BMW Z3 2.8 Driven

After one of the biggest marketing coups of all time even by the high standards set from the masters of the art themselves, BMW sold the first year’s 15,000 unit production before launch after the car starred in the 1995 James Bond film Goldeneye, the reputation of the BMW Z3 appeared to go only one way, downhill. We put all pre-conceptions and prejudices to one side and drive the car Richard Hall of Classic Car Hire North has owned for the last fifteen years.

The main criticisms the BMW Z3 faced focussed on its weedy 1.9litre 138bhp four pot motor, cheap plastic rear screen, inferior quality interior trim and the fact it came with the outgoing E30s semi-trailing arms and not the by then current E36 multi-link rear suspension. To make matters worse the lengthy gestation period from when the BMW Z3 was penned to actually being launched meant in the intervening years the Mazda MX5 had taken hold of the market, being smaller lighter better built and argued by some as more fun to drive.

BMW Z3 provides a neat compact 2 seat experience

The BMW Z3 needed a lift and in 1997 that came in the form of an option to have the excellent 2.8litre straight six engine that successfully powered other cars in the range like the well-respected 328i Coupe. Could the combination of two extra cylinders, an increase in capacity and the benefits of an additional 60bhp lift the BMW Z3 above any pesky Japanese opponents? At the time surely quite difficult to say, it is even possible potential BMW Z3 owner noses wouldn’t drop low enough to even consider the lowly Mazda. Step forwards fifteen years and look at the market now and things have moved on creating a completely level playing field for anyone in the premium compact sports car marketplace.

Prices of the BMW Z3 and Mazda MX5 are currently on a par. It is true both have slightly effeminate images although early Mazda’s have now been adopted by customisers and drifters who slam their MX5s to the ground and fit wide rubber sat on the oversized rims. Not so BMW Z3 owners, most examples of the marque still appear largely original complete with full service histories, perhaps because they continued to attract a more discerning demographic going from the new car to pre-owned market, who knows, but the good news is there are plenty of clean looking cars around.

Interior attracted some criticism at launch although seems well resolved now

The main question really is what a BMW Z3 is like to drive and for me rather pleasingly Richard’s car, which does look stylish in white, comes with the optional 2.8litre motor which should in theory at least pepper things up nicely. As someone who would always choose a manual box over an automatic, having to select Drive once again was a little disappointing but quickly overcome. The BMW 2.8litre motor is a gem and the sports auto box attached to it suits how it delivers power very well. There is both an eagerness and depth of ability on offer here to suit both foot flat to the floor driving and cruising equally well.

In fact plant your right foot hard down and rather ironically it’s the E30 rear axle that hunkers down and feels beautifully attached to the tarmac whilst the front lifts and goes light to ultimately determine how fast you are prepared to travel up the road. I think with some fettling on this particular car and both ends would feel equally well tied down, so this might just be a case of normal fair wear and tear. Rest assured the impressive pace on offer would see off any MX5 not fitted with a turbo or supercharger.  Let things settle back down and the 5-speed auto finds the highest ratio to provide a decent low revving cruise capability once again.

Smallish boot will require difficult decisions to be made

Getting in and out of the BMW Z3 is relatively easy affair with wide opening doors and once installed there is plenty of leg room. Space behind is tight and short of a small locking valuables compartment there isn’t anywhere to put your stuff which means unless it sits on your passenger’s lap or by their feet it has to go into the modest sized boot. One only really capable of carrying a small number of medium sized soft bags. Therefore the BMW Z3s potential role in your life will either be limited to an overnight trip at best or extremely disciplined packing. The latter point may cause you to look for a larger 2+2 convertible with useful additional space in the cockpit to supplement the boot space; Jaguar XK8 springing immediately to mind.

Hard to believe up front is 2.8litres of BMW straight six silkiness

On the road the BMW Z3 feels like a genuine sports car, despite its 1400kg mass there is a distinct deftness and crucially compact feel to the car which makes it a pleasure to hustle along smaller roads with the six pot motor providing a raspy and rousing background noise. The only criticism I have is the high mounted steering wheel which I desperately wanted to lower further into my lap. I looked everywhere but couldn’t see a lever that might do that. I’ve also noticed when passing other BMW Z3 drivers that their hands also look uncomfortably high in the air. It’s certainly not a disaster by any means, just not quite where you want it to be.

Electric roof requires two simple clamps to be released and the brake pedal pressed before opening.
Electric roof just requires two clamps to be released and the brake pedal pressed before opening.

The semi-automatic electric roof requires two levers to be released and brake pedal pressed before it will pull the black fabric and frame back over the seats and flat down immediately behind both occupants. It’s not as slick as the XK8, but nowhere near as involved as the completely manual hood of say the Triumph TR6 we reviewed over the course of the same weekend.

Overall the BMW Z3 still offers a premium branded compact sports car experience with in the case of this 2.8litre six cylinder variant real depth of ability to give both decent pace and relaxed cruising as and when required. The fact there are so many well preserved examples available at reasonable cost makes it a credible alternative to the Mazda MX5 with the added bonus of larger capacity six cylinder versions. Don’t believe us and can get to Yorkshire, then contact Richard or Moira of the Classic Car Hire North and arrange to try before you buy.

How does this car make you feel?

In one word: Surprised

As a favourite meal: Chicken wrapped in bacon filled with a garlic cream cheese which always tastes better than it has any right to.

Anything Else: Friendly and inoffensive two seat sports car pepped up in this case by potent BMW power.

Key Ingredients: Compact dimensions and useful power make it fun to pilot. Sports auto-box also works well. Space inside for two ensures a good day out can be had, although ultimately boot space will limit the number of overnight stays possible or what activities you partake in on arrival.


With thanks to The Open Road for arranging and Classic Car Hire North for providing the car.


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  1. A great review of an undervalued potential classic. Much more classier and rarer than an MX5.

    I enjoy watching each of your films but can’t help but notice that your recent cars all seem to come from the same source. Obviously good PR for that hire company, but I do hope that you are not going to be obliged to always give their hire cars positive reviews.

  2. Thanks for commenting. Yes Z3 was a surprise package and for info the last of three cars from the Open Road (Yorkshire) stable that we reviewed. Next up is an Austin Healey 3000 from Vintage Classics in Melksham (Wiltshire). Rest assured everything we do is independent. Thanks again, Matt.

  3. The review was excellent, made me feel that I have bought the right 2 seater. I have owned an Mx5 and now a 2.8 Z3 and as mentioned earlier both cars have different feels, Mx5 for me was similar to a go kart, while Z3 has a different status.

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