If asked to name a few well-known sports car manufacturers, most people would probably come up with the likes of Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini and McLaren. Those with a more classic perspective might suggest MG, Triumph or Lotus but few, I’m guessing, would put BMW forward as one of their top pics. And yet, the Bavarian Motor Works has been responsible for some extremely eye-catching and capable sports cars over the years. The 328 Mille Miglia, the 507, the M1 E26, the Z1 (E30 based) and, of course, the Z8 E52 all spring to mind. Each has been both notable and desirable in its own right but, tucked away in their midst was an attractive little two-seater roadster that, to this day, continues to slip under the radar of many of those searching for motoring excitement.
The Z3 is that car, and the version we’re considering here – the Z3 2.8 – is arguably the most appealing of the range. You will all, of course, have heard of the Z3 M and the somewhat gawky Z3 M Coupé E36/8, both of which are now fetching £25,000+ in showrooms up and down the land. So, the value of these two has taken them beyond the reach of many enthusiasts, and yet the 2.8-litre, straight-six powered model remains eminently affordable to all but those on the very tightest of budgets.
The Z3 was a pretty important model for BMW and its development as a world motoring brand. It was the first model to be manufactured outside mainland Europe. While the company had organised the assembly of kits in countries including India, Thailand and Uruguay, the setting-up of a full-blown and independent manufacturing facility outside Germany, was something completely new.
America was chosen for strong marketing reasons and, in 1992, work began on the Spartanburg plant, in South Carolina. BMW’s plans for the Z3 centred around producing a competitively-priced and attractively-styled roadster that would be fun to drive and satisfying to own. The sales success of the Mazda MX-5 in America was something that BMW felt it could emulate with the Z3; a model that it was confident would prove popular with US buyers.
Beneath the curvaceous bodywork was a vehicle based largely on running gear from the E30 and E36 3 Series. But, while the use of tried and trusted suspension components and engines undoubtedly helped keep production costs in check, relying on those existing parts for a brand new model also represented something of a compromise.
Somewhat disappointingly, the shiny new Z3 arrived in the UK early in 1997, with only a 140hp, 1.9-litre, four-cylinder engine under its bonnet. The best it could manage was a 0-62mph time of a fairly underwhelming 9.6 seconds, which hardly set the pulse racing. Predictably, the motoring media wasn’t terribly impressed, with some road-testers criticising the new model’s lack of performance, and others questioning whether it deserved to be called a sports car at all. In some respects, though, such criticism was a touch unfair, as the Z3 represented a pretty snappy performer when compared to the similarly-powered competition.
Nevertheless, a seed of disappointment had been sown in the minds of motoring enthusiasts, and the adverse publicity left many mentally classifying the Z3 as a lacklustre, inadequate sports car, which was a terrible shame. Whether or not the criticism stung BMW into action isn’t clear, but the 2.8-litre version arrived in UK showrooms in the summer of 1997. With its torquey, 190hp straight-six engine and muscularly-flared rear wheel arches, many were quick to point out that this was the car the Z3 should have been, right from the start.
Performance was much more exciting, with the 0-62mph dash being despatched in 7.1 seconds, accompanied by a significantly more appealing soundtrack, to boot! The 2.8 was closely followed by the Z3 M Roadster, powered by a 321hp engine. This surprised everyone, as did the oddly-styled Coupé version, both of which went on sale in the UK late in 1997. In 1999, a two-litre, six-cylinder version was introduced, then the model received a mid-life facelift in 2000. Production of the Z3 ceased in 2002, when the range was replaced by the Z4. Just under 300,000 had been made and sold.
So nowadays, the 2.8-litre version is the smart model choice if you’re keen on a bit of affordable motoring brawn. Admittedly, the Z3 2.8 is no Porsche 911 Carrera, but it’s an appealing package, nonetheless, especially given current values. Another advantage is that the Z3 isn’t the sort of car that’s attracted ‘boy racers’ over the years, so the number of cars that have been chopped about or heavily modded, is low.
