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1997 BMW Z3: Great Fun in The Sun

by Tony DeCosmo


SEE ALSO: BMW Specs, Reviews, Comparisons and Prices - BMW Buyer's Guide 1997-Current Models

SEE ALSO: Twenty Years Of BMW Reviews (2014-1994)

Last year, I reviewed the then-new BMW Z3 roadster with its only available engine, a 138-horsepower 1.9-liter four cylinder engine. I found that Z3 to be an exciting-looking great-handling prestige car at a decent market price. What it lacked, however, was power.

This lack of punch hurt that Z3 model in stop light to stop light drag races against Miatas, it unfairly limited a great chassis, and keep the Z3 more of a show piece than a true sports car.

This year I tested the BMW Z3 with the new 2.8-liter in-line six cylinder power plant. It may be the most dramatic one-year turn around in automotive history. The six-cylinder Z3 is a monster of a car, offering true high-performance capability with plenty of speed and even more guts. This car can more than compete with the new Porsche Boxster, and will actually push that Porsche in straight line acceleration.

Let me try and take it from the top. My BMW Z3 six-cylinder tester was well-equipped to provide hours of serious fun on a Sunday afternoon. I spent more time behind the wheel of the Z3 with its top down and the sun shining than any test car since the Lotus Esprit I tested back in '95.

I hit most of the great roads of Northeast Pennsylvania: Route 29--better know as the Moon Lake road--which snakes its way stream side from Route 118 to West Nanticoke; Larksville Mountain, complete with hair-pin turns and thrilling curves between the Back Mountain and Plymouth; Alden Mountain, which offers some of the most challenging up and down-hill esse turns this side of Pikes Peek; and a plethora of other little-known and even less-travelled black top challenges scattered throughout Luzerne and Wyoming Counties.

I have to admit that my stint with the Z3 was further enhanced by near-perfect weather on either side of Independence Day; the top was down more than 3/4 of the time that I was driving the car and I have the sun burn to prove it. When said top is down, the Z3 looks like an exotic convertible thanks to a wide rear stance, an aggressive front end, and a snazzy profile which is much more muscular than a Miata.

The five-speed gearbox is fun to work and easy to use. Because the six-cylinder powerplant doesn't redline until well over 6,000 rpms, you'll find yourself doing what I was constantly doing: down shifting a gear even when not necessary just to hear the exciting scream of the engine.

All this room on the rev-band enhances the car's handling abilities exponentially compared to either the four cylinder Z3 or an automatic-equipped Z3 (blasphemy!). Slam it down a gear to slow into the turn then jump on the gas as you pass the apex of the curve. The Z3 rewards the skilled hand with plenty of grip and pure sports car fun.

But be warned--the butt-end of the Z3 is very short and very light. This combination adds up to a back end which can be easily thrown by uneven pavement or too much torque to the back wheels (I've never had a car chirp as much during downshifts into second gear).

In comparison to the competition, the Z3 does not have the fantastic weight distribution that can be found in the Porsche Boxster's mid-engine layout, but it does have the speed and chassis set up to give the Boxster a good run for its money. The new Mercedes-Benz SLK, on the other hand, isn't well equipped for back roads but outdoes both the Z3 and the Boxster in terms of ride quality.

Moving along, my BMW Z3 is still a second car, not a first. That's because the Z3 offers very little room for things. While two average-size occupants will not feel cramped in the seats, there just isn't any room for a briefcase or car phone. The trunk offers enough room for one set of golf clubs.

On my commuter-car checklist, the Z3 scores well in all the appropriate driving categories--it can zip through the rush hour stampede as good as anything I've tested. But it lacks interior room and the ride quality, while far from harsh, is still sporty in nature.

No, the Z3 is still the second car in the garage. In its class, only the Mercedes-Benz SLK is close to a daily driver (and even that doesn't quite measure up to every-day status). The difference is that the six-cylinder Z3 is a true performance car, not a show piece.

You can get into a new BMW Z3 with the six at about $36,000. That's nearly six grand more than the four cylinder Z3 but still much less than the Mercedes-Benz SLK or the Boxster.

Both of the Z3's primary competitors, however, offer power-assisted tops. My Z3 came with a 100 percent manual soft top which was easy to lower but took a few extra seconds to raise.

I also found that my Z3 lacked many of the features I would have expected. While the climate controls worked well, they were very simple and basic--no one-touch systems here. The stereo was okay but there was no CD player.

My car did have power windows and locks, but no remote entry. The driver's seat was power-assisted as were the mirrors. Of course the Z3 came with dual air bags, snazzy cast aluminum wheels, fog lights, and leather trim (including leather seats).

At just over $36,000, my test Z3 could be considered the budget car among its competition. That makes it a great value in this segment. But even more importantly, the Z3 is great fun.