BMW’s first two-seater roadster since the 507, the BMW Z3 is accessible, stylish and better to drive than its reputation might have you believe
How much to pay
• Project £1000-1500 • Good £2500-4500 • Concours £5000-6000 •
Running costs ★★★
DIY Friendly ★★★
When the BMW Z3 made its debut in 1996 it was loved and loathed in equal measure. Those who cared more about style and image loved it; here was a premium two-seater convertible that was well made, good to drive and came with some brilliant engines that focused on either performance or economy, depending on which was selected.
However, the hard-core press weren’t so keen on the Z3. It wasn’t focused enough. Apart from the rare and costly M Roadster, none of the various Z3 models handled as well as it should have, if you were a press-on driver. Well, not if you believed the hype.
Now that the BMW Z3 is a classic, handling in extremis isn’t as important – and arguably never was. Instead, buyers revel in the excellent build quality and usability along with the low running costs. Throw in a range of brilliant engines and slick transmissions and you can see why modern classics like the Z3 hold so much appeal.
Z3 buyers could choose between 1.8 8v and 1.9 16v four-cylinder engines, but it’s the 24v six-cylinder units that really make the Z3 shine. The choice expanded into 2.0, 2.2, 2.5, 3.0 and 3.2-litre straight-sixes and they’ll all notch up 200,000 miles without murmur if cared for. However, while the glorious soundtrack of the six-cylinder engines has by far the most appeal, the four-cylinder units tend to be less problematic. Incidentally, while American-spec Z3s got a cast-iron block, European cars have an alloy unit.
Any Z3 engine can suffer from a failed thermostat, which tends to stick open. As a result the engine struggles to get up to temperature once the car is moving, but replacement parts are cheap. If you’re looking at a four-cylinder car check that the engine management lights illuminate when the ignition is switched on, and go out with the engine running. If not, the lambda sensor has probably failed.
If you’re considering a six-pot Z3, check if the engine gets too hot or if there’s any evidence of it having overheated, such as a blown head gasket. If so it’s probably because the water pump has been struggling to cope. Its plastic impellors aren’t really up to the job, which is why the cooling system must be kept scrupulously clean.
The VANOS variable valve timing that’s fitted to the M Roadster and Coupé can give problems on early cars. It’s all fixable but if it fails completely it willll cost plenty to put right. The secret is to watch out for any flat spots or hesitation when accelerating and to listen for grumbling from the engine as you accelerate, or on the over-run.
Finally, check for rattling that indicates a dual-mass flywheel on its way out. All Z3s had one of these and while official BMW replacements are expensive, high-quality pattern parts are available at much lower prices.