"Must be motherfucking nice."That's what the woman standing on the corner, laden with grocery bags, said as I pulled up to the intersection in a white BMW 435i Convertible. And you know, she's not a bad car reviewer. It is pretty motherfucking nice.
I did feel a little self-conscious in the car, and wanted to somehow explain to her that I can't really afford this car, either (it starts at $54,900), but I wanted also to tell her that, in some ways, she's not missing that much. Sure, it's nice — motherfucking nice — but it's somehow not all that exciting, really. I'm not sure she'd have appreciated that distinction. I should have offered her a lift.
(Full disclosure: BMW was so eager to have me try out their new 4 series convertible, they flew me to Vegas, fed me, and let me convince their racing driver he needed a BMW van.)
I got to drive the 4 series convertible through what I'm pretty sure were the locations they filmed all those Coyote v. Road Runner documentaries. The remains of ACME rockets and discarded flying suits littered the desert. Plus, I got BMW's pro photographer to take that amazing picture of me washing the windshield. Look at those majestic twin fans of windshield washing fluid! It's humbling.
I feel a little conflicted about the 4 series convertible. I know it's a well-built, carefully-engineered car, handsome, powerful, and full of fun technology like heads-up displays and freaking neck warmers, but I never really felt that deep-in-the-groin/gut passion for the car.
The 4 series convertible is an attractive car, I think, especially with the metal top up and the windows down, so you can really appreciate the currently rare joy of a pillar-less coupé. The front end treatment fits squarely within the BMW corporate mold, but has the sort-of-eyeglasses shaped lights and an interesting dogbone-shaped lower intake area on the lower front air dam.
The designer claims the inspiration for the car's look with the top down was the deck of a boat, and I suppose the big, black area that covers the retracted top does feel a bit like a ship's deck. Though it seems like a missed opportunity for some nice woodwork. The whole cabin is ringed with a handsome chrome band that emphasizes the nice, four-seat interior. The side sculpting isn't overdone, and the only real bit of extra jewelry is a little vent to allow air to flow through the front fenders. Oh, and a silly little plaque that reads "Luxury" (at least on the Luxury edition).
It looks good, it looks expensive, and it looks like something I'd pass without a second look back. It's like hanging around someone who always does everything just right — sometimes, for some real fun, you want to spend some time with the loudmouth fuckup. And a convertible should have at least a little bit of loudmouth fuckup in it.
The interior is one of the most important parts of the car, because it seats four and can become part of the exterior. It's well-designed and the materials are quite nice, including, on the one I drove, an awful lot of nice caramel-colored leather. It's nice to get a break from all the black-on-black so many cars have.
The rear diffuser does help wind buffeting significantly, and could maybe act as a sort of low-utility privacy shield/sneezeguard for your rear passengers as well. It stores easily behind the rear seat when not in use, which is nice.
The controls are all right from the rest of the BMW line, and for the most part have decent ergonomics, save for the rotary controller thing which always felt awkward to reach. The seats are comfortable with good side bolstering, even in the rear, though BMW themselves still don't seem to be comfortable with the idea of cupholders.
I mentioned this in my review of the M235i, but it's even stranger here. The 4 series convertible isn't designed to be a hardcore track car, so you'd think BMW wouldn't mind if we had a drink with us. But they clearly do, since they hide the cupholders under a funny little cover that is definitely not an ashtray and even has its own little net in the glovebox to store it.
Let me make this clear: they specifically made something they knew you wouldn't want or need, so they then made a special holder in the glovebox so you wouldn't have to deal with it.
That same kind of over-complex thinking is evident in the impressively complex roof system as well. The metal roof takes about 20 seconds origami itself up or down, at speeds up to a dizzying 11 MPH. The roof folds itself into three sections, including the rear glass, and a pair of robot arms folds and places the whole assembly into the trunk as the trunk lid opens itself backwards to accommodate it. The process looks impressive, complex, and heavy.
Even better, that whole complex folding roof eats up most of the trunk, leaving a small rectangle that you can actually cram your stuff into. But the access to that area is severely restricted by the top as well. So, the solution BMW came up with was to use hydraulics to raise up the folded top assembly to allow access to the medium cake-sized luggage area, and then motorize the whole thing back into place.
It seems like a a lot of engineering, weight, and complexity all for the dubious benefit of having a totally flat rear deck when the metal top is down. It's cool, sure, but all I can picture when I see this are massive bills to keep it working when the car turns 10 or so. Or, even better, pictures of 4 series convertibles on Craigslist with tops frozen halfway up. They're Germans, though, so it's safe to assume hilarious levels of over-engineering.
The 4 series is bigger in pretty much every dimension than the old 3 series convertible it replaces. That fancy top means its no lightweight, either, weighing in at a hefty 4020+ lbs. That's heavier than a Crown Vic. So while I'm confident BMW's talented vehicle dynamics guys have done a good job on the car, it never feels like something you can chuck around and have fun in.
The steering was a bit disappointing as well. I know a lot of effort has been placed in BMW's electrically-assisted steering system, but I found the wheel to be a bit numb, and didn't get much road feel at all. It was fairly responsive and quick, just not particularly engaging.
The 4 is urged along by BMW's turbo 3.0-liter inline-six (at least for the 435i I drove), making 306 HP/295 lb-ft of torque, which are good numbers. BMW says it'll get to 60 in an impressive 5.6 seconds, which is plenty quick, and just makes me wonder even more why it just didn't feel that much fun to drive.
It felt quick, sure, it gripped well, it was smooth and well-suspended, but the combination of size and bulk just make it much less tossable a car than, say, the M235i. That's probably just fine, since that's not really what this car is all about. This car feels more about quick but rational driving with you and three of your wealthy friends who need more vitamin D.
Again, this isn't a shock — the car does well what it's designed to do — I just don't think I'm really designed to do what it does well.
There's plenty of high tech stuff crammed into this car. Just ask the family of hydraulic robots in the trunk responsible for raising and lowering the roof. Those, by the way, can store enough pressurized hydraulic fluid to raise or lower the roof up to 10 times even with the car off.
Inside, my favorite bit of tech was the great, full-color HUD. The projection works well in all light conditions, and really appears to be numbers floating in the road, right in front of your car. Having speed and nav directions on there was really handy, and if it wasn't for the almost certain danger of a wreck, I'd like to see animations and simple video games in there to break up the monotony of a long trip.
I'm kidding. But maybe not for the passenger? Has anyone developed a passenger-side entertainment-based HUD yet?
Also, neck warmers. I like these in convertibles, though the one in the 4 sounded like a radio tuned to static at high speeds.
There's nothing actually really wrong with the 435i convertible. It looks good top up or down, and I'm sure it'll impress all the people you need to impress, and generate just the right amount of envy in others. But I never really felt desire for the car, and for the money I could think of many technically worse but far more engaging convertibles I'd rather have. Like a Porsche 912 Targa or a Rambler American or six MGBs.
It's not all about performance or comfort or luxury or features. There's that intangible quality of the soul of a car, and this one just feels a bit too refined and clinical for that. Lots of people won't be bothered by this, and they'll happily buy their 4 series convertibles and look great and have warm necks. And I wish them well.