The 1990 Mazda Miata proved conclusively that a small two-seat roadster could be a runaway success, even though such cars had all but disappeared from the car market a decade before. Other manufacturers couldn’t ignore Mazda’s smash-hit, so they started planning small two-seaters of their own, the most famous of which were the Porsche Boxster, Mercedes-Benz SLK, and BMW Z3.
The Z3 project began in 1991 with a design from Joji Nagashima. A final version was launched in 1995 and production started in September of that year at BMW’s facility in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
The BMW Z3 was based on the E36 3-Series platform with McPherson strut front suspension and rear semi-trailing arm suspension from the older E30 (1982-94) 3-Series. The first Z3s were powered by a 140-horsepower, 1.9 liter four-cylinder engine capable of 0-60 mph in 7.9 seconds and with a top speed of 120 mph. It was comparable with the simpler Mazda Miata, although the 1996 Miata cost $18,900 against the Z3’s $28,750, and the $10,000 difference proved a tough nut for BMW to crack.
The answer was to offer the 2.8-liter, 189-hp six-cylinder engine in the Z3. This was introduced for the 1997 model year and managed 0-60 mph in 6.3 seconds, pushing the top speed to 135 mph.
The six-cylinder model also features a wider track and came with standard traction and stability control with a 25 percent locking rear differential, as well as optional 17-inch wheels. The new model lacked any external badges, so recognition came down to minor style changes – bigger grilles and wheel arches, and a more aggressive front air dam.
Also launched in 1998 was the coupe version of the Z3, a little heavier but much more rigid. It proved a hard sell at first, being tagged as the “clown shoe” or “bread van,” but today is popular for its distinct look and solid handling. The coupe was only available with the six-cylinder engine, and also as a much faster M model. Non-M coupes could be bought with automatic transmissions, but M models were all 5-speeds. Non-M Z3 coupes are also rarer than their Z3 M.
The Z3-based M Coupes and M Roadsters delivered 240 hp with the 2.8-liter S52 engine and a whopping 315 hp with the 3.2-liter S54 that arrived for 2001. M models also feature bigger disc brakes and were available in M-specific colors, with streamlined mirrors, “Roadstar” wheels, different side gills, and four exhausts. Interiors feature M-styled seats and colors and a voltmeter, clock, and oil temperature gauge in the center console. Ms did not receive the 2000 model facelift.
M models are the most desirable examples, with the M Coupe being the rarest and most expensive collectible. Only 2870 BMW M Coupes were built between 1999 and 2002, divided into 2180 with the S52 motor and from 2001 just 678 with the high-horsepower S54. In the same period 8937 M Roadsters were sold with the S52 engine and 1564 with the S54 unit. In all, total Z3 production amounted to around 297,000 Z3 roadsters and 17,800 Coupes, although these numbers vary depending on the source. The Z3 roadster was lightly redesigned in 2000 then replaced by the Z4 in 2003.
The BMW Z3 was featured in the 1995 James Bond movie Goldeneye and was one of the few non-British cars driven by Bond in any film. His Z3 boasted missiles behind the headlights, a radar scanner, parachute braking, a self-destruct system, and a passenger ejection seat. While not exactly a fan favorite, a BMW Z3 roadster is nevertheless one of the few Bond cars out there that is actually affordable.