The Z3 is a Teutonic E-type: long in front, short in back, with muscular curves and a low stance

The Z3 was introduced to the public in Goldeneye, the popular 1995 James Bond film that began Pierce Brosnan's run as 007. As BMW's first pure sports car in almost forty years, it was not surprising when the two-seater sold out its first year's production run by late spring. There was plenty to be excited about, even if your Z3 didn't come Q-equipped with Stinger missiles and a parachute.
At the outset the Z3 was available only with a 138-hp, 1.9-liter inline four, the familiar four-cylinder unit from BMW's 3-series, but revised to offer more displacement for better low-end torque. With a 0-60 mph time of just over eight seconds and an electronically limited top speed of 116 miles per hour, the first Z3s were competitive with the standard-bearer in the roadster category, Mazda's highly successful Miata. But the BMW roadster offered a higher-grade interior, more masculine looks, and one thing that can't be found on any Mazda-the Roundel.
In style the Z3 is a Teutonic E-type: long in front, short in back, with muscular curves and a low stance. Though its lines aren't as directly lifted from the legendary 507 as the later Z8's were, the Z3 still captures the spirit of its predecessor. However, it is fitted with all the typical late-model features you'd expect: dual airbags, anti-lock disc brakes, and from 1997 on, standard traction control.
With a curb weight of less than 2,700 pounds, the Z3 offers spirited acceleration when paired with the standard five-speed manual transmission. The optional automatic is another story entirely-too sluggish for a sports car.
For packaging reasons, the rear-drive Z3 shares the E30 3-series' semi-trailing arm rear suspension rather than the newer E36 "Z-axle" multilink design. This makes the car's tail end easy to kick out, more responsive but less forgiving in a way enthusiasts tend to enjoy-think original M3. Overall, the Z3 is not as nimble as a mid-engined Porsche Boxster and doesn't have the light feel of the Miata, but steers and drives much like a small, open 3-series.
Not long after its introduction, larger engines became available. A 189-hp, 2.8-liter inline six was offered in 1997, and BMW introduced the 240-hp, 3.2-liter M roadster variant in 1998. Engine performance continued to improve as BMW bumped the displacement and output of its bread-and-butter sixes for the 3-series line. By the final year of Z3 production in 2002, the M car was making a whopping 315 hp.
The performance of the four-cylinder cars is certainly pedestrian by comparison. In fact, BMW discontinued all four-cylinders in the U.S. market in 1999, save for a few hatchback 3-series. In the 1.9-liter Z3's defense, the four-cylinder was a much more appropriate powerplant for it than the nearly 400-pound-heavier 3-series, and the 1.9-liter Z3 was better balanced in every way. And on the bright side, this makes four-cylinder Z3s among the most affordable late-model BMWs available, provided you don't mind driving an entry-level sports car.
Today, BMW's new Z4 has relegated the Z3 to yesterday's model status. The cars are still depreciating and will continue to do so, but the biggest hit has already been taken.
While excellent condition 1.9s can be purchased for around $18,000, and $15,000 for good ones, this figure should fall a few thousand in the next year, then stabilize for the better, low-mileage cars. Four-cylinder Z3s are competing with numerous more powerful examples of their own make and model, so there is no reason to pay top price for anything less than a perfect car. You may have to do some searching to find one, as the four-cylinder models are less common than the sixes.
Watch for cloudiness in the plastic rear window-this is endemic and the only true solution is to replace it. It's usually advisable to replace the top at the same time. An aftermarket one will run around $350-$500, or more depending on quality. Installation is complicated and can be expensive. Gloveboxes can rattle (an easy fix), and so may the rear shock mounts if they're worn or improperly installed. They can be made right for about $350. For power seats, if the seat jiggles on its rails, the electric adjustment mechanism may be bad. Figure $650 for the dealer to fix it, or, if you're handy with tools, $305 for the parts and about 90 minutes of your labor.
The 1.9-liter Z3 created a sensation in 1996 and its hallmark characteristics of tight BMW build quality and nimble handling continue to make it an excellent car for carving through curving mountain roads with the top down. Its chances of becoming collectible are slim to non-existent, due to its large production numbers and being overshadowed by larger-engined variants. But it does offer instant and affordable fun, in a well-engineered, reliable package, topped off with a dollop of BMW cachet.

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