If you’ve recently been looking for a cheap modern BMW with a manual transmission, you may have noticed that they are no longer so easy to find. Just a few years ago, if you had $5k–$10k to spend, you could have your pick of numerous models, 3 and 5 Series sedans and coupes galore. There were few better choices for an entry-level collector car that could also do daily-driver duty.

Today, however, most any manual BMW in good condition carries a five-figure asking price — and good luck finding one that is not being sold by an enthusiast who knows exactly how desirable the car is. There is, however, one exception: the 1996–2002 Z3 Roadster.

From the parts bin

By the mid-1990s, Mazda was selling Miatas by the shipload, and German automakers took notice. Porsche’s all-new Boxster would shortly become a hit, Audi was designing its landmark TT, and even Mercedes-Benz would enter the market with its fully modern SLK. BMW ’s new sports car was more of a parts-bin special, leaning heavily on the 3 Series.

The Z3 used the existing E36 platform, sharing chassis components with the oddball 318ti hatchback, including its earlier E30-platform semi-trailing-arm rear suspension design. The ti also donated its engine, a 1.9-liter 4-cylinder making just 138 horsepower. The Z3 sold well, but the 4-cylinder was an essay in disappointment, especially given the car’s pricey MSRP.

For the 1997 model year, BMW added a 6-cylinder model powered by the M52 2.8-liter inline-6 from the 328. This gave the Z3 a much-needed boost to 190 hp and, crucially, 210 lb-ft of torque. The Z3 was now a legitimate sports car.

Many motors

BMW’s 2.8-liter M52, is a rock-solid single-VANOS (variable intake-valve timing) powerplant, offered in the 1997 and 1998 model years. With a few well-known tweaks any BMW shop can perform, you can get 200 hp at the wheels for a couple thousand dollars and not even trigger a “check engine” light. For 1999 and 2000, the M52TU (the “TU” suffix standing for “technical update”) got BMW’s double-VANOS system that added variable valve timing for the exhaust cam as well.

In 1999 and 2000, you could also buy a Z3 with a “2.3” badge on the side, even though the actual engine was a 2.5-liter version of the M52TU, rated at 170 hp. For the 2001–02 model years, an updated 2.5-liter bumped output to 184 hp and carried a “2.5” badge. From 2000 to the end of production in 2002, the new 3.0-liter M54 engine was rated at 228 hp. All of these engine options were available with a 5-speed manual transmission, delivering 0–60 mph times in the six-second range.

BMW also fitted Z3s with M3 motors and called them M Roadsters; the 240-hp S52 from the E36 in 1997 to 2000 and the 315-hp S54 from the E46 in 2001 and 2002.

Which one?

While the obvious choice in a Z3 might seem to be an M Roadster, these cars are not only substantially more expensive, but also more prone to problems. The most serious Z3 issue involves separation of the rear subframe, which can be seen in popped spot welds in the floor of its tiny trunk. This seems to be related to both the greater torque of the M models as well as the manner in which they are driven, with tracked cars being more susceptible. There is an aftermarket kit developed to fix the problem, but including installation and welding, it can be a $4k repair.

Other common Z3 afflictions include BMW’s notorious use of plastic in the cooling systems. The M54 and later M52 engines have brittle plastic coolant pipes that run underneath their intake manifolds; these are now old enough that they will likely need to be replaced regardless of mileage. Since the intake manifold must be removed, add the “while you’re in theres” and even for a DIYer this can easily run well past $1,000; a cooling system overhaul kit runs $600 for parts alone.

Discounting the 4-cylinder models entirely, this leaves the 1997–98 Z3 2.8 with the M52 as perhaps the best compromise among performance, reliability and affordability.

Other considerations

The Z3 was universally praised for its handling and comfort, with the semi-trailing-arm suspension delivering lively handling similar to the E30 3 Series that built BMW’s reputation as “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” The cockpit, however, can be tight for larger individuals, and the convertible top means the cars are fairly noisy even compared to competitors such as the Boxster.

This can be helped with a removable hard top, offered after 1998. Though rare, they will fit any Z3 back to the beginning of production; be prepared to spend up to $4,000 for one. For those requiring a more-all-weather model, a coupe version of the Z3 (nicknamed the “clown shoe”) was introduced at the mid-cycle refresh in 1999. The refresh gave all Z3s dual airbags and a better stability-control system, and a thicker convertible top for open variants.

Sharing virtually every mechanical part with other BMW models means both parts and expertise for the Z3 are readily available.

How much to pay

By the end of production, BMW had produced nearly 300k examples of the Z3 in all its various forms, all made in the U.S., in Spartanburg, SC. With nearly 95k 6-cylinders made and mostly sold here in the U.S. — 50,607 of the 2.8-liter Z3, 29,095 of the 2.5-liter cars, plus 14,525 of the 3.0-liter models — the market seems unlikely to run shy of cars to consider.

Many have led pampered lives as weekend drivers, and there is no shortage of good examples out there, keeping prices low. You can still find quality Z3s selling for under $10k on Autotrader and Craigslist. In online auctions, nicer examples sell between $10,000 and $20,000. The desirable 2.8-liter cars hover right around $15,000 for a clean example with less than 50,000 miles. There is no better bargain in a manual BMW. ♥

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