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Be thankful for the 6

Convertible sales in Ireland are low to say the least. While our friends across the Irish Sea buy open-topped cars by the thousand, on this island we tend to prefer roofs over our heads. Even back in the heady days of 2007, convertibles represented only one per cent of new car sales.

That was a relatively healthy 2,000 or so, which is in stark contrast to the 286 new convertibles that found Irish homes in 2010. It doesn't take a number cruncher to understand why fewer buyers wanted anything that could be construed as showy or extravagant last year.

Enter the 2011 BMW 6 Series Convertible, which, no matter how you look at it, is a showy and extravagant car. There were plenty of this car's predecessors sold here, so its originally controversial design has been forgotten through familiarity. This new model is very different, in that it is instantly likable.

It's no less head-turning though. Even in the relatively restrained hue of our test car, the new BMW draws admiring and envious glares in equal measure. It's a lovely shape that manages to be sporting and aggressive, at the same time as exuding elegance.

The interior is a treat too. It builds on the tactile, intuitive switchgear of the BMW 5 Series, but the designers have stamped their own mark on proceedings and it's nothing short of exquisite. Every control is well-damped and the materials used are top-notch. There's a real feeling of luxury inside, though you lose that if you try to squeeze into the tiny rear seats.

Let's be honest though; few family buyers have the cash to spend on cars like this, so the rear seats are unlikely to ever be used. Think of them as extra luggage space -- though the boot isn't short of that either.

We were blessed with good weather in our time with the convertible, so it would have been rude to leave the fabric roof up. It's not the slickest of folding operations, but at least it leaves the back of the car completely flat. The rear glass window stays in place by default, which helps reduce buffeting in the cabin. If you're really vain it can be lowered at the touch of a button, though we recommend you use the additional plastic wind deflector if you plan on long, fast journeys with the roof folded away. It renders the rear seats unusable, but that's pretty much the case anyway.

The only seat that matters in reality is the one the driver sits in. To the uninitiated, the BMW's dashboard and instruments can appear a little busy and overwhelming, but if you own this car you'd soon get used to them. Press the start button and the engine fires into life before settling down to an all but inaudible idle. On the move in the 640i model the engine is rarely heard unless you put your foot deep into the soft carpet. Do that and this car will hit 100km/h from zero in just 5.7 seconds.

Accomplished as it is at such feats, traffic lights Grand Prix are not what the 6 Series Convertible is about. The previous iteration didn't know if it was a sports car or a cruiser and it suffered from a harsh ride when many buyers in this category would prefer comfort. The new car addresses the balance with a chassis biased toward comfortable, long-distance driving.

That's not to say that it's all at sea when it comes to a tight corner. It's still agile (well, as agile as a two-tonne car can be), perfectly balanced and more than capable of painting a smile on its owner's face. Yet it's far more stable and composed than before.

Ably abetting all this fun is BMW's excellent new eight-speed automatic gearbox. It does a fine job of changing gears for itself most of the time, though there is a set of paddles mounted behind the steering wheel should you feel the need to take over. It's one of the few automatic transmissions that is linked to a stop-start system -- and it's the best we've tried as yet.

The idea of saving fuel in this manner in a car powered by a turbocharged three-litre engine may seem as ineffective as peeing in the River Liffey, but it all helps. In fact, the new 6 Series is significantly more efficient than its precursor. Amazingly, its official CO2 emissions figure is just 185g/km, which means Band E tax. That may not mean it qualifies for the scrappage scheme, but it's a hell of a lot kinder to the environment than its Mercedes-Benz SL and Jaguar XK rivals.

That topic may not be as high up the list of priorities for buyers of such cars, but the technology developed and paid for by well-heeled customers eventually trickles down to the rest of us. For that we should be thankful that cars such as the 6 Series Convertible exist. And that there are buyers, no matter how few, willing to spend in excess of €108,000 for the privilege.

Sunday Independent Supplement