BMW Z3 – The Time Is Now

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By Chris Pollitt

As we sit down to write this, we do so in the knowledge that this week, there will be a heatwave. And as such, this has led us down the path of convertibles, or more specifically, two-seat roadsters. After all, there is little better in life than going for a blast in a car that’s designed to be driven hard, all while the wind rushes through your hair. It’s exhilarating; the sense of speed, the noise of the engine, the feeling of being at one with your surroundings rather than simply observing them through a sheet of glass. This is it, this is motoring at its best. And it’s accessible to us all thanks to a vast and varied range of roadsters. Here though, our focus is on one roadster in particular, namely the BMW Z3 which, shockingly, turns 25 this year. How did that happen?

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It has aged well though, and still cuts a dash as it drives by. It’s a design that, as per any good roadster, is timeless. And it’s also a design that is stout, muscular and with presence, despite being a small car. It’s a roadster, but it’s also a BMW, and a proper one at that. Okay, so the 1.9 automatic is a bit of a wet blanket, but the 2.8 with manual transmission and wide bodywork? That’s roadster perfection. And prices are still very much ‘real world’, but they won’t be for long. The Z3 is permeating the world of the modern classic, so soon prices will rise. As such, the time for the BMW Z3 is most definitely now.

An introduction to the BMW Z3

The Z3 project began in 1991, and was led by Burkhard Göschel. The brief was for BMW to come up with something that could occupy the competitive two-seater roadster marketplace, of which the Mazda MX-5 was undoubtedly the king. BMW wasn’t going directly against the Mazda though, and instead wanted to offer something more solid and luxurious, while also offering the famed BMW handling. As such, the Z3 was based on the floorpan of the hugely successful E36 3 Series, but with the semi-trailing arm suspension designs from the E30 3 Series. This was chosen for a number of reasons such as cost, packaging and weight.

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BMW Z3 1.9 Roadster found on Car & Classic

The body was styled by Joji Nagashima, who had also penned the external design of the E36 3 Series, so was a more than proven designer. His design was traditional in that it featured a long bonnet, squat boot and set-back cabin. But that was where the traditionalism ended. The front of the Z3 was designed to look wide and mean, the massive clamshell bonnet was a lesson in automotive sculpture with its curves and haunched arches and side vents built in. At the rear of the car, the Z3 was initially offered in two guises – narrow or wide. The four-cylinder cars had narrower rear arches, whereas the six-cylinder cars were wider so as to accommodate the increased track. However, in 1999 the Z3 was given a facelift through which the rear arch became unified with the exception of the M models, which were indeed wider.

The BMW Z3 offered the kind of luxury and build quality you would expect from BMW. Even today, Z3s that have had hard lives and wear hundreds of thousands of miles still feel solid and well screwed together.

Despite the bold, impressive styling, the Z3 was met with a lukewarm reception. Launch cars with the four-cylinder, 16v 136bhp 1.9 engine were simply not enough. The MX-5 and the SLK were a much better proposition. Then there was BMW’s clumsy product placement of the Z3 into Goldeneye. It could have been a brash, bold moment for the Z3, but instead it lacked the typical ‘Bond car’ jazz.

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BMW Z3 3.0 Roadster on Car & Classic

It wasn’t until 1997, when the 2.8 straight-six landed, that the Z3 found a following. Finally, the 2.8 with 193bhp gave the Z3 the power to match the looks. Add in that wider rear end and increased track and it made for a car with some serious driver appeal. This was the one to have, and still is. They are, generally speaking, the cars that have been better looked after. But more than that, they’re just better to drive. The 1.9 was slow, and a great many of them were automatics, which didn’t help matters.

In 1999, the 1.9 ditched the 16v in… favour (?) of eight, meaning a reduced power output of 134bhp. However, at the same time BMW thankfully introduced a much better six-cylinder 2.0 with 146bhp, which in turn made way for a 2.2 six with 168bhp in 2000. But that wasn’t the only change, as in the same year, the 2.8 was upped to 3.0 to a very potent 225bhp, which could spring to 62 in 5.8s. Impressive, especially if you go for the manual five-speed, though if you want a more relaxed drive, there was a five-speed automatic, too.

Of course, there were also M versions of the Z3, both in roadster and coupe guise, both with over 300bhp. These are of course the halo models of the Z3 range, but they’re also cars that have always enjoyed a passionate following. Our focus here is on the Z3 in the normal sense, as there is still time to get yourself a bargain.

What are prices like?

You can pick up a 1.9 16V for as little as a couple of grand, and while it’s not the most potent engine, if you just want the wind in your hair and enough pace to keep with the flow, it’s fine. It doesn’t exploit the abilities of the chassis nearly enough though, which is a shame.

The 8v version can be had for similar money, but honestly, it’s just not worth it. The 114bhp is far, far too weak for this car, and if you buy one you’ll just end up resenting it. The engine is always working too hard for too small a reward.

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The 2.0 and later 2.2 sixes start at around £2,500, though examples at that price point will be a little leggy. That said, this is a BMW, so as long as there is plenty of history to back up the mileage, don’t let it put you off. These cars can do in excess of 100k without major issue.

If you want more power still, the 2.8 starts at about £4,000, whereas the 3.0 starts at about £5,500. There’s about forty BHP between the two, and that’s enough to make a difference. If it were our money, we would push for a 3.0. The M54 is a wonderful, smooth engine that will go on forever if looked after. It’s a chain engine, rather than belt. It also boasts variable valve timing.

Obviously, if you want the best of any example, you should look to double those values, while ‘middle of the road’ examples should be somewhere in between. The key things to look for are service history and a lack of modifications. Original is best in the case of the Z3.

Why should I buy one?

Because they’re handsome, they’re brilliant to drive (with the right engine), they’re impressively reliable and let’s be honest, who doesn’t like the idea of saying they drive a BMW? More than that though, the Z3 is the complete package; a car that was built after serious thought, research and development. BMW didn’t just throw this out to compete, it did it to be the best, and in the eyes of many, it succeeded.

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See, legitimate Bond car!

The Z3 is about as perfect as a modern classic roadster gets. The SLK is nice, but hasn’t aged as well. The MX-5 is too obvious. The MGF? Great car, but thin on the ground now. Plus, head gaskets. The Z3 has none of those worries. It’s actually aged really well, and still looks great. Plus, there is excellent support for the Z3, both from main dealers and independent specialists. Plus, while it might not have been the best one, there is no denying that it was a Bond car.

How long until I see a return?

On the lower-capacity engine cars, you may never see a return. It’s more a case of buying one for your own enjoyment, and maintaining it well to retain as much of the value as possible. The Z3 that are going to increase in value are the 2.8 and 3.0 models, but even then, they’ll only go up if the miles are kept down and even then, only if the car is constantly babied, which isn’t the point of a Z3. A Z3 is a car to buy, drive and enjoy. If you want to buy a car for investment reasons, there are much better propositions – the Z3M for example. The Z3 isn’t one. Instead, buy it for you and for your enjoyment – you’ll thank us.

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