M who? The BMW Z3 could be finally getting its due

BMW Z3 profile

BMW has more of a performance pedigree than almost any other mainstream carmaker out there. It is known as the ultimate driving machine, after all. Curiously, though, BMW doesn’t often come out with a dedicated sports car. I’m talking the two-seat, top down, wind-in-your-hair kind of sports car. Only a handful of roadsters have worn the blue and white roundel over the years, so your choices are limited, especially if you’re on a budget. And if that budget is tight, you really only have one choice, and that choice is the Z3

The Z3 still a common sight on the roads and still affordable, but it might be time to start thinking of it as a modern collector car. Although it lacks the purity of a Porsche Boxster or the rabidly loyal fanbase of a Miata, the Z3 is undeniably handsome (especially by 1990s standards). Plus it has all the right sporty ingredients, a range of engines to choose from, and enough luxury features to make it livable day to day.

None of this is lost on fans of the Z3-based M Roadster and the “clown shoe” M Coupe, which the former of which has gone from cult favorite to rising collector car within the past year. (The M Coupe’s collector status is by now a shoo-in among gearheads.) But those cars have always been highly regarded, what with their M pedigree and all. The slower and softer base model Z3, on the other hand, hasn’t been universally praised, getting little love from either the Bimmer faithful or general roadster fans. That appears to be changing.

Maybe it’s people being priced out of the increasingly pricy M cars or maybe it’s people coming around to a fun, affordable ‘90s roadster that’s not a Miata, but Z3s look like they are coming into their own as well with higher buyer interest and higher sale prices. We’ve taken notice and just added Z3s to the Hagerty Price Guide this year, and they currently carry a surprisingly high Hagerty Vehicle Rating of 83. Every metric in the Z3’s rating, especially quote activity, leads the rest of the market.

2002 BMW Z3
BMW

[Editor’s Note: The Hagerty Vehicle Rating is based on a 0–100 scale and considers the number of vehicles that are quoted and insured through Hagerty and takes into account auction and private sales results. A vehicle that is keeping pace with the overall market has an HVR of 50. Ratings below 50 are trailing the rest of the market, and ratings above 50 are leading.] 

The Z3 was a big deal for BMW in a few ways. It was the first serious BMW roadster since the 507 from way back in the 1950s, as well as the first BMW fully built outside of Germany. BMW’s Spartanburg, South Carolina facility, the one that currently churns out X-badged SUVs by the hundreds of thousands for the global market, started out with the little Z3. The roadster was also the first BMW with a major role in a James Bond movie, serving as Bond’s Q-modified whip in Goldeneye. To capitalize on the massive exposure that comes with being a Bond car,  BMW released a limited run of 100 Janes Bond Edition Z3s with Atlantic Blue paint, a beige leather interior, special wheels, 007 mats and a 007 dash plaque, and a little chrome exterior trim.

Introduced for the 1996 model year, the Z3 was initially only available with a 1.9-liter 140-hp four shared with the 318 and shared many of its parts with the E36 3 Series. The sprint to 60 took about 10 seconds, but BMW describes that as “rapid enough,” and touted the Z3’s sports car chops in advertisements with taglines like “Happiness is not the corner…Happiness is the corner” and “Looking for a hobby? Carve concrete.”

For 1997, BMW livened things up with a six-cylinder model, which got the 2.8-liter 190-hp straight-six from the 328i. The six also adds flared wheel arches, larger wheels and roll hoops behind the seats. The straight-six bumped the price about $6500 to a total of $35,900.

Bigger changes came in 1999, with the introduction of the Z3 Coupe. Despite being the favorite among enthusiasts today and despite its added practicality and stiffness, it wasn’t a big seller at the time and less than 12,000 were sold worldwide. A 2.5-liter 170-hp six was also added (roadster only), although BMW confusingly called it the Z3 2.3i until 2001, when its horsepower rating was bumped to 184 and badging changed to the 2.5i. After rolling out over 275,000 Z3s (not including M versions), the South Carolina factory switched to the Z4 in 2002. The Z3 was relegated to used car status, but prices have started to creep up for good low-mile examples.

2001 BMW Z3 2.5i front 3/4
2001 BMW Z3 2.5i badge detail

Not surprisingly, the cheapest Z3s in today’s market are the earliest, least powerful 1.9-liter cars with a condition #2 (excellent) value of just $10,000. The most expensive, meanwhile, are the later ones (2001-02) with the larger 3.0-liter M54 engine. And like the M versions, it goes against the conventional wisdom of “top goes down, price goes up” in that the coupe is worth more. It’s rarer, more unusual, more practical and appeals to folks who can’t quite afford an M but just can’t do without a clown shoe. It currently carries a condition #2 (Excellent) value of $24,000, but a 2.8-liter coupe is considerably cheaper with a #2 value of $17,000. 

“The 3.0L M54 engine is probably the best car for the money of all the Z3s, including the M versions,” says Adam Wilcox, Hagerty information analyst. “The base 3.0L coupe has a #2 value of about half as much as the 2000 or earlier M Coupe, which has only slightly more horsepower. It’s a similar story for the base roadster, although the gap between it and the early M roadster is smaller at 13 percent.” Long story short, if you’re not a purist or a serious collector (most of us aren’t), you don’t need an M badge to have fun and look good doing it.

For such a relatively new car the Z3 resonates more with Baby Boomers than it does with young enthusiasts. Less than 10 percent of quotes come from Millenials, while Boomers make up a whopping 58.4 percent of quotes. The number of quotes overall, though, has been growing consistently all year.

The Z3 may be a modern BMW, but it’s not as electronic-laden as some of the newer models and since it shares so many of its components with the E36, it’s not hard to keep one running. Aside from some pricy electronics, there aren’t any major gotchas aside from cheap plastic parts in the cooling system and a tendency for the rear subframe mount to become cracked on hard-driven cars, as a result of faulty factory spot welds. The interior also isn’t particularly impressive by BMW standards, but a first gen Boxster’s isn’t great, either, and it’s still much nicer than any roadster wearing a Mazda badge.

The ceiling for Z3 values will of course always be the M versions, but as those cars grow, expect interest to keep turning to the base cars. But even though they’re no longer getting any cheaper, they’re still a good value if you’re looking for a cheap roadster with a little more character (and a lot more torque) than the inescapable Miata.