Affordable, accessible fun.
Not a Miata: 2001 BMW Z3
For good reason, the Mazda Miata is the best-selling roadster of all time. It’s affordable to buy and cheap to maintain. It’s reliable. Simple. Fun. There are thousands of examples out there in every possible condition, and an active enthusiast community can answer questions or assist with any fix you’d ever need. When it comes to topless two-seat motoring, the Miata is the logical, sensible choice.
So what if the underpowered, dime-a-dozen, friendly-looking Miata doesn’t stir your senses?
Remember, a car with two seats and no roof isn’t sensible. It’s frivolous (and fantastic). A roadster is about something else—an escape from the shackles of practicality and sober reason. It’s an emotional outlet. What if your heart wants something different, something that feels less inevitable, and more original? Hell, maybe you just want some mid-range torque.
When I wrestled with this conundrum, half of my co-workers owned Miatas. They spouted off about its merits, which I knew enough about, and prodded me join their pop-up headlight cult. But deep down I’d always lusted after another roadster—the BMW Z3. With its classic sports-car proportions, edgy styling, and inline-six engine, it struck me as a much more sophisticated choice.
“That’s gonna cost you a lot more in the short and long-term,” they’d say. “Not as reliable or as pure of a sports car.”
Screw ’em, I told myself. The Z3 had been on my radar since I saw Goldeneye as a kid, and as a lover of BMW straight-sixes, I was willing to shell out for more than a Miata to get the full experience. I hounded Craigslist for months in early 2013, and after locating a pristine 2001 Z3 2.5i with 71,500 miles in Philadelphia, I saw the car and bought in on the spot for about $9,000.
The straight-six immediately put me under its spell. On tap is a useful 184 horsepower, which pulls smoothly and consistently all the way through the rev range to its 6,000-rpm peak. There’s usable torque whenever you need it, which I’ve found lacking in every Miata until the current ND generation. The Z3’s five-speed manual transmission is geared a bit tall, its throws comfortably short. Each gear engages with a particularly satisfying, rubbery, mechanical feedback that you can still find in BMW’s manual gearboxes to this day.
The interior is a bit on the cheap side for what most people expected out of BMW in the early 2000s. With that being said, the classic orange-lit BMW gauges, low driving position, and driver-focused ergonomics make it recognizable as a member of the roundel family. The car is agile and responsive, but with just enough body roll to let you know what the chassis is doing. And with that perfectly sized three-spoke M steering wheel in my hand and the sun on my neck, there’s no bad day that a brisk drive in my Z3 can’t cure.
Heated seats don’t hurt, either—the Miata didn’t even add them until the NC-generation well into the mid-2000s. Other niceties like leather-wrapped power-adjustable seats and a power convertible top are included, but I’d prefer if both were manually operated if it meant not needing to replace a broken motor or switch down the line.
And that’s where the Z3 has its faults, compared to the Japanese-built Miata. As with the E36-generation 3 Series on which it’s based, electrical gremlins from wheel-speed to oxygen sensors can get expensive as miles pile up. Cooling is another weakness of these cars, and it’s recommended that you preventatively replace your radiator and water pump by about 75,000 miles. Plastic components in this system tend to crack and become brittle over time, which has led several aftermarket providers to build parts such as a water pump with more durable metal or composite impellers.
Still, none of these issues put my Z3 in the doghouse. I always savor getting behind the wheel, dropping the top, and hearing that butter-smooth purr as I rev the living daylights of the straight-six. I don’t feel an ounce of regret. The heart wants what the heart wants, and not everyone wants a Miata.