1997 BMW Z3 Review
By John Heilig
ENGINE: 1.9-liter DOHC four HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 138hp@6000 rpm/133lb-ft@4300 rpm TRANSMISSION: Five-speed manual FUEL ECONOMY: 23 mpg city, 31 mpg highway, 23.6 mpg test WHEELBASE: 96.3 in. OVERALL LENGTH: 158.5 in. OVERALL HEIGHT: 50.7 in. OVERALL WIDTH: 66.6 in. CURB WEIGHT: 2690 lbs FUEL CAPACITY: 13.5 gal. LUGGAGE CAPACITY: 7 cu. ft. (est.) TIRES: 225/50ZR16 INSTRUMENTS: Speedometer, tachometer, fuel level, water temperature, oil pressure, battery voltage, digital clock. EQUIPMENT: Power windows, power mirrors, cruise control, air conditioner, AM-FM stereo radio with cassette, anti-lock braking, dual air bags. STICKER PRICE: $29,320 (est.)
One of the most exciting cars to hit the highways in 1996 was the American-built BMW Z3 roadster. Here is an exciting small sports car that beat its chief competitors--the Mercedes-Benz SLK and Porsche Boxster--to the market by over a year with the kind of performance we all used to love in small sports cars. In a sense, the Z3 is what the Mazda Miata was designed to be, small, peppy and fun.
There's also no doubt that the Z3, while it has styling cues like the split grille, doesn't look like any other BMW on the road. I see that as an advantage. There's so much brand identity among all the other BMWs that you can't tell them apart, unless you're really into BMWs. A 7-series looks an awful lot like a 3-series (yeah, I know there are size and aerodynamic differences, but work with me) and you can't tell the players without looking at the rear deck for the identifying logos.
That styling, though, creates a love-hate relationship among car fanciers. You either love the way the car looks, or you hate it. There's a slightly ungainly look about the car from most angles. The front seems wider than the back because of the wide front track and flared fenders. There's a cropped-off look to the tail, too, that is very Cobra-like. If they had extended the rear a bit they could have put a real trunk in the car. As it is, we estimated cargo capacity at 5 cubic feet.
There's an advantage to avant garde styling, though. Chrysler's Bob Lutz feels that designs that are either liked by everyone or elicit so-so comments are failures. The good designs are those that are either loved or hated; those that evoke strong feelings. Well, the Z3 is no Miata. It has distinctive styling that fits Lutz's definition.
Performance with the 1.9-liter DOHC four is very good. We had fun zipping through the five speeds of the manual gearbox. It seemed there was always a proper ratio to get the best out of the car.
Our main trip was to New York, so we put in a lot of Interstate miles and some urban guerilla miles as well. The Z3 zipped through the city traffic quite nicely. Judicious down- and upshifting had the engine working at its best as we wove between the taxis. That sounds a lot better than the fact, as we had very little dueling with the big yellow monsters.
On the highway the Z3 is comfortable. There's a cruise control that keeps a steady speed on the quieter stretches and helps keep fuel economy high. While the engine tends to be buzzy (it is, after all, a four), it's not objectionable. We were able to appreciate the more subtle forms of the music we listen to without having to crank the volume up too far.
Handling is very good. The Z3 cornered flat, yet didn't give us backaches on rough roads. You know you're in a sports car because it is choppy, but part of that is caused by the relatively short wheelbase.
I didn't like the radio. Controls were confusing and I had difficulty finding my stations. The sound was good, but if you switch between stations a lot and don't have them pre-set, you'll go crazy.
The Z3 is a cute little car. In performance, it seems to out do the Miata, which for now is its main competition. When the SLK and Boxster come on the market next year, the four-banger Z3 may not keep up, which is why BMW has introduced the six-cylinder version of the car in Europe. Expect it here in the 1997 model year.