Dolan Ellis, a professional folk singer I used to know in Phoenix back in the early 1960s, had a good line for appreciative audiences: "Let's all go out and get in my Volkswagen and go somewhere," he'd tell the coffee-house crowd. It was the kind of warm-fuzzy that always got a laugh and made them like him even more.

Dolan was kidding, but I seriously wish I could take you readers out for a spin in the 1999 BMW M3 convertible that I'm driving this week. I've been waiting for years for a chance to test the legendary M3, and now that it's here I'd like to share the experience with you.Not because it's a convertible. The BMW drop-top is as good as it gets when it comes to open-air driving, but that's not what makes the car so special. Nor is it because it's a BMW 3-Series. I've tested them before and found them extremely desirable but not the pinnacle of autodom.

Nope, the thing that sets this automobile apart is that single, deceptively simple letter "M." It designates that the vehicle has been massaged by BMW's Motorsports division, transforming the BMW 328i into something very special; sort of like when Billy Batson would proclaim "Shazam," to become Captain Marvel.

You won't find any coiled-snake logos on the M3, no screaming eagle decals, giant spoilers, air scoops or deck-lid wings. Just that discreet M badge on the trunk lid. Talk about understatement. Talk about subtlety. Talk about truth in advertising.

Everyone who views automobiles as more than mere appliances should have a chance to drive an M3. It would give them a reference point for what is possible: the state of the motoring art near the end of the 20th century.

If I sound a little carried away, forgive me. Last March I declared the BMW 740iL to be the best car I've ever driven. I wish now I'd waited a few months before making that statement.

Oh, the 740 is still the better car from a practical standpoint; I can barely squeeze one set of golf clubs into the M3's diminutive trunk (made more so by the space taken up for the box that holds the convertible top and its apparatus). And where the 740's rear seats accommodate three linebackers, the M3's are tight for two normal folk.

But when you slip into the M3's racing-contoured driver's seat and fire up that incredible 240-horsepower engine, you quit worrying about passengers and golf clubs. If I could have only one car to spend the rest of my life driving around a desert island (assuming it had a filling station that pumps high-test unleaded) the M3 would be that car.

If not the best car I've ever driven, it's certainly the most entertaining.

The M3 is seriously quick.

From a dead stop, 60 mph arrives in 5.8 seconds (6.6 with the automatic transmission, but you don't want to buy a car like this if you don't like shifting for yourself.) But it's not just its acceleration that makes it so amazing, it's how it handles turns at speed and how it stops when you clamp on those huge 4-wheel ventilated disc brakes (vacuum assisted and ABS.)

I can only imagine what a skilled driver could do in this car; you don't have to go back too many decades to where the M3 would qualify as a European road racer.

But it makes even people with only average driving skills, like me, look good. Its incredible road-holding abilities turn anyone into Mario Andretti. You just point the nose of the M3 where you want it to go and it takes care of the rest. No screaming tires, no body lean, no fishtailing, no fear that it might spin out. The car's capabilities extend far beyond my willingness to test its limits.

Car and Driver magazine last year declared the M3 to be the "Best Handling Car for More than $30,000." Pitted against exotics such as the Ferrari F355, Acura NSX, two Porsches and the Dodge Viper, some of which cost tens of thousands more than the M3. Guess which car won?

"BMW's M3 is one of the least-expensive cars in this group," said Car and Driver of the comparison test. "It's also the tallest and narrowest car and has the most-usable rear seat. Its first-place finish proves that superb handling does not require exotic-car packaging or exotic-car prices."

Added bonus: Exotic cars, even U.S. muscle cars, often get lousy fuel mileage but its a tradeoff people expect to pay for world-class performance. Not with the M3. With the five-speed manual transmission it is EPA rated at 20 mpg in city driving and 27 on the highway.

If you're really serious about conserving fuel, just drive in around in fifth gear. It has so much torque you can lug it down to around 25 mph and still accelerate nicely without shifting down. But then people don't buy the M3 as an econocar so it's a moot point.

The M3 powerplant is a 3.2-liter DOHC 24-valve in-line six cylinder with variable valve timing and a digital engine management system. There are many larger engines but there are none better. "Thrilling" is the word that comes to mind.

The M3 coupe or sedan have both have a base price of $40,270, a $6,600 premium over the standard BMW 328i on which it is based. For the convertible, add another $6,200 for a total of $46,470 for my test car.

As noted above, the convertible top is a wonder. You simply push a button on the dash and about 30 seconds later you are topless; you can raise or lower it while waiting at a red light. There are no vinyl covers to wrestle with, the top just drops into its allotted trunk space and is covered by a metal piece that blends seamlessly with the rear deck. A single button raises and lowers all four windows. Convertibles don't get any more convenient than this.

Nor do they look any better. With its top down, the M3 is drop-dead gorgeous; a sleek as a missile. Still, in our climate, I think I'd go with the hardtop. There simply aren't enough not-too-hot, not-too-cold days here to make it worthwhile, but then I'm of an age where comfort is becoming more important than having the wind in my (graying) hair.

There are a variety of options for the M3 convertible, including $1,200 for the automatic transmission (but you promised not to order it, remember?); $2,295 for a removable hard top; $1,450 for 17-inch forged alloy wheels and $975 for a CD changer, but even without those things it is still a very well equipped luxury car.

But its not the luxury stuff that makes the M3 worth the money. It's the joy of owning a fairly exclusive but still practical automobile that outperforms many pricey exotics. If you can afford to spend 50 big ones on a car, the BMW M3 is in a class of one.