"Playtime is over; time to come in the house," the wife hollered.The directive wasn't aimed at the kids or the dog but at hubby, who snuck out the front door after dinner and into the red 1994 BMW 325i convertible. Now, as Letterman was about to read his top-10 list, the boss of the house figured her spouse had spent enough time playing with the Bimmer to call it anevening. About once a year arrives a car to be tested that truly can be called a funmachine, a vehicle that darts like a missile down the straightaways or handleslike it's locked in by radar on sharp turns, a work of art that you can't stopadmiring until the picture of the gas pump in the dash starts blinking as a signal that playtime is over and it's time to come in the house. Well, the new convertible in the BMW 3-series is no missile. Its 2.5-liter,24-valve, 189-horsepower, six-cylinder engine is quick enough not to be left at the light sniffing exhaust fumes, but 18-wheelers can still catch up if youmake the fatal mistake of turning on the radio and trying to sit back and relax. And while the 225/60R 15-inch treads have a solid grip on dry roads, they seem to favor riding on, rather than in, the water. They aren't all-season treads. BMW will offer all-season tires for the convertible starting with carsproduced this month, which means they'll probably be available in November. Snow Belt drivers who don't have the luxury of storing their car when the flakes fill the roadway should wait for the all-season tires. It would have helped if the car had had traction control, which also will be available, as an option, starting with production this month. The 325i convertible does come with dual air bags and anti-lock brakes as standard. Butall-season tires and traction control will make for a complete package and it would be worth the wait to get them. Until then you still can have fun simply playing with the convertible top, which is what we were doing until the wife noticed the unexcused absence. Last time we spent the evening in the driveway was when the Mercedes-Benz 500SL arrived with its automatic power top. Touch a button and the top unfastened from the header. Before you could say, "Do we have an idle $100,000sitting in the bank account, dear?" the thing had not only retracted but also moved itself out of sight. Ditto with the 325i. Well, almost ditto. You do have to perform some manualmaneuvers to make the Bimmer's automatic top work. You have to grab a handle along the header, crank it to the right to unlock the top and push the top in the air 8 inches before it takes over to retract and hide away. Once you have sufficiently mussed your hair or baked your dome and choose to return the top, you have to reach up and pull it down the last 8 inches andcrank that handle back to the left to lock it. Mercedes only requires that you press a button, but when you consider that cranking the handle and pushing/pulling the top up/down on the Bimmer saves you $60,000 compared with the Benz, a little manual labor seems worth the effort. You can buy a lot of Ben-Gay for $60,000. Regular readers will note that BMW hasn't been on our list of favorite carsover the years. It gained attention by serving as the poor man's Mercedes a couple decades ago. Then BMW started believing its own press clippings and tried being Mercedes-at least in price. It got too big for its bumpers. The 325i is a pleasant return to that old philosophy of giving 'em a Mercedes at a BMW price. To be sure, the $38,800 base price of this car puts it out of reach of the common man, but at least it's more affordable than the robot-top Mercedes SL, which most can only dream about while bouncing to work in their old Mustang convertible. Our test car came with the $600 sports package, an inclement-weather package (heated mirrors, heated front seats, limited-slip differential) for $755, automatic transmission for $850 (five-speed is standard) and a roll-overprotection system for $1,390 that consists of a deployable roll bar behind thefront seats that releases when sensors detect you are about to start driving with the wheel side up. Should you want to make a hardtop out of your 325i convertible, a body-colored aluminum top will be available as an option starting in January. It will cost $4,000 and will give you a year-round car. A couple other optionswaiting to be sprung are a ski bag that will pass through from the trunk to the rear seat and a roof rack for the softtop, though even BMW spokesman Robb Mitchell couldn't explain how that rack is going to work. The car also comes with a pop-in/pop-out windscreen deflector to reduce interior turbulence when the top is down. Also included are a ventilation system that filters pollen, plant dust and even some bacteria from the passenger compartment and sensors that automatically unlock the doors and set off the flashers after an accident. We would hope BMW, while thinking up extra goodies to attach to the 325i convertible, could think of a way to make a change to three existing features-the stiffness of the leather seats that come with the sports package;the size of the softtop where it wraps up to the side rear window and creates a blind spot when passing or parking; and the less-than-spacious size of the rear seats, which BMW insists will hold two adults, although it neglects to mention that they must be in the prone position.
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