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By Ben Selby
It seems like just yesterday BMW took the covers off their idea of a back-to-basics sports car. The BMW Z3 was not the first BMW sports car to bear the Z nameplate, that honour went to the funky Z1 with its retractable doors and love or hate looks. The Z3 was BMW’s answer to the car which resurrected the honest sports car, the Mazda MX5.
However, rather than completely mimic Mazda’s efforts, the Z3 chose to encompass the refinement and features their customers usually associated with the brand. However, the Z3 would also be aimed at inexpensive mass production. Its underpinnings, such as the suspension and floorplan, being shared with the 1994 318Ti Compact. All BMW needed to do was provide buyers with a selection of engines and looks which could charm the birds from the trees, and buyers into the showrooms.
As a further way to get the faithful salivating , BMW signed a movie deal with James Bond film producers EON Productions to feature a pre-production Z3 for Pierce Brosnan to drive in 1995’s Goldeneye. While the Z3’s time in the film was brief, it helped to create a full order book and when production of the Z3 began the following year, people found themselves on a hefty waiting list to get one.
While it received mixed reviews when launched, the Z3 certainly got attention. The Z3 was available with a variety and engines and spec levels till production came to an end in 2003. The first cars came with a not very spritely 1.8L four pot and the spicier M44 1.9L four-cylinder engine which produced 140hp. You could have it in either a five-speed manual or four speed automatic transmission.
This set up didn’t make the Z3 terribly quick so BMW gave the Z3 a selection of six-cylinder engines from 1997 onwards. By 2000, you had the choice of either the M54 2.2L and 3.0L six which produced between 170hp and 231hp. You also had a choice of a ZF five speed manual or auto gearbox. While the ultimate expression of the Z3 concept was the M Coupe and M Roadster, they are an entirely different animal altogether and best left for their own story.
Confession time. I had never actually driven a BMW Z3 until Waimak Classic Cars allowed me to sample this immaculate low mileage example for a few hours. With the Z3 now 25 years old, it is finally earning a place as a bonafide sports car classic. Sure, the ballistic M Coupe or M Roadster are by far the most sought-after variants, but the run-of-the-mill Z3’s time is coming, providing you get a good one.
The second-hand market has been flooded with high mileage examples in less than favourable condition. However, there are still a number of gems out there. This 2001 facelift sports a redesigned taillight cluster, slightly wider haunches at the rear and a set of M-Spot alloys. It also boasts a snip over 66,000kms from new.
These visual tweaks certainly give a greater stance to Z3 and I reckon the silver paint scheme accentuates the looks. All in all, the Z3 really starts to look better with age. This variant sports the 170hp 2.2L M54 six mated to that ZF five speed auto box.
Inside it is classic early 21st century BMW. There are lashings of mock wood on the centre console and gear lever. The dials are classic BMW white on black and there are plenty of BMW and M Sport badges scattered throughout.
Hop in and you find yourself sitting quite high up. You do feel you are sitting in it but not as cocooned as other sports cars of this type. That said, the seats themselves are very comfortable and everything feels solid and within easy reach. There is a bit of kit too, with features like heated leather seats, electric windows, and a very late 90s to early 00s BMW cassette player. Upon seeing that I wished I had brought my Phil Collins tapes.
Having said that, the sound of a well-tuned BMW six cylinder could provide a pretty decent soundtrack. Turn the key and that 2.2L six emits a very low burble. Give it a blip and the classic sound of a BMW inline six pot becomes evident, especially when 4,000rpm is reached.
Getting going is pretty easy, just slot it into drive and you are away. The Z3 at a suburban cruise is very comfortable and while you can still here that six, it is somewhat subdued in the background, especially with the roof down and all that wind blowing. Said six cylinder has the grunt and the torque to make getting up to speed a fairly brisk exercise. The auto box shifts well enough too.
Let’s get something cleared up straight away, those expecting the Z3 to equal the Mazda MX5 in terms of pin-harp handling will be disappointed. Despite having more grunt, the Z3 doesn’t really like cornering at speed. It can do it well enough but its 318 Compact underpinnings are quite soft. If you want a hard charging devourer of twisting tarmac, the Z3 isn’t really for you.
Where the Z3 really excels is cruising. Laid back, taking it easy summer cruising. This kind of driving perfectly suits the more relaxed shifts and the softer suspension. It is an ideal car for you to enjoy a summer jaunt to your local for lunch. Just be sure to pack light as that boot isn’t exactly large.
It thrives on gentle movements of the throttle and shifting sedately through the gears. Also, when you need to overtake or feel like ringing its neck, the power is there. Despite being 20 years old, it still feels incredibly solid and there are no squeaks and rattles to speak of.
The BMW Z3 is not an all-out sports car, but more of a leisurely soft top cruiser. Its one of the most under appreciated cars out there. Despite being in the shadow of the MX5, it is high time the Z3 gets the love it deserves. Its time to shine as an investment is also fast approaching. Prices have bottomed out and I don’t seem them getting any cheaper. If the Z3 tickles your fancy, or you want a Bond car on the cheap, you need to get one now.