 0-to-60 mph test. The 318ti delivers most of its power when the engine is revved between 3,000 and 5,000 rpm. The engine can get a bit raucous, but it has a very sporty sound that complements BMW's image of building performance-oriented cars. Of all the BMW models I've tested, the 3-Series cars are best. I like the size of the car. You don't feel as if the car is too big, and, at the same time, you don't feel cramped. The dimensions and weight of the 318ti are a perfect match for the car's finely tuned four-wheel independent suspension system. The combination gives the car a very balanced and solid feel. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system allows the 318ti to turn a complete circle in a tight 34.1 feet. The four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes are very strong, enhancing your feeling of control and security. The ride is quiet and sporty, though not so firm that it punishes. Our test car delivered superb fuel economy despite the fact that I often drove it hard. It averaged 24 miles per gallon in t he city and 32 miles per gallon on the highway. FIT AND FINISH The 318ti has a handsome, high-quality interior devoid of any flashy gadgets and gimmicks. I found the dash to be particularly well-designed and easy to use. For instance, rotary knobs in the center of the dash make adjustments to the air conditioner quick and easy. The switches for the wipers and cruise control, which are behind the steering wheel, are easy to reach and use. At first I didn't care for the old-style, pull-out headlight switch, but then as I got used to the car, it made sense: It was just part of the car's user-friendly design. Some cars suffer from having too many functions on turn signal or windshield wiper switches, but the placement of the controls in the 318ti makes them easy to operate. They are arranged so that the driver need not take his or her eyes off the road for more than a second or two when it's time adjust the air conditioner, radio or some others stem. The 318ti's seats are covered with durable black cloth. They are firm and supportive, but it takes some patience to figure out the myriad manual adjustments. Several pull-up levers control the seat adjustments. For a subcompact car, there is plenty of room in the rear for passengers and cargo. The rear seats fold forward so that larger items can be placed inside the car. The electrically operated folding roof made our 318ti special. A lighted switch on the roof near the mirror opens and closes the top. It's true that the canvas top lets in more noise and causes quite a bit of turbulence in the interior when you are cruising down the highway. Some people might find this trait unacceptable. When both windows were open, the buffeting subsided. But even with the windows closed, wind noise Still, the canvas top gave this entry-level BMW a free-spirited feeling. BMW officials in New Jersey are trying to gauge buyers' enthusiasm for the top and are not sure if it will be added to the options list in 1997. The California Package, an option that added $3,030 to the price of our test car, included the special roof, unique wheels, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel and painted bumpers and side skirts. Our test car also had power windows, door locks and mirrors; air conditioning; traction control; and a powerful AM/FM radio. Specifications: Base price: $20,560 Safety: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, side-impact protection, front and rear crumple zones Price as tested: $25,735 EPA rating: 23 mpg city/31 highway Incentives: None Truett's tip: BMW's 318ti California is light, breezy and fun to drive. It's well-built, offers decent performance, good fuel economy and has plenty of room.
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