With its long hood, short rear deck and muscular Coke bottle shape, the Z3 has the proportions of the graceful shapes that seduced the baby boom generation, conjuring up memories of cars like the original Ferrari Testarossa, the MGA, Austin-Healey, Jaguar XK-E, pre-Stingray Corvette and the A.C. Bristol, better known as the Shelby Cobra. BMW has a place in this hall of fame, with its 1959 507 roadster. But the 507 was a limited production project--only a handful were made. By comparison, the Z3 is much more of a mass market car.
Built around a shortened chassis developed from BMW's 3-Series coupes, the Z3 is a little longer, wider and heavier than the Miata, with a slightly longer wheelbase and wider track.
Like all BMWs--and all the members of the classic club--it's a rear-drive car with independent suspension, MacPherson struts at the front, multilink at the rear. The rear suspension was adapated from the previous generation of the M3, BMW'S hot rod 3-Series coupe.
The 1.9-liter 4-cyl. engine is another 3-Series adaptation, but it's unique to the Z3, though BMW plans to install it in the 318 line at a later date. Like all members of the BMW engine family, it has dual overhead camshafts, 4 valves per cylinder and endless hours of development behind it.
Peak power--138 hp at 6000 rpm--is relatively modest, but the engine has very good torque characteristics, with plenty of thrust at the lower end of the rpm range, and the gearing of the standard 5-speed manual transmission makes the most of it.
A 4-speed automatic is available as an option ($975). It too is geared for good acceleration, but like any automatic it sops up power and in our view takes something away from the driving experience. With its short shift throws and precise engagement, the 5-speed enhances the Z3's race car feel.
After driving several versions with different options, we settled on a basic roadster with a 5-speed and optional ($1100) traction control. The standard equipment package, which includes 4-wheel disc brakes with antilock, should make most drivers happy.
Like the Miata, the Z3 updates the classic roadster with civilizing contemporary updates. The windows go up or down at the touch of a button--power windows cost extra on a Miata--and the manually-operated soft top is simplicity incarnate. Unlatch the twin fasteners at the top of the windshield and flip it back. It's an operation anyone can do one-handed, without stirring from the driver's seat. A soft plastic tonneau cover can be snapped into place over the folded top to tidy up the appearance.
The top seals well when it's up, although a fair amount of wind noise finds its way through the high grade material, something that's true to some degree of any convertible. And in any case, the Z3 is quieter than a Miata.
Our only criticism of the Z3's folding top is its plastic rear window. At this price level, we'd expect glass. Although the Z3's backlite is scratch-resistant, plastic windows inevitably deteriorate over time. However, the plastic window zips out for easy replacement. And BMW will make a removable hardtop available as an option later this year.
The classic 507 roadster had room for two and not much more, and the Z3 is true to the tradition. However, it's distinctly roomier than a Miata in all its interior dimensions. Drivers over, say, 6-ft.-3 might find themselves short on headroom with the top up, but leg and elbow room seem well conceived to fit most body types and driving styles.
The instruments are standard BMW, dominated by the large white-on-black analog speedometer and tachometer which are fully visible through the steering wheel throughout the range of seat adjustability.
You'd expect sporty seats in any BMW, and the Z3's twin buckets are excellent representatives of the breed. Well-padded thigh and torso bolsters keep driver and passenger solidly in place during hard cornering and quick changes in direction, which are, of course, core activities in a sports car. A high-grade leatherette is the basic upholstery material. Leather, of course, costs more--$1150 more.
Although the classic sports car concept--street-going 2-seaters that could, in a pinch, be raced--didn't include many frills, the standard Z3 comes with a goodly array of comfort-convenience features. In addition to power windows, the list includes air conditioning, an AM/FM/cassette sound system and power mirrors.
Safety features are consistent with the times--dual airbags, side impact protection and, of course, ABS.