Contrary to what most people think, the Z3 was not the first Z to start off the Z series (Z3 and Z4). That title goes to the Z1. During 1989-1991, BMW built the Z1. The Z1 featured many innovative touches such as doors that slide down in their sills and a removable plastic body. This car could be driven with all of the body panels completely removed. They were never sold in North America, and the Z1 was discontinued after just two years and with 8,000 models produced. After noticing the success of the Mazda Miata roadster, BMW decided it wanted a piece of the action. Introduced in 1996, the Z3 made its debut in the James Bond film, Golden Eye, which BMW used to promote the car. The BMW Z3 emphasized its mix of modern BMW mechanicals with retro styling cues from the BMW 507 (a classic BMW roadster). It gained new interior and exterior revisions in 2000.
With the Z3, BMW has successfully implemented the rear wheel drive sports car proportions with a long hood and a short rear deck. Up front, BMW’s signature “kidney” grille remains as does the BMW spec headlights. What I like about the hood is the way it wraps around the headlights. The side vent behind the front wheels is a retro throwback to the BMW 507 of the 1950s. Two simple taillights adorn the simple yet detailed rear. By detailed, I mean the top of the trunk is molded slightly to create a defined line that aligns with the taillights. The interior has some nice classic details as evidenced by the controls cluster while the brown leather and wood trim brighten up the otherwise stark interior.
The Z3 has been lambasted for not providing the drive its styling suggested or not feeling like a proper BMW sports car. If you compare this with a Porsche Boxster, Mazda Miata, or the Honda S2000, that may be the case. But if you look at the Z3 individually, it really comes into its own. The steering feedback is what you expect of a BMW. You can literally decipher road textures from the steering feel. It is well weighted but it can be slow to respond, giving the impression that the car is heavier than you would think. Even with the Sport package which comes with a stiffer suspension, there is some body lean, but it exhibits excellent grip. This characteristic allows it feel tossable and playful. It does understeer quite a bit, but it is still fun to drive overall. The ride quality is supple on all roads. Even on rough roads, this BMW remained solid and devoid of any creaks or rattles. Braking is excellent.
The heart of this Z3 is a 2.8 liter inline six cylinder engine. Despite its modest 193 horsepower rating, the six cylinder feels strong. There is no lag in power, and it revs freely all the way to its redline. It is torquey, so you never really feel like you have to downshift just to get decent power. The five speed transmission is clunky at first, but once you get used to it, it is easy to shift. The clutch requires some effort to depress, but it has excellent feel and response. There is a manly feel to the controls as you have to put in more effort than most manual transmissions today. Fuel economy for the 2.8 liter six cylinder with the manual is 17 city/19 combined/24 highway mpg.
With the top down, there is virtually no wind buffeting. Put the top down, and you’ll notice how the engine is muted at low revs. There is no wind noise, although the rumble from the tires is noticeable. The inline six cylinder engine thrums at low revs, but press the pedal, and the thrum turns into a frenzied growl.
Although some surfaces feel brittle to the touch, fit and finish is meticulous with impressive attention to detail. The gauges are straightforward, and the controls are as simple as they get. Trying to find a comfortable driving position can prove tiring for some people. The seat does not rise up that much, and when you tilt the steering to accommodate your height, you risk the steering rim blocking the gauges. With the top down, visibility is excellent, and adequate with the top up. The cloth top employs a plastic window instead of a glass window, an odd omission considering the much cheaper Mazda Miata and Honda S2000 employ glass windows. The seats offer superb comfort with decent bolstering to keep you in place during the corners. With the 2.8 engine, the battery is stowed underneath the trunk so it does not take up that much space, but then again it is not like the trunk had that much space to start with. The trunk is shallow and small. Access can be difficult as there is no graceful way of exiting the car. Cabin storage is nonexistent.
Driving the Z3 was literally a blast from the past. In an era where cars are increasingly focusing on technology to make cars drive faster, this old fashioned Z3 feels an anomaly. The thing is, sometimes old fashioned is good because it means you stick to the tried and true method. In this case, put a sublime engine in an agile roadster, and you got quite the product. The Z3’s successor, Z4, according to car magazines’ reviews, degraded in driving dynamics and feels even less like a BMW. The second generation Z4 drives better, but is less about being a sporty roadster and more about being a luxury convertible as evidenced by its folding metal hardtop. Did you know that on some versions of the Z4, you can’t get an manual transmission? This shows you how far the latest model of the Z series line has strayed from its original mission as a roadster. Even though it may not handle as well as its rivals, the Z3 has enough charm to make most people happy. Let’s not forget that old school is sometimes the best approach.