Review and road test of the BMW Z3 (1997 - 2003)
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
In Spartanburg, South Carolina, BMW has built a high-tech Bavarian outpost. In this sparkling factory built on the site of an old plantation, the Z3 range of cars is built. Whilst embodying all of the virtues that BMW has come to stand for, the Z3 also throws a simple, fun-loving American feel into the mix. There have been a bewildering array of variants, but the Z3 has proved a favourite in the used arena. With almost 20,000 roadsters sold per year in the UK, compared to 1300 in 1993, this is a burgeoning market sector and the Z3 is a major player. Find out here how to enjoy the Deep South without landing in deep trouble.
(2 dr roadster, 3dr coupe 1.9, 2.0, 2.2, 2.8, 3.0, 3.2 petrol [base, M-Roadster, M-Coupe])
The BMW Z3 was launched in the UK in January 1997, the modestly powered 140bhp 1.9-litre model being the sole variant available. Reaction was generally favourable, although many considered it underpowered. BMW rectified this issue in April 1997 with the launch of the Z3 2.8, which used the same engine as the BMW 328i, generating a healthy 193bhp. This model ruled the roost until the very special M roadster variant was released in January 1998. Powered by the famous M-Technik straight six, in this form developing 321bhp, the M roadster delivered massive acceleration and a muscle car feel. The following September, a fully-enclosed but mechanically similar coupe model was unleashed. The M coupe served up even better handling and some quite outlandish styling to an astonished public.
April 1999 saw the Z3 range benefit from a facelift. The wheel arches were recontoured and the bootlid, bumpers and rear lights were revised to try to alleviate the accusation that whereas the front end was very aggressive looking, the rear of the Z3 roadster was slightly apologetic. These changes weren't applied to the already testosterone-charged M models. At the same time as the facelift was announced, BMW effectively replaced the 140bhp Z3 1.9 with two different models, a detuned 118bhp 'budget' Z3 1.8 and a 150bhp Z3 2.0-litre model. The Z3 2.0 proved to be short-lived, being replaced in April 2000 by the 173bhp Z3 2.2. The Z3 2.8 was also pensioned off, superseded by the excellent 231bhp Z3 3.0. The Z3 range was finally replaced in 2004 by the vastly more modern Z4 series.
What You Get
The Z3 is a relatively simple BMW. The trick Z-axle rear suspension used on the 3-series doesn't fit, neither does the 6-speed gearbox. Not that this spoils the enjoyment a great deal. What amazes is that within 23 months, a green field in Spartanburg, South Carolina had been transformed into a factory turning out Z3 models to Bavarian quality standards. In truth, the Z3 could afford to be nothing less. Its job is as an image-maker for cars like the 3 Series Compact, many of whose mechanicals it still shares.
Incremental changes have been ongoing throughout the model's existence. For instance, the latest incarnation has been subtly tweaked again. Inside, the centre console has improved heating and electric window controls. There's also a new lining for the fabric roof which makes the car a lot quieter with the hood up. Otherwise, the Z3 recipe is well known - which means positive steering, a snappy five-speed manual gearbox and excellent roadholding, aided by BMW's ASC+T traction control system which is standard on late 1997 onward cars. There's no more space inside than before of course - but then practicalities aren't much of an issue when you're considering a roadster. This is, after all, hardly the most logical means of conveyance. Roadsters are evocative, nostalgic and emotional. But they're also cramped, noisy and short of any kind of serious carrying capacity, although the Z3 is far from the worst culprit in this instance.
What to Look For
The Z3 is a hardy little beast, although many will have led a more pampered lifestyle than more overtly sporting roadsters such as the Lotus Elise or Honda S2000. Rather than specifying preselected service intervals, the car's on-board diagnostics indicate when a service is due. It's therefore important to discover when the last service took place and ask to see documentary evidence of this. Look out for damage to hoods, as they aren't cheap to repair. The BMW system for lowering the electronic hoods is far from obvious to those who aren't in the know, and damage to the electric motors may well have occurred due to manual lowering and raising of the roof. The only protruding part of the Z3's underside is the fuel tank, and if this needs replacing it will involve suspension removal and a £650 bill.
The shock absorber mountings have been known to rattle, and the rear subframe mounts can get noisy. These aren't expensive tasks to fix, and neither are the front suspension ball joints and rear suspension bushes which are problems typical of the old 3-series range. Make sure the toolkit is in place - it's under the floor of the boot. The M cars are a more specialist proposition, and the hand-built engine needs plenty of fettling. Also look at the standard five-spoke wheels, as they are very prone to kerbing damage. Finally, make sure you have an alarm or a tracking system fitted to your Z3. Otherwise they have a depressing habit of vanishing in the night.
(approx based on a 1997 Z3 1.9) BMW spares aren't especially expensive. A set of front brake pads for the Z3 will cost around £45, but as they are asbestos-free, they have a shorter lifespan; typically 30,000 miles before a new set are required. A replacement headlamp unit is around £140, and a windscreen retails at around £145.A door mirror is £165, whilst a rear silencer is £315. A front shock absorber is £100 and a fuel filter should see change from £20.
On the Road
Whilst the 1.9-litre cars are tolerably entertaining, try if you can to stretch to one of the six-cylinder models. The 2.8-litre Z3 is probably the best used bet of the entire range, offering that creamy smooth engine with punchy performance. Sixty mph is just 6.7 seconds away with a 134mph top speed following shortly after. The lasting impression is that the Z3 is an undemanding car to drive, with lightweight clutch and gearbox and acceptably sharp steering. The hood is a quality job, and makes a good fist of sound and weatherproofing. The later cars, such as the 2.2-litre and 3.0-litre are even more impressive, but have yet to appear in the same numbers as the Z3 2.8.
If you require genuinely nauseating performance, the M roadster and M coupe serve it up by the bucketload. Rest to 60mph 4.9 seconds on its way to its 160mph top speed guarantee the M roadster's performance credentials. It reaches these speeds on a seamless stream of power, the long-travel throttle pedal firming up as you eke the last few horsepower out of the engine. It lacks the drama of a turbocharged unit, but power is available seemingly anywhere, in any gear. No wonder McLaren turned to BMW when they wanted the ultimate engine for their F1 supercar. The fun is tempered by the M roadster's feeble range. The minuscule 51-litre tank means that spirited driving can see the overall range drop to just over 100 miles. Therefore an hour's fun in a thirsty M roadster can easily cost £40 in petrol.
The handling of the more powerful Z3 models is not what you might expect. With all that power deployed through the rear wheels, surely it would be one long white-knuckle ride? Well no, at least not in the dry. The handling bias is set up for safety, and only severe provocation will unsettle the car. The basic rear suspension set up dates right back to the first generation BMW M3, which first saw light of day in 1987 and has changed little since. Compared to a current 3 Series, the ride is more fidgety, with the back end hopping and skipping somewhat as the speeds build and the surface deteriorates. That said, the lively roadholding adds to the exuberant character of the car.
Demand dictates that there's no such thing as a cheap Z3. There are other more affordable coupes that can dish out greater driving enjoyment and there are some which are more stylish. None offer the combination of both with the breadth of abilities of the Z3 range. From basic 'Chelsea chariot' to fire-breathing Porsche crusher, the Z3 range has something for most roadster lovers. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies the best buy of the range, the Z3 2.8. Make sure you aren't paying through the nose for a car loaded with extras you don't need. Hunt down a good one, and you'll forgive the Americans for giving us Pop Tarts, the Back Street Boys and Ally McBeal. It's that good.
BMW Z3 (1997 - 2003) review by ANDY ENRIGHT