Although sale prices remain in what many would consider to be the ‘bargain basement’ category, it does appear that things are on the turn. The performance of the Z3 M and Coupé models has a natural tendency to drag up the rest of the range, starting with the next best thing, which is the 2.8. So, arguably, now is the time to act if you’re after the best value for money.
From a buying point of view, the fact that so much of the Z3’s componentry was carried over from the pre-existing E30 and E36 3 Series models, is a good thing. It means that everything is well-established in reliability terms, and all the characteristic problems are out there and known about. Bodily the situation is pretty good; the Z3 isn’t a car that’s known to rust, so badly corroded examples are very rare.
Nevertheless, it makes sense to carry out a careful inspection of all the panels, checking the evenness of gaps and the consistency of paint colour. The rear end of the sills can be a problem area, if water and mud has been forced in past the plastic wheel arch liner. Problems here are relatively easy to deal with, though, as the sills are bolt-on panels. Check out the door mirrors, as the frame is alloy and corrodes, so be careful when you turn them flat to the door, as they can snap off.
CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING!
Also, keep an eye out for stone-chip damage, especially on the flanks, immediately ahead of the rear wheels where the wing panel flares out. The bonnet slam panel can also suffer with surface rusting, so watch out for this, too. Also, don’t be concerned if you notice that the paint is a different colour under the bonnet – it was typically finished in a lighter shade at the factory.
Hoods are of a good quality, generally keep out the elements well and serious water leaks are rare. One of the few places to watch is around the tops of the windows, where water can get in. The rubbers are best treated with a smear of Vaseline in this area, and it’s also good practice to lower the windows an inch or so when raising the hood, and then close them once the hood and its rubbers are securely in place. Electrically-powered hoods are a desirable option, and the motor that operates them shouldn’t provide any problems.
Although the Z3 is a generally decent-handling machine, the use of dated suspension technology has created a few issues. As the cars age, wear in the front wishbone bushes can create a disconcerting ‘tramlining’ effect, which is especially noticeable on uneven road surfaces. However, simply replacing the tired and inadequate rubber bushes with harder, polyurethane alternatives, does the trick. Some owners also opt to fit a strut brace across the top of the engine, to tighten things still further.
Bush wear in the rear suspension can be an issue, too, leading to play in the axle mountings and a generally wayward feeling at the back-end. Fitting replacement bushes in the rear control arms sorts the problem out. Finally, with regard to suspension, check the condition of both the front and rear anti-roll bar drop link bushes, as wear in these is another common issue on pre-2001 models.
UNDER THE BONNET
The 2,793cc engine used to power the Z3 2.8 is the M52 straight-six unit, as found in the E36 3 Series, the E39 5 Series and the E38 7 Series. So it was a tried and trusted engine by the time it got shoe-horned into this diminutive roadster. This engine is an essentially reliable one that delivers its 190hp in a smooth and refined manner.
However, problems with the twin Vanos variable valve timing system can be expensive to put right, so listen for telltale ticking from the front of the engine. Thermostats were a bit suspect, too, so any signs of warmer-than-normal running should prompt a change. It also makes sense to renew the water pump at the same time, as this can be a bit of a weak link as well. Also, if you come across a car with an engine that’s difficult to control smoothly, then it could be that the throttle cable has become sticky. It can’t be lubricated, so replacement is the only answer, and will make a big difference to throttle control and feel.
Generally speaking, the Z3 was very well screwed together and, even 20 years on, a good example should still feel solid and rattle-free. If, while on a test drive, you hear odd tapping and rattling noises, there could be two simple solutions. If the handbrake cable has broken free from its retaining clips under the car, it can rattle against the fuel tank. Alternatively, the source could well be something as minor as a loose tool or two in the boot-mounted tool kit.
As far as the transmission is concerned, it’s all pretty encouraging, too. The automatic gearbox was a relatively popular option with initial buyers, but is probably less desirable nowadays. Although essentially reliable, changes can become a bit sluggish, and some owners opt to switch to a fully synthetic lubricant which improves matters. The manual gearbox is essentially bullet-proof.
