Why can't BMW make a decent compact convertible?
Sunday 22 October 2006
Would suit Nutters
Performance 155mph, 0-60 in 5 seconds
Combined fuel economy 23.2mpg
Further information 0800 325 600
There are two frailties to which no one ever admits: a) not having a sense of humour, and b) being a bad driver (never mind that there is abundant evidence to the contrary, not least among those who claim professional prowess in these fields; David Baddiel, say, or Ralf Schumacher).
Similarly, as a manufacturer that bases much of its appeal on the power and sporty handling of its cars, BMW can never hold its hands up and confess that it can't figure out how to make that most quintessential of sports cars: the compact convertible. The company has been in deep denial now for over a decade.
Let's examine their track record: the Z3 had Triumph Spitfire-era suspension and looked like something you might keep your make-up in. Then it spent a fortune product-placing the overblown Z8 in the Bond movies, but only sold about a dozen to very rich beauticians and ageing roués. Meanwhile, the current Z4, which admittedly is a good deal better, still looks like it was styled by someone who fell asleep at the drawing board and slipped. And all that "flame surfacing" silliness doesn't do it any favours; the diagonal crease that continues the line of the windscreen down the side of the front wing to the lower front wheel arch actually makes me quite angry, for instance, and don't get me started on those banana-shaped sills. The result, with its probing snout and mincing rump, has to be one of the most childish-looking cars since the Austin Metropolitan (see right), and it never had the performance to match the pose.
Well, it does now. BMW has unleashed the snarling dogs of its M (for motorsport) department on the Z4. They have - I believe the correct Autocar term is "shoehorned" - the verging-on-legendary straight six from the current M3 (soon to be superseded); tweaked the styling with some extra fangs at the front, an aggressive double crease in the bonnet, new 18-inch wheels and quadruple exhaust pipes; lowered the suspension; and given it the brakes from the lightweight road-racer M3 CSL. It now comes in both convertible and coupé versions (as you can see, I tried the soft top, but the coupé is more distinctive), to directly challenge the Porsche Boxster and Cayman.
Both the coupé and convertible have 338bhp which, I found, was about 200 too many, at least as far as the national speed limit was concerned. This is another of those cars, like the 911 Turbo I tried recently, that is simply too fast for planet earth. It's not so much that it has an absurdly high top speed - after all, aside from my mum's 10-year-old diesel Clio, every car on the road can theoretically bust 70mph - but the way it revs so eagerly, steers so sharply and pumps its torque so instantaneously to the rear wheels makes it quite a handful. You are constantly trying to rein the thing in as it soars towards the horizon or lunges for the car in front. Plus, though it feels like it was built with the precision of an atomic clock, I, unfortunately, don't have the reactions to match it. Unless you are really on top of your game, it is too easy to clunk your gear changes and send the thing into a drive-shaft-shunting funk. The suspension's awfully hard, too. Maybe I am getting old, but I didn't find the Z4M all that amusing.
So, it seems there is at least one person who will admit to having no sense of humour and being a bad driver.
It's a classic: Austin/Nash Metropolitan
It is usually assumed the widespread use of hallucinogens began in Europe in the late 1960s but the Austin Metropolitan is concrete evidence that someone, somewhere, was indulging way before that. Also known as the Nash Metropolitan and the Hudson Metropolitan, this ridiculous little car was designed to combine the swank and glamour of American cars with the economy of European cars. This Barbie-sized two- seater was an engineering and quality shambles. With feeble A- and B-series Austin engines, they were hardly suited to the highways of the US but the company did manage to export tens of thousands of these motorised Fondant Fancies there. Against all the odds, they still have something of a cult following in America. If you are lucky/unlucky enough to find one that hasn't been consumed by rust in the UK, expect to pay around £6,000.
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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