The 2002 BMW Z3 brings the rewards of six years of consistent and conscientious development and improvement. The exciting, odd-looking Z3 was BMW's contribution to the rebirth of the sports car that began with the Mazda Miata and has included the Mercedes-Benz SLK, Toyota MR-2 Spyder and other two seaters. However, the 1996 Z3 didn't reach the company's high standards of refinement, in particular with its suspension, but all of that began being corrected almost immediately.
And now we have the 2002 Z3. Its sawed-off looks haven't changed much (though now they're fully accepted). But the engine has jumped from the original 138-horsepower 1.9-liter four-cylinder to an available 225-horsepower 3.0-liter six-cylinder, reducing 0 to 60 mph acceleration performance from about 8 seconds to less than 6.
As the last model of its generation, the original Z3 won't get any better than this.
2.5i Roadster ($31,300); 3.0i Roadster ($37,900); 3.0i Coupe ($37,700); M Coupe ($44,990); M Roadster ($45,990)
The Z3 Roadster is visually enigmatic. It looks funny, sporty, powerful, cute and homely, all at the same time. Which means people look at it for a long time, and it often makes them smile. You could say the same things about the Coupe, only much more so. People stop and stare at the odd-shaped Coupe, and often ask if it's fast. Anything that funny looking must be fast, they say.
The Z3 has a lot of curves and bulges, for such a short little body. It has a long low hood, yet looks truncated because it is, having a reasonable wheelbase but not much overhang, especially in the rear. The inline-6 engine takes up a lot of length forward of the windshield, so it's evidence of good engineering that the Roadster's weight distribution is a balanced 51-percent front, 49 rear. The hood also bulges in the center and has elevated edges that start at the width of the windshield and taper forward to surround the trademark twin-kidney grille.
There are still more dramatic shapes in the front end. Under the grille is a huge spoiler that would be at home on a racing car, including its gaping air intake between the foglights. The cool horizontal halogen headlights slide toward the grille, beginning just inside the bulbous fender flares, which are squeezed from behind by four louvers like shark gills, angled like a row of forward slashes: ////.
The back end is all bulges, with more fender flares. It's totally chopped off, almost no sheetmetal behind the tires. And this is the Roadster; the Coupe, with its boxy body, is flat-out radical looking.
During the same week we tested the Z3 Roadster, we had a Honda S2000 in our driveway, so comparisons are inevitable. The Z3's standard leatherette seats are neither as smooth feeling nor firm gripping as the Honda's. There is decent lateral support in the standard Z3 seats, but they must be designed for smaller backs than ours; also, the pleats in the fairly hard seat cushion were more intrusive than the Honda's. In the S2000, we knocked off a 200-mile afternoon drive with nary a kink; the prospect of the same ride in the Z3 was inhibiting.
Later we got five days in a Z3 Coupe with the optional sport package that includes seats whose contour is both racier and more supportive, and this made all the difference in the world, changing the feel of the whole car. At $600, this package also includes great-looking cross-spoke composite wheels, making it a great bargain as well as a necessary option. In addition to their comfort, support and raciness, the seats in our Coupe were heated (another $500). The interior trim in our Coupe was brushed aluminum, which also added to great looks of the cockpit. The cargo area in the Coupe, separated from the seats by a short bulkhead you have to reach over, is quite tidy and convenient.
The leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel has bumps inside the rim at 10 and 2 o'clock. BMW apparently believes in this traditional position for your hands, which allows your thumbs to use the bumps for better grip; but nowadays some instructors teach 3 and 9, which puts your hands below the bumps with your thumbs hooked over the big wide spokes.
There's a dead pedal for your left foot, but during hard cornering to the right, the edge of the otherwise convenient door pocket dug into the side of our left knee.
The instrument panel and gauges were redesigned in 2001. As one might expect from a performance-minded company like BMW, they're no-nonsense, intended to provide information to drivers. The switches were blessedly simple. Our test car was not equipped with the power top ($750), including wood interior trim. The power top would be a luxury indeed, as operation of the manual top is effortless.
BMW's 3.0-liter engine is powerful, yet efficient. It gets good gas mileage and emits low emissions. It feels understated around town, unless you're engaging in continuous spirited squirts of the throttle, which is neither realistic nor particularly mature. Cruising on the highway, 60 mph comes at 2400 rpm in fifth gear, which is an enormously relaxed (other possible adjectives: under stressed, boring) pace for the engine.
This is a sports car that gobbles up the real estate and hungers for more. We didn't fully appreciate the Z3 until we drove it fast, and the faster we drove it the more we appreciated it. If you want to feel the fantastic smoothness of the BMW inline-six, try 6000 rpm in third gear, at which point you'll be pushing 90. That's a mere 500 rpm below beginning redline, but the engine likes it there, which may only prove how conservative that redline is. The rev limiter is smooth and sophisticated; at 6800 rpm the power goes radically away, as the engine simply and firmly lets you know there's nothing more for you. It's the best rev limiter in the business: no misfire, no snatch, no nosedive.
At low rpm, there's not much to write home about, but the torque is excellent so you don't have the work the gearbox a lot. The full 214 foot-pounds comes at 3500 rpm, and that's where you feel the engine begin to surge and the fun begin. The exhaust note also comes into its own, up there at higher rpm.
The throw of the gear lever seemed longer than it needed to be (especially compared to the S2000's racer-like six-speed), though shifting is smooth when you pay attention. When you don't, the upshift to second gear can be notchy. Our days in the Coupe confirmed this, as its second gear was notchier than the Roadster's.
Throttle response is excellent thanks to electronic control, and during downshift blips, it was downright wonderful. Especially for that common third-to-second shift, made even better by the pedal position that allowed smooth heel-and-toe movement during simultaneous braking and downshifting. Pulling away from a stop in first gear wasn't always effortless, however, as the ratio felt a bit tall.
The vented front discs on the 3.0 have been increased in diameter to a whopping 11.8 inches to accommodate the higher speeds delivered by the 225 horsepower. We have little doubt that the stopping power is all you'll ever need (with excellent ABS). We had one great run on a remote road with the Coupe through our favorite curves, and couldn't have asked for more from the brakes. Earlier in the summer we did that same run with an Acura TL Type S, whose brakes couldn't take it.
The Honda S2000 handles like a go-kart; not since the Subaru WRX have we felt anything that hugged the road so surely and turned in so quickly. The Z3 feels bigger (it's not, really), heavier (it is, by only 100 pounds) and slower to respond. But the Z3 turns-in very quickly. Almost too quickly, on sweeping curves that require more precision than aggression.
The Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) is magnificent. The Z3 might slide sooner than the S2000, but you'll hardly feel it before the correction occurs, triggered by sensors and computer chips. Unlike certain cars with more horsepower (the M3, for example), a loss of traction can be corrected without a radical reduction in throttle by the computer, so your driving is only enhanced, not interfered with. Drive the Z3 very aggressively over a bumpy, twisty road, and you'll see the DSC light on the instrument panel flickering like crazy, but you won't be aware of all the magic happening at your wheels-braking, reducing power-to keep the car true in its tracks.
On wet curves, you can deliberately drive beyond the point of adhesion, and DSC will act like a big invisible rubber bumper around the road. Of course DSC was never intended to be used like this, and in fact BMW specifically and reasonably warns against it. The point is, DSC works so well that it can be done. The p
Engine, gearbox, brakes, handling, ride, electronics, safety, reliability, style, image ? if you like the looks, the Z3 3.0i has it all. If the seat fits, wear it.