1996 BMW 3 Series Convertible

2dr Convertible

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  • $41,390 original MSRP

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Printable Version

1996 BMW 3 Series Convertible

Printable Version

1996 BMW 3 Series Convertible


1996 BMW Z3

Source: New Car Test Drive

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.


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.

Order our 200+ page magazine of reviews. Send $8.00 (S&H included) to New Car Test Drive, 2145 Crooks Rd. Suite 200, Troy, MI 48084

© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

Printable Version

1996 BMW 3 Series Convertible

Safety Features & Equipment

Braking & Traction

4-Wheel ABS Std
Traction/Stability Control Opt

Passenger Restraint

Driver Air Bag Std
Passenger Air Bag Std

Road Visibility

Fog Lamps Std
Intermittent Wipers Std
Printable Version

1996 BMW 3 Series Convertible

BMW Certified Pre-Owned Warranty  help
Certified Pre-Owned Warranty
To be eligible for Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) status, vehicles generally must be recent models with relatively low mileage. CPO vehicles must also pass a detailed inspection, outlined by the manufacturer, which is measured by the number of inspected points.
Warranty coverage can vary from one manufacturer to the next. While most certified pre-owned programs transfer and extend the existing new car warranty terms, others offer a warranty that simply represents an additional year and mileage value. Always check with the manufacturer for the specific warranties they offer.
Common features and benefits of Certified Pre-Owned warranties include:
Age/Mileage Eligibility
To even be considered for certification, a car must be a recent model year and have limited mileage. The exact requirements are established by individual manufacturers.
Lease Term Certified
Some manufacturers offer certified pre-owned cars for lease. The length of the lease is often shorter than a new car lease, but it will cost you less.
Point Inspection
These inspections entail a comprehensive vehicle test to ensure that all parts are in excellent working order. The point inspection list is simply a numbered list of exactly what parts of the car are examined. While many inspections range from a 70- to 150-point checklist, most are very similar and are performed using strict guidelines. Ask your local dealer about specific details.
Return/Exchange Program
Some manufacturers offer a very limited return or exchange period. Find out if you will get the sales tax and licensing/registration fees back should you return or exchange the car.
Roadside Assistance
Most certified pre-owned programs offer free roadside service in case your car breaks down while still under warranty.
Special Financing
Reduced-rate loans are available through many certified pre-owned programs. Manufacturer-backed inspections and warranties help eliminate the risks involved with buying pre-owned, so buyers who qualify can take advantage of the great offers.
Transferable Warranty
When a new car warranty transfers with the certification of the car and remains eligible for the next owner, it is known as a transferable warranty. Once the original transferable warranty expires, an extended warranty takes effect.
Warranty Deductible
This is the amount for which you are responsible when repair work is performed under the warranty. Some manufacturers require a deductible while others don't, so always ask.

Every Certified Pre-Owned BMW comes with a protection plan designed to give you the ultimate peace-of-mind.

All Certified Pre-Owned BMW vehicles are exceptional, as are our two tiers of certification:
BMW Certified Pre-Owned
Covers you for 2 years/50,000 miles1 after the expiration of the 4-year/50,000-mile New Vehicle/SAV Limited Warranty for a total of 6 years/100,000 miles1. This includes 24/7 Roadside Assistance and BMW AssistTM Emergency Call, which includes automatic collision notification, and TeleService.
BMW Certified Pre-Owned Elite
These are newer model year, lower mileage (more than 300 miles but less than 15,001 miles) vehicles. This warranty covers you for 1 year/25,000 miles1 after the expiration of the 4-year/50,000-mile New Vehicle/SAV Limited Warranty or for a total of 5 years/75,000 miles1. This includes 5 years of 24/7 Roadside Assistance and BMW AssistTM Emergency Call, which includes automatic collision notification, and TeleService.

Vehicles must pass a rigorous pre-certification inspection conducted by BMW certified technicians.

For complete program details, visit cpo.bmwusa.com.

1whichever comes first
Age/Mileage Eligibility 5 years / 60,000 miles
Lease Term Certified Yes
Point Inspection View & Download the BMW Certified Pre-Owned Inspection Checklist
Return/Exchange Program No
Roadside Assistance Yes
Special Financing Yes
Transferrable Warranty Yes
Warranty Deductible $50

Learn more about certified pre-owned vehicles

Printable Version

1996 BMW 3 Series Convertible

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