What you need to know before buying a BMW Z3 or M roadster

Photography Credit: Courtesy LBI Limited

Want a two-seat roadster from a beloved brand that’s a tick outside the norm? Why not a BMW Z3?

It’s fun, it’s sporty, and nearly any BMW shop can maintain it. Performance can be fierce, and in Q Branch trim it was cool enough for James Bond. 

Another attractive point: The Z3 line represents one of today’s value buys, with drivers costing less than $10,000.

When the Z3 made its debut for 1996, the roadster scene was exploding. Yes, Alfa Spider production had just wound down, but the Miata was already well established, and BMW, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz were entering the segment. 

But despite the initial fanfare for the Z3–see that comment about 007–the first iteration wasn’t exactly a scorcher. Power came from the same 1.9-liter engine found in countless BMW 3 Series cars, so let’s label acceleration as quick but not impressive–like zero to 60 in about 8 seconds. 

This would soon change, though, with BMW eventually offering an optional inline-six. And then, for 1998, BMW added the M roadster to the lineup: stretched fenders out back, a few chrome details inside, and the M3’s 240-horsepower engine under the hood. Zero to 60 took only about 5.5 seconds, and you could steer the car with your right foot. It might have taken BMW a few years to refine the formula, but it felt like–at least at the time–the return of the Cobra.–David S. Wallens

Why You Want One

  • Cool enough for James Bond, so it’s likely cool enough for you.
  • Despite being a niche vehicle, it’s still fairly easy to find on today’s market.
  • Proven, rather robust mechanicals, with engines and suspensions coming straight from BMW’s parts bin.
  • The M roadster delivers terrific acceleration with just enough rough and tumble. You can still find one.
  • Strong club support from BMW CCA plus a network of shops, suppliers and communities.
  • The Z3 offers an in-vogue analog experience: analog gauges, analog performance and a real stick shift.

Changes Over the Years

1996: BMW Z3 introduced with 1.9-liter inline-four.

1997: The 2.8-liter inline-six becomes optional. 

1998: BMW M roadster joins lineup with 240 horsepower.

  • Roll-over hoops become standard. 

1999: 2.5-liter inline-six becomes standard despite the Z3 2.3 badge.

  • BMW Z3 coupe joins lineup with the 2.8-liter six. Passenger-side air bag added across the line.
  • Rear styling is updated and chrome headlight surrounds are added. 

2001: The 2.5-liter’s output bumps from 170 to 184 horsepower. Model designation updated to Z3 2.5i.

  • A 3.0 replaces the optional 2.8.
  • New engines for the M roadster and M coupe, with BMW’s S54 replacing the S52. Horsepower increases from 240 to 315.

2002: Last year for the Z3 line, making way for Z4. 

BMW Z3 Shopping Advice

Our Expert:

Rennie Bryant
Redline Bimmer Performance

As far as a regular driver, the BMW Z3 with a 2.5-liter or 2.8-liter in-line-six and a stick is a real nice car. They’re reliable, get decent gas mileage and are plenty fast.

The four-cylinder engine is faster than a stock Miata. They’re a little buzzy, with a lot of revs going down the highway, but other than that they’re pretty good.

I’m 6-foot-2 and the Z3 is small for me. Drive one before you buy it to see if you fit.

For 1999, they changed the styling of just the back end. It’s kind of minor–not a lot of people notice it. BMW called the facelift versions “LCI.” There’s no preference for the LCI or the original.

The automatic transmissions are getting old now. If they weren’t maintained, they can be a problem. If somebody changed the fluids and the filter at about 80,000 to 100,000 miles, they’re good.

The Z3 didn’t rust too bad, so that’s not a problem.

If the car wasn’t maintained, you can get oil leaks and timing chain problems with the engine.

Since the Z3 is essentially an E36, parts availability is pretty good. The glove box door tends to sag. They put a steel bar in front of the plastic glove box door, which was never designed to hold that much weight. 

The headlights and the taillights tend to go bad. The taillight sockets overheat and burn out. The headlights are the typical ’90s plastic that turns yellow.

Pay attention to the cooling system because it has a lot of plastic parts. That stuff tends to go away at about 100,000 miles.

On the M versions, inspect where the subframe mounts to the body. They tend to have cracking problems on the subframe mounting points in the back. That’s a dealbreaker.

