THE CAR was Dallas silver. I wanted Atlanta blue. James Bond drove the Atlanta blue BMW Z3 roadster in the movie "Goldeneye." I'm more of a Shaft man than a Bond man. But I loved the color of Brother Bond's car.Didn't matter much, though. In any color, that little Z3 is a hummer. I had so much fun running that car up and down the Dallas area's freeways and back roads, I would've taken it in Mary Kay pink.The last time I smiled that much was the first time I drove Mazda's little roadster, the Miata. But take my word for it, the Z3 ain't no Miata. Mazda's open-top, two-door, two-seat runner is a bit of a toy. It can be tricked up to look and feel like something more serious, but, deep down, it retains the soul of something akin to a Mattel or Hasbro product. The Z3, by comparison, is adult fun (at an adult price -- nearly twice as much as the Miata). It runs faster, corners better, shifts more smoothly, looks better and is more of a motorized stud-muffin than any Miata I've ever driven. For that matter, the Z3 is more of a sister magnet than a topless Jaguar XJ6: "Hey, baby. What's that you drivin'?" one woman asked. "That's a fine car, my brother," said another. Owww!Background: For 1996, BMW is building 35,000 Z3 roadsters at its plant in Spartanburg, S.C. About half of those models will be shipped overseas. The other half will be sold stateside. The problem is that 90 percent of the allotment for 1996 is already spoken for, so you could wait until late fall or early 1997 to receive a Z3 that you order now. One of the Z3's fans is David E. Davis Jr., founder of Automobile Magazine. He describes how he decides whether a car is fun: "I look at the car, sit in it, and then ask myself if I would be happy driving it from New York to Los Angeles."If the answer is "yes," the car's a winner, Davis says. He says "yes" to the Z3. I say "amen."But my "amen" is not as enthusiastic as Davis's "yes." I certainly could drive the Z3 coast to coast. But for that trip, I'd prefer something like the new BMW 328i coupe or the wonderfully revised Cadillac Eldorado coupe with the Northstar V-8 engine. I'd use the Z3 Bimmer to put passion into commutes and other relatively short trips, say, my frequent runs from Northern Virginia to New York City.The Z3 is a little car, see? It weighs 2,756 pounds, is only a tad longer than the very short Miata, and rides so low to the ground that a Chevrolet Cavalier compact looks like a giant next to it. Though BMW has done a marvelous job of smoothing out the ride in such a little car, the Z3 tends to disappear in heavy traffic. I favor something larger for a trip that's longer.Standard Z3 equipment includes a 1.9-liter, four-cylinder, 16-valve engine rated 140 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. Maximum torque is 133 pound-feet at 4,300 rpm. Also standard are a four-wheel independent suspension system, 16-inch-diameter tires, a five-speed manual transmission, electronically controlled anti-the ft system, dual front air bags, power windows and a manually operated convertible top.An electronically controlled, four-speed automatic transmission is optional.BMW's engineers chose solid four-wheel disc brakes and an anti-lock braking system. Some of my auto press peers would rather have vented discs up front in a sports car. But BMW's people said that the car is light enough to justify the use of solid front discs, which otherwise might overheat in a heavier car.Ah, and there's enough trunk space in the Z3 to carry three regular-size pieces of crushable luggage. Complaints: The Z3's low, well-sprung stance provides superior road handling, but when there's heavy traffic, it means that you can't see much above the road.Praise: Just an absolute hoot to drive in light traffic and on winding country roads. Head-turning quotient: "Hey, baby." Owww!Ride, acceleration and handling: Triple aces. Some of my peers complained because the Z3 is speed-limited to 1 16 mph. But, c'mon. It is a small car. Besides, in how many states can you legally run at 116 mph? Braking was excellent.Mileage: About 24 miles per gallon in the tested five-speed manual model (13.5-gallon tank, estimated 314-mile range on usable volume of required premium unleaded), running mostly highway with two occupants.Sound system: Six-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette by Alpine. Pioneer model also available. CD changer, not included in test model, is optional. No comment. I didn't listen to the stereo. I was having too much fun driving.Price: Z3s start at a base of $28,750. I drove a fully loaded model priced at $34,570, including a $570 destination charge. Estimated dealer's invoice on the tested model is $34,000.Purse-strings note: Compare with the Mazda Miata.
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