Finally, on the mechanical side of things, while the brakes are good on this model, the pump and circuit board for the ABS system are combined as one unit that sits beneath the windscreen washer reservoir. Any leaks can cause expensive damage; replacements cost £1,000 from BMW.
The interior of the Z3 is surprisingly roomy and comfortable. The hood (complete with headlining) provides excellent levels of heat and noise insulation. When folded down it can be hidden beneath a slightly bulky and semi-rigid tonneau cover, which certainly looks very neat when in place, but can be awkward to fit and a nuisance to store (it uses a lot of the available space if carried in the boot).
The folding action of the hood inevitably puts a crease in the clear plastic rear window which, over time, becomes increasingly scratched to produce a permanent, cloudy line across the full width. It is possible to guard against this by inserting a roll of soft fabric into the crease every time the hood is folded down, although not many previous owners will have been fastidious enough to do that, so this discolouration is a common occurrence.
The heating system works well, which helps with UK, hood-down motoring, as does an effective wind deflector. There are options available for cars with and without roll bars, and I’ve seen both clear plastic panels and gauze-type material used to good effect. The car’s instrumentation is very straightforward and reliable, and the interior trim generally wears well. Seat mountings, though, can prove a bit of a nuisance; wear in the adjustment rail bushes leads to play, in turn allowing the seats to rock on their mountings.
All-in-all, then, the Z3 2.8 should prove to be a relatively easy and straightforward car to buy. Just about the biggest problem is likely to be finding examples in the first place, as most classified listings are dominated by 1.9- and 2.0-litre models. There are a few of the later 3.0-litre version, as well, but these tend to be much scarcer than the 2.8.
One of the beauties of this car is that it comes from an era when everything was DIY-friendly. It’s not bristling with electronics and so it’s perfectly possible to tinker and carry out worthwhile, home-based repairs. In terms of value for money, it’s hard to think of much else that gets close to everything this stylish and manageable two-seater has to offer.
The Z3 2.8 is an affordable car to buy, an easy car to live with and a fun car to drive. It ticks a lot of boxes and, with values just starting to creep upwards, it’s reassuring to know that it’s not a vehicle that’ll leave an ever-growing hole in your bank balance. I think that anyone who hasn’t experienced this car first hand will be very pleasantly surprised. So, if you get the chance of a test drive, grab it with both hands, and prepare to be impressed!
WHAT TO PAY?
A recent search on Pistonheads found 28 Z3s for sale, of which only six were 2.8 models. Prices ranged from just £3,999 for a 1997 model with 101,000 miles on the clock, to £21,950 for a 2000 Coupé version that had covered just 24,300 miles, but was left-hand drive. The most attractive of the bunch was a 43,000-mile, 1998 model at a dealer in Essex, priced at £6,295. An online search with Auto Trader, on the other hand, revealed 106 Z3s for sale, of which 17 were 2.8s (only a couple were found on both sites). The entry level was £3,400 being asked for a 111,750-mile, 1998 roadster while, for £100 more, there was a 131,230-mile, 1999 version.
Auto Trader’s top price was £15,995 for a smart-looking 2002 RHD Coupé with 87,412 on the clock. The most expensive Roadster was a 1997 model which, due to only having covered 12,000 miles, was priced at £11,995. According to the sales blurb, this car had recently undergone a £1,000 service which, for that price, must have been mighty thorough. One of the more attractive mid-rangers was a very clean, 58,000-mile 1997 model, priced at £8,495.
OWNER’S VIEW RON PARISH
“I bought ‘Iris’ in 2007 and have covered 22,000 miles in her since then. She’s my third BMW (I’ve owned two E30s – a 316i and a 325i Sport), and I’d always liked the model’s retro styling.
“I took the plunge and sold my 325i Sport to buy the Z3 and, after seeking lots of helpful advice from the BMW Car Club’s Z3 guru, Mike Fishwick, I decided to go for a 2.8 version. “Not all that I’d read about the Z3 was favourable; I found plenty criticising the handling and performance, the cramped cockpit and problems with tramlining. Well, as far as the interior space is concerned, I am just under six feet tall and don’t find the space limited.