Personally, I like the roadster. When I talked with Chris Bangle, former chief of design for BMW, he said, “The coupe is one of those cars you’re either going to love or hate.” It’s very polarizing, but many people love it.

Behind the Wheel

“The silky-smooth straight-six delivers even power all the way through the rev range, and it makes the most delightful burbling and purring noises in the process.” … “The car has an old-school feel that puts a smile on your face, and the view over that dramatically sloped hood is endearing.”–Grassroots Motorsports • May 2011

Photography Credit: Courtesy LBI Limited

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wspohn
wspohn SuperDork
10/19/22 10:05 a.m.

The Z3 is less expensive than the much better developed Z4, but the handling is not up to that model - pretty loosey goosey feel to them.

The Z3 coupes, particularly the M versions are a niche car that has attracted a following though - people either hate or love the look (they have been likened to an economy sized hearse (they share that characterization with the even rarer Jensen GT).

The four cylinder cars aren't all that exciting, but then you could say that about other classics like the Bugeye Sprite, which has a faithful following.

mbrouill
mbrouill New Reader
10/19/22 11:33 a.m.

Great little roadster to tool around those windy roads.  If you can't buy a M, I would buy either a 3.0 or a 2.8 for the most ponies under the hood.  The 3.0, which was only built 2 years seem to be increasing in value more than the other non M versions.

bimmerbob
bimmerbob New Reader
10/19/22 12:07 p.m.

I've owned a number of these sweethearts. Beware the M version when buying, for the reason already given: floor pan failure is more prevalent than you may think. I've owned 5 of the M's, and I loved them all. Two of them I bought cheap due to cracked floor pans (subframe mount points) and had a BMW mech remove the entire rear suspension/drivetrain to repair the damage. He was/is one of the best BMW mechs I know, worked on BMWs in his home shop in the evenings, so his labor rate was tolerable (thanks Joe!). And one other was found to have cracks starting, but was not found until 6 months after I had sold it. I offered to help with the cost of repair, but the owner decided it was not bad enough to concern him, so it may still be out there. Another area worthy of mention in the roadsters is the ability to collect water in the floor due to top/seal leaks. With age, all these convertibles will leak water into the floorpan. On the driver's side, under the carpet, are two inertia sensors that do not work once wet. The yaw sensor will set you back about $1k for a new one, figure $100 for a used one. You need these switches for the traction control to work properly, so if the T/C lite is lit in the cluster, take that cost into consideration when purchasing. I've gone on long enough, I really do love them, but one other safety issue I want to mention: these cars are small and low to the ground, cannot be seen in rear view mirrors of big SUVs and trucks, so be aware as they will try to occupy your space with "they win" obnoxiousness. I've actually seen them coming over and twice had to exercise the traction control in the ditches to avoid them.

wspohn
wspohn SuperDork
10/19/22 12:12 p.m.

I've seen that same weakness in the Z4 - water gets into the well where the top mechanism folds into and can cause all sorts of havoc.  I own a Z4M coupe and a friend has a Z4M convert - the coupe is twice as torsionally stiff as the convert (which isn't a 'flexy flyer' like the Z3s could be) - wonder if that contributes to the Z3 chassis issues?

rdstr
rdstr New Reader
10/19/22 12:34 p.m.

IMO the 3.0 (m54) motor is the best all-around combination, more reliable, less mainteance and fast enough for interstate travel.

BimmerMaven
BimmerMaven New Reader
10/20/22 10:02 a.m.

Many good points already made.

The M chassis cracking is nicely repaired with the Randy Forbes kit.  I ve done my Coupe and Roadster.  I'd offer the opinion that the evolution of more and more torque being delivered by the ever-increasing drivetrain was the underlying flaw.  A problem we see in all "big engine into a small car" swaps.

My only crash ever (on the street!) was when a tall SUV  was in the middle of line of sight at an intersection.  The prius turned in front, not seeing me, and I didn't see her...boom.   Many other times I was invisible, but I saw the other car.   

This also happens in my E30s and MR2s.   When I walk out to the parking lot, my cars seem like GT40s or Europas in a sea of SUVs.

I have S50 in an E30, S52 in E30 convertible, and S52s in both Zs.   Super reliable in all places over 25 yrs and about 300,000 mi.

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