This article is to give a basic BMW Z3 history. The overnight success of the Mazda MX-5 throughout the USA was probably the deciding factor in BMW’s decision to produce a small sports car. It was decided that as the majority of sales would take place in the USA, the car would be built by the new BMW factory at Spartanburg, South Carolina. Even BMW’s most optimistic projections did not suggest that total sales would exceed 100,000 vehicles, while the price of the basic model could not exceed that of the MX-5 by a great amount. These factors meant that the design had to be based upon an existing model, the E36 3-Series Compact providing the majority of its components.

The Z3 was announced in 1995, making its first public appearance in the James Bond film ‘Goldeneye.’ It was soon a real success, in spite of criticism by the motoring press that the original 1.8 litre 113 bhp model lacked performance. This was soon joined by a 1.9 litre 140 bhp variant, using the 318iS engine, which became the largest-selling model.

An improved version with the 2.8 litre six-cylinder engine became available in 1997, providing a Z3 in the same performance bracket as the Mercedes SLK and the Porsche Boxster. The 193 bhp Z3 would in fact comfortably out-accelerate the 191 bhp supercharged Mercedes, and while the 204 bhp Porsche had a modest edge in full-bore acceleration, the Z3 provided far better figures when accelerating in any gear, making it a far more relaxing car to drive.

The Z3 range was extended later in 1997 with the introduction of the 321 bhp M Roadster, offering enormous performance, thanks to its 3.2 litre engine with individual throttle bodies. A de-tuned M Roadster was available in the United States providing 240 bhp, using a low-compression 3.2 litre engine with an inlet manifold and cylinder head similar to those used by the 2.8 litre engine. The ‘M’ package was also marketed in the form of a coupé, resembling a miniature estate car. The coupé was also available in Europe with the 2.8 litre engine.

From September 1998 the engine was revised to feature VANOS timing control of both camshafts (rather than just the inlet) and a revised inlet manifold, which could separate the front and rear three cylinder inlets during certain conditions. These changes slightly reduced the peak power and torque speeds, and made proportionally large differences in the mid-range. This resulted in improved acceleration and fuel consumption figures.

For the 2000 model year the Z3 was slightly restyled with modified rear wings, and the 1.9 litre model was replaced by a 150 bhp six-cylinder, 2 litre variant. During 2001 this was replaced by a 170 bhp 2.2 litre model, and the 2.8 litre engine replaced by the outstanding 231 bhp 3 litre unit.

Although many TV presenters and journalists deride the smaller Z3 models as being underpowered, and claim that the larger models have unspecified handling deficiencies, such claims are not confirmed by experience. The smaller models provide excellent combinations of performance, handling and economy, which few modern cars of similar power can equal. The 2.8 and 3 litre versions add to this with more power, massive torque, surprising economy, and an improved chassis. The handling qualities of any Z3 can best be described as exceeding those of most modified Golf GTIs, which is no mean feat! Try one and see . . .

Levels of build quality and equipment comfortably exceed those of competitors such as the Mazda MX-5 and MGF, while BMW spares are available at sensible prices and with rapid availability. The Z3 is reliable and practical, yet easy to work on and economic to own, making it an attractive second-hand buy. For these reasons it is not surprising that by the end of production in 2003 almost 300,000 models had been manufactured, this event marking not only the end of the Z3, but the beginning of its future as a modern classic.