Several years ago, in one of our own Rob Siegel’s books, I remember reading about the concept of the “thirteen-car garage.” The idea, as I recall, was that every car had a distinct purpose, which fit within the thirteen-car arrangement: the grand tourer, the concours car, the spirited weekend driver— enough niches of automotive life to fill several garages (and culminating in the most essential component: the reliable SUV).
The topic came up again recently when my girlfriend and I were watching the temperatures in southern Vermont creep upward as the first buds appeared once again on the trees—and with them, like pollen sneaking in through door seals, came the itch for another car.
Between us, we’ve accumulated a number of vehicles, all of which have an important place in our garage. There’s our Rubinrot E23 733i, the automatic touring car for long weekend trips and photo shoots; the throaty, aggressive Arktisblau 635CSi for evening ice-cream runs; the two Porsches, a 911 Carrera 4S for all-weather touring and a 944 on the West Coast for work and shows; a Saab 900 Turbo SPG for rally-inspired dirt-road touring; and most important, a Toyota Land Cruiser for when everything else on the list is broken.
But we don’t have a convertible.
And as we begin to reach windows-down weather, the longing for something to fit the niche began to creep in. Wouldn’t it be nice to rip past New England farmland on our evening loop with a small roadster that runs just long enough to make it the 25-odd miles back home again?
As the smell of old leather and exhaust fumes swirled around our minds, and just as the temperature stumbled back down to the 40s, I figured that I’d give it a trial run and bring a 2021 BMW M440i convertible home for the weekend.
First and foremost, BMW’s newest offering in the 4 Series family is a far cry from the E30 325i ragtops we’d been eyeing on Craigslist. It continues the tradition of the M440i as a ridiculously potent grand tourer (as we’ve discussed before), and like its hardtop brethren, it uses the fabulous (and ubiquitous) B58 turbocharged straight six and ZF eight-speed automatic. But unlike the hardtops we’ve tested in the past, the M440i is my first experience with a B58 in a rear-wheel-drive layout.
It’s hard to notice from outside. Unlike the “sDrive” Z4 (another rear-wheel-drive B58 application), the M440i’s rear-wheel-drive nature is visible only by the absence of xDrive badging. But on the first damp morning, with frigid rain washing across the mountains in frequent bursts, the rear Michelins skittered just a hair, and I began to look at the car in a different light. After so many all-wheel-drive sports cars, having two powered wheels was a breath of fresh air. It added a welcome bit of old-school agility to the heavier (by nearly four hundred pounds, up to just over 4,100) convertible.
For those who have been out of the convertible market, the modern convertible is a world apart from the aforementioned E30, full of air scarves, the usual (but still vastly impressive) Harman/Kardon sound system, ultra-powerful heated seats, and ample isolation from the more irritating parts of wind exposure. In the M440i, roof-down motoring becomes a three-season sport.
I expected a lot of the convertible to be based on the coupe, but I don’t think that I expected the competency of the coupe, which it delivered in spades. It was as quiet as the coupe on long highway stretches up and down the New York Thruway, podcasts whispering through the H/K system and engine in Comfort mode. Of course, double-tap into Sport Plus and the car wakes up with burbles and a sonorous, bass-laden exhaust note.
But like the M440i, this car excels most as a grand tourer, with the addition of sky. No matter the temperature, it is a vessel for transporting driver and passenger through the environment. And that was the most surprising part of the modern convertible: That BMW has managed to make a convertible into such a practical car—improving even on the folding-hardtop F33 platform—is an achievement that goes under-appreciated in modern car design.
We may have set out looking for a convertible, but the reality is that we’d stumbled into a car that fills all the spaces of that thirteen-car garage—to the point where we drove the M440i in place of all the other cars. Given more time, I’m sure that it would have found its place—but if you’re looking, like us, to fill that convertible slot, try a modern interpretation when you can; you might be surprised to find that it’s the only car you really need.—David Rose
[Photos courtesy of Sydney Cummings.]