The Detroit News's view

If you want to feel like a movie star or a bigshot Hollywood producer, the BMW 328i Luxury Convertible is probably the right set of wheels for you. And with your terrific job, the $50,495 sticker may even seem like chump change.

Our test vehicle had the Aegean blue exterior with the Champagne interior. Notice how the ritzy names can make an ordinary person feel like Sharon Stone or Kevin Costner. The fully automatic convertible top means you’ll never chip a nail or mess up your hair implants wrestling with clips or snaps.

Funny thing, though. The owner’s manual says nothing about how to overcome an attack of Catholic guilt or the Puritan ethic while you’re driving your new droptop.

She: I’m sure you’ve heard of crusty old New Englanders who respond to your “Nice day, isn’t it?” with “Yes, and we’ll pay for it.” I kept thinking of that as I was driving the BMW convertible with the $7,560 luxury package. Yeah, it’s nice, but you sure do pay for it, from the insurance rate on down. And I guess our mission here is to determine whether or not it’s worth it.

He: The simple answer is no. But that’s coming from a guy who would never spend 50 grand on this car – even if I HAD 50 grand to spend on a car.

She: I totally disagree. If you can afford the sticker with ease, the BMW will likely prove to be an excellent year-round car that can actually fit four people and feels a lot more solid than many convertibles. What’s wrong with you? You usually jump right into this kind of stuff without thinking twice.

He: I was merely making an observation on the price. Peel off the sticker, and the 328i is the best four-place convertible in the $30,000-plus class. Of course, the class only includes two competitors – the Audi Cabrio, which is really starting to show its age, and the Saab 900, which has more personality, but doesn’t feel nearly as solid as the BMW. And there’s absolutely nothing in the class from Japan or the United States. My advice here would be to skip the luxury pack and go for the standard model, which lists for $41,390. That makes it a no-brainer.

She: And MY advice would be to GET the luxury pack, because that’s what gives this particular car all of its charms. You get a specially treated Nappa leather interior that is so much softer than the standard leatherette. In addition, the package includes tasteful walnut trim and chrome accents, plus special paint and body panels. You enthusiasts also get high-performance 225/50ZR16 tires on polished 16-inch sport wheels. My point is, if you’re treating yourself to a BMW convertible, don’t nickel and dime yourself to death on the options.

He: Yeah, kids, because it takes a lot of nickels and dimes to add up to $7,560. OK, let’s not quibble over the price. Let’s talk about what’s underneath all the glitz. We’re talking pure BMW here – all-independent suspension with gas-filled shocks and stabilizer bars, variable-assist power steering, power four-wh eel disc brakes with standard antilock and one of the best traction-control systems around. In short, this is a car lover’s car, with or without the top. Which, by the way, has been made fully automatic. No snaps or clips to mess with. And I love the BMW one-touch windows.

She: You need to explain just how terrific this top is. You can raise it by simply turning the key in the exterior door lock and holding it there while the top goes up. That also raises all the windows. And if you’re whining about the price, you’re forgetting that BMW this year is offering free scheduled maintenance for the first three years or 36,000 miles. And they continue to add nice standard features like heated outside mirrors. But I want to add one more big-picture thing for you to think about. The 328i convertible is not a toy like a Mazda Miata. It feels like a real car.

He: That’s true for both 3-series convertibles, including the four-cylinder 318i, which lists for $33,720. Bimmer loyalists l probably prefer the 2.8-liter twin-cam inline six in the 328. It makes 190 horsepower, which is only five horsepower more than Saab’s turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. But the BMW six feels lots gutsier at the bottom end, and is so beautifully matched to the five-speed gearbox, you’ll want to drive it all day.

She: A couple of my friends were a little hesitant about the fact that the BMW is a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, unlike the Saab. Most of the time, that would worry me, especially in slippery or snowy driving. But the standard traction control ought to get you out of most trouble.

He: BMW’s All Season Traction, as it’s called, automatically reduces engine speed and selectively applies the brakes to the rear wheels until your wheels quit slipping and regain their footing. It is truly amazing. Besides, most enthusiasts I know prefer the more predictable handling and vehicle dynamics you get in a rear-drive performance car.

She: The only time the BMW disappointed me was on the Fourth of July. Four of us were so excited to be taking a convertible to the fireworks. There we were, with our mini beach chairs, blankets and picnic hamper. But we found we couldn’t get everything in the trunk. And with Paul driving, neither one of our teen-age boys could fit behind him in the rear seat. So we were forced to take the family sedan. Even though this feels like a real car, it doesn’t always function like one. But I felt like that was my fault, like I was putting too many demands on it.

He: It’s OK to make demands – if you’re a movie star or a bigshot Hollywood producer in your BMW convertible.

1997 BMW 328i Luxury Convertible

Type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger convertible

Price: Base, $41,390; as tested, $50,495 (inc. $570 destination charge)

What’s new for ’97: Traction control and heated outside mirrors now standard on all models; fully automatic power top; restyled grille; free scheduled maintenance for first three years or 36,000 miles

Standard equipment: Variable-assist power steering, all-independent suspension with gas-pressure shocks and stabilizer bars, power four-wheel disc brakes, cast-alloy wheels, all-season radial tires, intermittent wipers, power heated mirrors, cruise control, power front seats, multi-information display, leatherette upholstery, leather-wrapped steering wheel, front armrest, dual cupholders, power one-touch windows, rear defroster, automatic climate control, power convertible top, AM-FM stereo cassette, toolkit, full-size spare tire, power locks

Safety features: Dual front air bags, antilock brakes, traction control

Options on test vehicle: Onboard computer ($500); metallic paint ($475); luxury package, including Nappa leather interior, walnut trim and gearshift lever, chrome interior accents, special paint, M-Tchnic body panels, forged and polished 16-inch sport wheels with 225/50ZR16 performance tires ($7,560)

EPA fuel economy: 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway

Engine: 2.8-liter I-6; 190-hp at 5300 rpm; 206 lb-ft torque at 3950 rpm

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Competitors: Audi Cabrio, Saab 900

Specifications: Wheelbase, 106.3 inches; overall length, 174.5 inches; curb weight, 3362 pounds; legroom, 41.2 inches front/28.1 inches rear; headroom, 38.1 inches front/36.3 inches rear; shoulder room, 53.2 inches front/43.6 inches rear

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $2,782

Where built: Dingolfing and Regensburg, Germany

* Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.

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