This Drop-Top Raises The Roof

BMW's brand-new 6-Series convertible is powerful, elegant, and eye-catching

Upscale convertibles are bound to be conspicuous, and BMW's brand-new 6 Series is no exception. The 2004 645Ci convertible, the $76,995 drop-top version of the 645Ci coupe, is a big car in the Grand Touring tradition: elegant, powerful, luxurious. And it has the requisite backseat which, if not very accommodating to passengers, is at least a space to stow extra luggage.

I'm surprised at what an eye-catcher it is. Many BMW enthusiasts are grumbling about the styling of the new BMWs, the 7- and 5-Series sedans. They especially don't like the high rear end. But during the recent week that I drove the 6-Series ragtop around Los Angeles, car-savvy Angelenos loved it. They threw me a thumbs-up, they honked, and they cranked down their windows to chat.

The car comes with a 325-horsepower V-8 that's remarkably smooth and quiet. It propels the car from 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds and, in fact, you can feel a similar acceleration even at highway speeds. My car had BMW's six-speed Steptronic automatic transmission; you can shift it manually if you want. It's rated for 21 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving. Or you can also get it with either of two different manual transmissions. Those will boost performance slightly, but they trim the fuel economy enough that you'll have to pay a $1,300 gas-guzzler tax.

The car's ride is pure BMW. It's taut, but not at all harsh. The steering is quick and precise, and an active roll-stabilization system keeps the car on an amazingly even keel when you're going fast around corners. You can raise or lower the soft top at the touch of a button; it takes about 30 seconds. The rear window is vertical and works as a wind blocker when the top is down. You can lower it for ventilation when you're driving with the roof in place.

While BMW has simplified its much- criticized iDrive, the menu-driven system that controls climate, communications and entertainment functions, it's still too complex and distracting. I had to get out the owner's manual to set the clock ahead an hour and, even then, it took me three tries. You have to go through four operations to find a radio station. What's wrong with the usual row of buttons?

When it comes to pure driving fun, though, it's going to be hard to beat this car. Get in, lower the top, and you'll see what I mean.

By Larry Armstrong

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