I don’t like automatic cars, and I don’t like convertibles. Needless to say, going into this drive, I was a skeptic. Furthermore, my grandfather has been a massive Mercedes fanboy his whole life; everything from W124 wagons to 280SLs, he has run the Benz gauntlet. However, when he happened on this Bavarian rival last year, it was in too good a shape—and too good a deal—not to scoop up.
The car in question is a mint 2002 325ci: silver with a black soft top, black leather interior, a non-sports car with an automatic transmission. It’s a plain-Jane spec for a plain-Jane car. And, as with all of my grandfather’s past autos, this E46 has been meticulously maintained, the fit and finish far exceeding my 195,000-mile wagon. It’s amazing what 100,000 miles does to a car.
While I tend to prefer my wagon’s more brutal utility, I enjoy the irony of a more hardcore grocery-getter. A comfortable convertible? Far too logical for me.
A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to take the now-modern-classic for a ride around Marblehead, Massachusetts, a place where this car would have been right at home back in 2002. Right off the bat, I found myself pleasantly surprised; the transmission shifted significantly sportier than I had initially anticipated, nothing like other early-2000s autos I remembered. Even on mild acceleration, the trans tends to err on the side of revving out, rather than short-shifting to boost mpg. I would even venture to say that the transmission complements the M54’s midrange torque well. It was, dare I say, fun.
I’ve driven only a handful of convertibles, and quickly found, in general, that they weren’t for me. I would always lean toward a coupe, sedan, or wagon, if given the choice myself. However, I did find myself enjoying the experience behind the wheel of the 325ci; if you don’t take the car too seriously, it’s a blast. On this drive, I had far more fun just wafting around, rather than driving at ten-tenths. You sit back, point the wheel, and coast along.
One of my main takeaways was the difference between roof-up and roof-down configurations in regard to rigidity; I found the difference to be noticeable, but not intrusive. I found the chassis twisting when in the roof-down position off-putting initially, but this roofless quirk wouldn’t be the deciding factor in my picking between a E46 coupe or convertible.
The weight, on the other hand, would.
The convertible, to me, felt closer in weight to my E46 wagon than a coupe of the same vintage. It’s not a light car, nor does it drive like a light car, either. But in reality, that’s barely a downside: you’re not going to be pushing this modern classic at an autocross or a Palmer track day, anyway.
For its designed intent, the 325ci fits the bill almost perfectly; it’s a comfortable cruiser that you drive 50% roof up and 50% roof down—a great third-car option as a complement to a solid daily driver and a track toy. It’s the car you can lend to friends when they’re in town, or to family when they’re headed to Maine or Rhode Island. Toss them the keys and say, “Have a ball.”
I firmly believe that anyone can get in this car and enjoy driving, even if there isn’t a destination. That’s the beauty of an automatic, after all: Anyone can drive it.—Tucker Beatty
[Photos courtesy Tucker Beatty.]