A thoroughly modern classic that's made in America.

by Tony Swan

The British brought us the classic sports car in the '50s and '60s, the Japanese modernized it with the Mazda Miata and now BMW is taking it a step upscale with the new Z3 roadster.

It seems to be a step lots of people have been ready for. The scene-stealing walk-on star of the latest James Bond movie and cover car for last year's Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalogue, the Z3 started generating orders before the first production cars began to leave the assembly line.

The assembly line is a story in itself, because it's in Spartanburg, South Carolina, USA. That's right. Made in America. Thanks to dollar-deutschmark exchange rates and the high cost of building anything in Germany, BMW elected to create an all-new factory in the U.S. for its new car. The new plant, which also produces the 318ti hatchback coupe, is the sole source of the Z3. Which is one of the reasons there's a long waiting list. Although there's some flexibility in Greenville's Z3/318ti production mix, Z3 production will be about 30,000 cars annually, once the factory is up to full speed. That will take awhile, because BMW is being very deliberate about the production ramp-up, to make sure quality is up to BMW standards. And those standards are high indeed.

The other reason for the long waiting line is simpler. This is one nifty little sports car.

Walkaround

With its long hood, short rear deck and muscular Coke bottle shape, the Z3 has the proportions of the graceful shapes that seduced the baby boom generation, conjuring up memories of cars like the original Ferrari Testarossa, the MGA, Austin-Healey, Jaguar XK-E, pre-Stingray Corvette and the A.C. Bristol, better known as the Shelby Cobra. BMW has a place in this hall of fame, with its 1959 507 roadster. But the 507 was a limited production project -- only a handful were made. By comparison, the Z3 is much more of a mass market car.

Built around a shortened chassis developed from BMW's 3-Series coupes, the Z3 is a little longer, wider and heavier than the Miata, with a slightly longer wheelbase and wider track.

Like all BMWs -- and all the members of the classic club -- it's a rear-drive car with independent suspension, MacPherson struts at the front, multi-link at the rear. The rear suspension was adapated from the previous generation of the M3, BMW'S hot rod 3-Series coupe.

The 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine is another 3-Series adaptation, but it's unique to the Z3, though BMW plans to install it in the 318 line at a later date. Like all members of the BMW engine family, it has dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and endless hours of development behind it.

Peak power -- 138 hp at 6000 rpm -- is relatively modest, but the engine has very good torque characteristics, with plenty of thrust at the lower end of the rpm range, and the gearing of the standard five-speed manual transmission makes the most of it.

A four-speed automatic is available as an option ($975). It too is geared for good acceleration, but like any automatic it sops up power and in our view takes something away from the driving experience. With its short shift throws and precise engagement, the five-speed enhances the Z3's race car feel.

After driving several versions with different options, we settled on a basic roadster with a five-speed and optional ($1100) traction control. The standard equipment package, which includes four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock, should make most drivers happy.

The Inside Story

Like the Miata, the Z3 updates the classic roadster with civilizing contemporary updates. The windows go up or down at the touch of a button -- power windows cost extra on a Miata -- and the manually-operated soft top is simplicity incarnate. Unlatch the twin fasteners at the top of the windshield and flip it back. It's an operation anyone can do one-handed, without stirring from the driver's seat. A soft plastic tonneau cover can be snapped into place over the folded top to tidy up the appearance.

The top seals well when it's up, although a fair amount of wind noise finds its way through the high grade material, something that's true to some degree of any convertible. And in any case, the Z3 is quieter than a Miata.

Our only criticism of the Z3's folding top is its plastic rear window. At this price level, we'd expect glass. Although the Z3's backlight is scratch-resistant, plastic windows inevitably deteriorate over time. However, the plastic window zips out for easy replacement. And BMW will make a removable hardtop available as an option later this year.

The classic 507 roadster had room for two and not much more, and the Z3 is true to the tradition. However, it's distinctly roomier than a Miata in all its interior dimensions. Drivers over, say, six-foot-three might find themselves short on head room with the top up, but leg and elbow room seem well conceived to fit most body types and driving styles.

The instruments are standard BMW, dominated by the large white-on-black analog speedometer and tachometer which are fully visible through the steering wheel throughout the range of seat adjustability.

You'd expect sporty seats in any BMW, and the Z3's twin buckets are excellent representatives of the breed. Well-padded thigh and torso bolsters keep driver and passenger solidly in place during hard cornering and quick changes in direction, which are, of course, core activities in a sports car. A high-grade leatherette is the basic upholstery material. Leather, of course, costs more -- $1150 more.

Although the classic sports car concept -- street-going two-seaters that could, in a pinch, be raced -- didn't include many frills, the standard Z3 comes with a goodly array of comfort-convenience features. In addition to power windows, the list includes air conditioning, an AM/FM/cassette sound system and power mirrors.

Safety features are consistent with the times -- dual airbags, side impact protection and, of course, ABS.

Ride & Drive

We did our test driving on a collection of Texas back roads that left us with a positive impression of the Z3's athleticism, which we expected, and an even more positive impression of its ride quality, which was a pleasant surprise.

With its firm suspension, quick steering and meaty 16-inch tires, the Z3 can change directions quicker than a politician and grips the road in high speed corners like a race car. The only surprise that emerged was just how high this car's absolute cornering limits are. There's more grip here than most of us will ever use, a nice reserve for emergency maneuvers and a big plus for hard braking.

Considering the Z3's basic sports car capabilities, its ride quality verges on amazing. Yes, it's firm, as you'd expect of a car with this kind of character from this particular company. But BMW has discovered that taut doesn't necessarily have to mean harsh. Although those Texas backroads were an endless collection of small lumps, bumps and pavement patches, the Z3 took the hard edge off what was going on underfoot, to the benefit of both comfort and control.

Thanks to the large tire contact patches and oversize front brake rotors, the Z3's braking performance also qualifies as outstanding. This car will stop as safely -- and as quickly -- as any car on the road today.

Engine performance is generally in step with the rest of the Z3's dynamic traits. Acceleration falls short of eyeball-flattening territory, but it's brisk, about eight seconds or so to 60 mph, and mid-range response is satisfying. Top speed is electronically limited to 116 mph. For those who want more, a more potent Z3, probably equipped with the 328's 190-hp six-cylinder engine, is about a year down the road.

The final impression to emerge from our Texas barnstorming foray was one of overall quality. The Z3 conveys a stronger sense of solidity than the Miata, and we'll be surprised if it falls prey to the buzzes, squeaks and rattles that show up in a lot of other convertibles.

Final Word

While the Z3 has played to enthusiastic reviews by automotive cognoscenti, one question keeps recurring: Is this car really worth $10,000 more than a Miata?

That's a tough call. A terrific sports car in its own right, the Miata offers similar performance. And even though a Miata equipped up to the level of a standard Z3 costs about $23,000, that's still a significant price disparity.

However, the Z3 is a better car -- roomier, quieter, more substantial and built to a slightly higher standard. We think anyone who steps up to the Z3's higher price will never regret it.

In any case, you'll have plenty of time to make up your mind. Planned production for the Z3 in 1996 is all but sold out. But this one's worth the wait.

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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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