“I consider the car’s performance to be more than adequate, and I’ve seen-off a few younger drivers at the traffic lights in my time! The tramlining, though, can be an issue, although it’s easy to put right. I fitted a front strut brace and replaced the worn front, lower wishbone bushes with polyurethane ones, and things are much better now.
“I’ve found the cost of routine servicing to be very reasonable and, following more of Mike’s advice, I’ve switched the engine, gearbox and back axle oil to fully-synthetic lubricant. This simple upgrade has made a great improvement to the car, and I regularly get 30+mpg on a decent run.
“I have never experienced any difficulty in sourcing parts, and the most expensive work I’ve had done was just after I’d bought the car. It involved fitting new front brake discs and pads, rear anti-roll bar links, plus an interior sensor for the alarm (£139.58). The total bill (which included a thorough vehicle check) was £601.37. Since then, I’ve also had a new thermostat and water pump fitted, for £180.
“We took the car on a three-week, 1,500-mile European tour to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary in 2011, and it performed faultlessly. It returned 34mpg and we made full use of a set of three tailored bags for the boot that I’d been given as a present.
“More recently, I had a used ABS pump fitted and the brake fluid changed. I’ve also had a new throttle cable and a replacement main air intake pipe on the engine, but that’s it. Overall, I’ve been delighted with the Z3 2.8 and can say that, apart from the cumbersome tonneau cover, I wouldn’t change a thing about the car. We have used it mostly for weekends and days out, plus BMW Car Club shows and events.”
BMW Z3 TIMELINE
1992 Construction on BMW’s new factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina, begins
1996 Z3 is launched at the Detroit Motor Show, and is the first BMW to be wholly manufactured outside Europe
1997 Z3 2.8 is launched, followed by the 3.2-litre M Roadster version. First Z3 1.9s arrive for sale in the UK. Coupé version first shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show
1998 Z3 2.8, Z3 M Roadster and the Z3 M Coupé models all on sale in the UK
2000 Z3 range (apart from M variants) receive a mid-life facelift
2001 Sports versions of the 2.2 and 3.0 models Launched
2002 Z3 production ceases, with 294,537 having been made
The Z3 has become a pretty rare sight on UK roads, which is a shame because it’s such a distinctive design.
The 2.8-litre straight-six is a pretty tight fit under the Z3’s clam shell-like bonnet, but it endowed the model with the sort of performance it perhaps ought to have had from launch.
Seductively-flared rear wheel arches were a feature of the Z3 2.8, giving it a more muscular, purposeful stance than the smaller-engined versions.
The version we’re considering here – the Z3 2.8 – is arguably the most appealing of the range.
Top: Louvred side vents provide an attractive nod to the BMW 507 of the 1950s; it’s just a shame that they are dummies! Above: Stone chip damage can be a problem along the front edge of the rear wheel arches. Magnetic plastic paint protectors are a great idea.
This was the car the Z3 should have been right from the start.
The Z3 2.8 offers enough performance for a satisfying drive without ever being harsh or aggressive. Handling is decent, assuming rubber suspension bushes aren’t worn.
The cabin was criticised for being cramped, but I certainly didn’t find it so.
The Roadster’s tonneau cover certainly neatens the look of the car when the hood’s down, but it can be a fiddle to fi t and bulky to store. A wind deflector makes a big difference to the refinement of hood-down motoring; this one slips over the roll bars and features a zipped, gauze centre section.
The Z3 2.8 should prove to be a relatively easy and straightforward car to buy.
No model designation on the back. Only the flared arches and twin tail pipes mark this out as a larger-engined version.
All Z3s were made in the USA, at BMW’s first proper factory built outside Germany.
BMW Z3 2.8 tech specs / Roadster and Coupe Club E36/7 – E36/8
Engine: Straight-six, M52B28
Max Power (hp) 192 @ 5,300 / DIN
Max Torque (lb ft) 210 @ 3,950 / DIN
0-62mph (secs) 7.1
Top speed 135mph
On sale: 1997-2000