BMW Z3 (1996-2002)

Article by Mark Trotta

Offered as either coupe or convertible, the BMW Z3 is a small, lightweight, contemporary sports car. The roadster was built from 1996 to 2002, with a unique hatch-body joining the line-up in mid-1999. In all, nearly 300,000 Z3 models were sold, and is now considered a modern classic.


BMW Z3 History

In 1992, BMW of Germany announced plans to manufacture vehicles in the United States. A state-of-the-art facility was soon underway, covering over 1,000 acres in the town of Greer, South Carolina, which borders Greenville and Spartanburg counties. Along with building the BMW E36 3-Series models, plans included a new two-seat roadster.

In keeping tribute to classic BMW roadsters like the 507 and Z1, the Z3's exterior was penned by Japanese-born Joji Nagashima. Frame and suspension were based primarily on existing models, with the Z3 sharing components with 3-Series models. The front suspension was derived from the E36 sedan, coupled with rear semi-trailing arm suspension from the first generation M3. The engine, however, was new; an 1895cc inline 4-cylinder that would be shared with the 318 model.

BMW Z3 roadster

1996 Z3 Roadster

The BMW Z3 debuted late in 1995 as a 1996 model. All first-year models were powered by a 16-valve four-cylinder engine with electronic port fuel injection, producing 138 horsepower. Standard features included an AM/FM/cassette player, cruise control, and distinctive 16" five-spoke wheels. Leather seats, traction control, heated seats, and a four-speed automatic transmission were optional.

first year BMW Z3

Along with the smooth 1.9 litre engine and standard five-speed transmission, the Z3's ride was firm enough to satisfy enthusiasts, yet agreeable enough to make it a pleasant daily driver. Price-wise, the BMW Z3 was positioned between cheaper, entry-level sports cars like the Mazda Miata and high-end sports cars like the Porsche 911.

Early Z3 roadsters had the battery in the engine compartment, next to the firewall on the passenger side. The battery was relocated to the trunk in mid-1996, in anticipation of a larger 6-cylinder engine.


1997 BMW Z3

With the 1.9L 4-cylinder relegated to base engine, a 2.8L inline-six became available in 1997. This was the same 190-hp, 24-valve, all-aluminum engine that powered 328i models of the era.

When buyers opted for the six-cylinder engine, larger 17" wheels were fitted, sporting 225/45R17 tires up front and 245/40R17 at the rear. The new powerplant quickly put the Z3 in the same performance bracket as the Mercedes SLK and Porsche Boxster.

BMW Z3 history

There were a few luxury upgrades for 1997, including an optional CD changer. Dual roll bar hoops were added. In late 1997, traction control became standard, and was seen on all subsequent models.

1998 BMW Z3

Aside from a power convertible top option, the 1998 Z3 was basically a carryover from the previous year. The 1.9L inline-4 and a 2.8L inline-6 continued to be the engine choices.

BMW Z3 history

1999 BMW Z3

A Harman Kardon stereo became available this year, as well as a hardtop roof for convertible models. Safety was enhanced with standard equipment side airbags.

2000 Z3 Roadster

A mild re-style included re-contoured wheel arches and revised bumpers, trunk, and rear lights. Stability control joined the standard features list this year.

Z3 Coupe

In its first four years on the market, the Z3 was offered as a convertible only. In mid-1999, a Z3 coupe became available. Offered with a six-cylinder engine only, the hatchback design added extra body stiffness and versatility.

BMW Z3 history

The coupe's handling was outstanding, and with the M package, acceleration is on par with many classic muscle cars. Quarter-mile times of less than 13 seconds were recorded, and 0-60 times came in at just 4.3 seconds. It's unique tail-end, however, proved unpopular with consumers.

BMW Z3 history

Engine Choices

For the 2000 model year, the 1.9 engine was dropped in favor of two new four-cylinder engines, a 1.8L producing 118-horsepower, or a 2.0L putting out 150-horsepower.

A 2.5-litre six-cylinder with 170 horsepower was only available in the Z3 roadster. Despite it's 2.5 engine displacement, models so equipped were badged Z3 2.3 for 1999 and 2000.

The 2.8L six was available in either the Z3 roadster or coupe and produced 193 horsepower. For the Z3 M model, there was the more powerful, 3.2-litre inline-six.

Z3 M Coupe and Roadster

BMW M-badged cars have special drivetrain, suspension, interior trim, and exterior modifications. All M models are tested and tuned at BMW's private facility at the Nurburgring racing circuit in Germany. Unlike other BMW M models, Z3's had only an "M" badge with no number displayed on the trunk, and were called the M Roadster and M Coupe.

The M Roadster offered enormous performance, with European markets getting a 3.2L six-cylinder engine with individual throttle bodies, good for 321 horsepower. A de-tuned M Roadster was sold in the United States. The lower compression 3.2L engine produced 240 horsepower.

2001 Z3

During 2001, the 1.9L engine was replaced by a 170 horsepower 2.2L engine. The 2.8L engine was replaced with a 225 horsepower 3.0L engine. The 2.5L six-cylinder saw a power increase of 14 horsepower. A five-speed automatic with manual shifting capability replaced the four-speed automatic transmission.

2002 Z3

In it's final year on the market, all models were equipped with ABS anti-lock brakes, side-impact protection, inertia reel seat belts, drivers airbag, and high level brake-light.

Production of the last Z3 roadster was June 28, 2002. Of the nearly 300,000 Z3 models manufactured, the overwhelming majority were roadsters. The Z3 hatchback was not well received, with just over 10,000 units produced worldwide. The BMW Z3 was replaced by the Z4 in 2003.

classic sports cars BMW Z3

BMW Z3 Specs

The BMW Z3 has proven itself to be reliable and practical, making it a top choice in the affordable sports car market. Although the M models and six-cylinder models command more money, the four-cylinder roadsters provide an excellent combination of handling and economy.

James Bond Z3

In 1995, James McDowell, vice president of marketing at BMW North America, together with mail-order firm Nieman Marcus, teamed up to offer a special BMW Z3 roadster in the Nieman Marcus Christmas Catalog. Purchasing this special edition 007 James Bond roadster included two tickets for a Goldeneye dinner party in Los Angeles with Pierce Brosnan. The car can be seen twice in the 1995 movie "GoldenEye" (towards the end).

Painted Atlanta Blue metallic, all 007 Z3's had beige leather interior and the 1.9L four-cylinder engine. The car featured a commemorative "Specially Equipped 007" dash plaque, and 007 floor mats.

James Bond BMW Z3

Originally BMW and Neiman Marcus had set a 20-unit sales goal, but after nearly 100 orders were placed in two days, production was increased to 100 units. The 007 Z3 cars have unique VIN numbers, from LE00700 to LE00799.

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