The BMW Z3 is on its way out, so we decided to take one last fling with one of our favorite sporty roadsters.
Introduced in 1996 to compete with Mercedes’ SLK and Porsche’s Boxster in the newly reborn two-seat convertible market, the Z3 boldly took the throwback approach to open-air motoring. Compared to the austere Miata, refined SLK and track-bred Boxster, the Z3 was an unshaven street brawler, with a dramatic, controversial design and a suspension that bordered on crudeness. And we loved it. In 2003 the Z3 is slated to be replaced by an all-new roadster, the Z4. Chances are, most of the Z3’s quirks will be corrected with the new car, for better or for worse. For 2002 the changes were minimal; a standard CD player and some minor interior trim changes are all the outgoing Z3 gets in the upgrade department.
Six years after its introduction, the Z3 remains a handsome, delightfully ill-mannered mode of transport. It looks good at the curb, with a long nose reminiscent of an old front-engined Grand Prix racer and low-cut doors that just invite you to jump over the side like Speed Racer. Glassed-in headlights flank a traditional twin-kidney grille for a snouty look that some can’t resist and others hate. The Z3’s flanks are raised to clear 17″ wheels in the back, and the tail manages to be at once muscular and delicate. The center brake light is recessed neatly into the trunk lid, and the rear end is stretched on account of those wheels. Unlike your average, conservative BMW, the Z3 looks like it’s ready to pounce on whatever comes near.
Once you’ve accepted the invitation to jump over the side, you find yourself in a snug cabin, handsomely decorated with chrome and a long, long way from the front wheels. The Z3 seems to be a small car wrapped around an engine. The hood bulges proudly into the forward view, and it feels like you’re sitting right on top of the rear axle. Not surprisingly, there’s little space for nonessentials in a Z3. Pack carefully. This may be the only of today’s crop of roadsters you could do a cross-country trip in without consulting a chiropractor–the seats are grippy enough for sporty driving and chairlike enough for long-term comfort. There’s a little nub between your legs, to locate you in the seat. It looks weird, but it works. A perfectly-sized steering wheel and those wonderfully low sills offer a much better open-air feeling than the SLK, Boxster or MR2. Color-keyed leather can be ordered for the interior trim and the top of the dash, as well.
Fire up the straight-six engine under that long hood, and the Z3 rewards with a basso growl that sometimes sets off the alarms of the cars parked next to it. This car knows nothing of subtlety, and it hasn’t got much in the way of manners, either. 2.5 and 3.0 liter engines are available, with 185 and 225 horsepower, respectively. The 3.0 liter engine is borrowed from the much larger 3-Series sedan, so with 214 ft-lb of torque on tap this 2910-lb car will tear away from stoplights with a frenzy that will have the traction control flashing wildly for grip. Power is available whenever you want it, whether the Z3 is taking off from a standing start or cruising at 70. BMW’s straight-six engines are beautifully smooth and powerful. Variable valve timing keeps the power smooth throughout the engine’s range, and the 3.0 liter actually meets Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) environmental requirements. The standard five-speed manual transmission isn’t as precise as that of a Honda S2000 or Miata, but the longish throws add to the old sports-car atmosphere. An automatic is also available, but a Z3 with an autobox is a sad car indeed. The burbly engine note leaves no doubt that this is a car that wants to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and thrown around.
Throwing the Z3 around is no problem, either. The strut front, trailing-arm rear suspension is enhanced by standard 17″ wheels on the 3.0 model and grip is tenacious. Even so, everything the Z3 does is dramatic. Melodramatic, even. Wavy roads cause wild histrionics and body heaves, even though it’s nowhere near actually losing control. Those wide tires (7.5″ in the front, 8.5″ in the rear) keep a firm grip on the ground, even while the Z3 is pretending that it’s scrambling desperately for grip. For a race car, this sucks. For fueling a Walter Mitty back-road fantasy, it’s pure gold. The Z3 might not be as fast as a Boxster or an S2000 in the end, but it’s got scads more personality.
Did we mention that the Z3 has no manners? In addition to encouraging us to harass SUVs on the freeway, BMW’s little roadster exhibited behavior that would be endearing in an old British roadster, but that was certainly not befitting a $40,000 car. Yes, the Z3 is pricey, with a base price of $38,545 for the 3.0i model and a still-daunting $31,945 for the “base” 2.5i car. And for all that cost, the CD player skipped every time our well-optioned $41,370 test car car hit a dip in the road. When we got annoyed by this and turned the radio off, we discovered that the clutch pedal creaked. BMW’s keyfob is sometimes finicky, refusing to unlock the doors from certain angles. And a sudden thunderstorm revealed that our test car had a leaky convertible top. Buyers seeking a little luxury car are going to be very upset with the Z3.
And in the end, we liked the rude little thing anyway. All complaints aside, it’s got more personality than its competition from Honda and Mercedes, and it’s got just enough space for a comfortable daily commute or a weekend trip. It’ll even go and play on the track, if you want–just don’t challenge any Porsches to a race. It’s hard not to feel like you’re in a ’60’s racing comic while driving the Z3, because this car is all about drama. You feel like the gritty underdog, trying to keep up with the faster cars…even though you’re one of the fastest cars on the road (the Z3 sprints to 60 mph in less than six seconds). Want to play? Grab one quick, before the Z4 comes along. We’re going to miss the Z3 when it’s gone.
All specs are for the 2002 BMW Z3 3.0i, which we tested.
Length: 159.4 in.
Width: 68.5 in.
Height: 50.9 in.
Wheelbase: 96.3 in.
Curb weight: 2910 lb.
Cargo space: 5.0 cu.ft.
Base price: $38,545
Price as tested: $41,370
Engine: 3.0 liter DOHC 24-valve inline six-cylinder
Drivetrain: five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Horsepower: 225 @ 5900
Torque: 214 @ 3500
Fuel capacity: 13.5 gal.
Est. mileage: 21/29