E36/7 Z3 Series 1
1 Jan 1997
AFTER the exquisite Z1 of the late ‘80s, with its funky styling, Z-axle rear suspension and drop-down doors, expectations were high that BMW’s answer to the seminal Mazda MX-5/Miata was going to be something equally special.
But the Z3 from 1997 to 2002 disappointed on many fronts.
Built in the United States, BMW seemed to cut many corners in order to keep the price down.
And despite its E36/7 code, the Z3 in fact used a simpler rear suspension from the E36/5 Compact, which was actually derived from the 1982-1990 E30 3 Series.
Worse still was the breathless and coarse 1.9-litre four-cylinder engine under that long and menacing bonnet, bridged to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox.
Delivering just 103kW of power and 180Nm of torque to the rear wheels, it just could not combat the Z3’s luxury-laden weight effectively enough for a so-called “sports car”.
And the promising six-cylinder version didn’t fare much better either, not least because it cost almost as much as Porsche’s sublime 986 Boxster.
Its 141kW/275Nm 2.8-litre in-line six-cylinder engine certainly provided the tyre-smoking acceleration to suit the Z3’s styling – but it also tended to overwhelm the simple chassis, for less than refined progress through fast corners.
A tiny boot, low-quality (for a premium product) build and cabin trim, an awkward driving position and surprisingly high prices soon earned the Z3 an unenviable “automotive powder-puff” reputation.
Of course there’s always an exception, and for the Series 1 Z3 that’s the impossibly crazy M Roadster and crazy M Coupe.
Powered by a 236kW/350Nm 3.2-litre hand-built in-line six-cylinder engine, it turned the lazy Z3 into a fireball, capable of billowing smoke-outs and slingshot quarter-mile runs. BMW tried its hardest to upgrade the chassis to cope with such copious power, but somehow the rawness and simplicity of it all added to the M’s charms.
The M Coupe in particular, with its bespoke hatchback body and resulting extra torsional stiffness, is a blast worth going back for again and again.
The Road to Recovery podcast series