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Road Impressions: A Brace of Beemers: Z3 and M3

Andrew and Nicholas Frankl

TACH Euro Team

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

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Ray, the ginger-haired delivery driver for UPS was puzzled. He kept looking at the shiny Z3, which was standing in front of the house. Tell me, he said finally, how do you tell the difference between the 1.9 and the 2.8? Easy, was the reply. The 1.9 is the one that cannot get past your van. Whilst this of course is a slight exaggeration the truth is that the 1.9 is about as anemic a sports car as one can buy this side of a souped up Skoda convertible. (For the uninitiated Skoda is a Czech made car, the butt of thousands of jokes, all unkind. The company is not part of VW and is improving by leaps and bounds. The jokes refer to the time when Skoda, Wartburg and Trabant were the mainstay of the Communist Bloc transportation system. No wonder they lost the Cold War. I think they would have lost the hot one as well had they relied on the above mentioned cars as a rapid way of getting the troops to the front). But I digress.

The 1.9 was a huge disappointment, I remember driving it at the Western Automotive Journalists' test day at Sears Point. I wrote at the time that it was fine for shopping on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, but little else, essentially a "pose-mobile".

Enters the 2.8, which is very, very different. Leaving the previous drive aside ("BMW nurtures the classic inline six as a jewel-like masterpiece of power" -YUK) the car is transformed.

It so happens that Nicholas and I were visiting the nerve-centre of TACH in Rancho Cordova in the 2.8 on a beautiful, sunny day. Behind the office there is a huge, empty piece of private road so it seemed only fair to ask Debra and Katina (the ladies who make TACH happen!) if they would care to take the car for a spin. Before you could say Thelma and Louise they were off grinning from ear to ear. There was no need to ask what they thought of the car, their expressions; their smiles said it all. A wonderful time was had by all.

Later on we also had a chance to take the car down to Stinson Beach and were amazed by the sheer power, the acceleration and the road holding. Full credit to the soft-top. El Nino gave it a severe test and it passed with flying colors-there was not one drop of rain in the car after an 8-hour downpour. For the record the engine has a 189 horsepower 2.8-liter engine which will enable the car to reach 60 miles per hour in just 6.3 seconds. In case you, like Ray the UPS man, cannot tell the difference between the 1.9 and the 2.8 at first glance let me give you some clues. The 2.8 have a wider rear flank, twin exhaust tips, deeper front spoiler and round-spoke alloy wheels. All in all a very nice car, well-made sports car which is a genuine rival of both the Mercedes SLK and the Porsche Boxster.

The M3 is arguably dollar for dollar the best car in the world. I have driven to the South of France from London in a variety of automobiles including Ferraris and am convinced that the M3 would have been just as quick and 10 times more comfortable. This car is what the British call a serious piece of kit. In America I would be tempted to call it a ticket master, the car is so quick and quiet. Driving past Sears Point on our way to Sonoma it was very difficult indeed to stay within, or maybe not too much over the speed limit. Incidentally the worst aspect of the car for me is the speedo.

I find it very difficult to read it rapidly there are so many confusing white lines on it. As for handling, well, I don't claim to be a great driver, just average but even I could drive over the same blade of grass time after time on a corner such is the precision of the steering and the excellent Michelin tyres. You intrinsically know that this is a car designed by real drivers for real drivers with no compromises. Having said that my 86 year old Mother in Law loved it! This I never expected, especially not on the winding roads of Marin.

Faults? Well, it depends on how you look at it. Maybe it's me but getting first instead of reverse and vice-versa was something I had problems with and it is not of course as true four seater unless the driver is not more than 5 ft. 6 inches tall.

On the other hand for two grown ups with two youngsters in the back it must be the fastest way of getting from A to B. Opposition? Well, the Mercedes CLK is about to have a transplant in the shape of a V8 which will make it a formidable rival and the AMG C36 is quite brilliant but not somehow as appealing as a drivers car. In the meantime the M3 must be the undisputed King of the Road. My son, Nicholas, reminded me that he took a six speed 2-door Evolution version to Le-Mans last year and had a fantastic time, dodging 2 speed traps (the brakes are some of the best you'll ever use) and even sleeping in the back with the rear seats folded down and a duvet to boot. Now there aren't too many cars that will do 155mph and sleep two.

TACH's very own writer Nicholas Frankl will be representing Hungary in the four man bobsled in Nagano, Japan.