For me, the evolution of the classic seat-seat sports roadster reached its zenith in the early '60s, culminating in cars like the MGA, 289 Cobra, Austin-Healey and the pre-Sting Ray Corvette. I wouldn't say it's been downhill ever since, but the proportions of that era, the long hood and short tail, the sense of power and purpose, the union of grace, speed and freedom, have pretty much disappeared from modern cars. That's why the BMW Z3 is such a welcome addition to the contemporary sports car scene. More than any car in recent memory, including the Mazda Miata, it resurrects that classic look. And the fact that there's a very capable sports car underneath its seductive skin certainly doesn't hurt. Although this is obviously a new car, built in an all-new factory in South Carolina, BMW was able to effect some economies in development by employing some parts developed for its 3-Series sedans and coupes. This includes the chassis, although it has been modified almost out of recognition. The wheelbase, for example, is 10 inches shorter than the 3-Series family, although the track -- the width between the wheels -- is almost identical, giving the car a very aggressive-looking stance. Modified or not, though, a 3-Series chassis is a very good starting point for a sports car. It's exceptionally stiff, which makes it easier for the suspension engineers to create the right kind of balance between ride and handling. In the Z3, this works out to be a very pleasant balance indeed. In a day of backroad barnstorming in the Dallas area, the Z3 proved to be surprisingly supple on rough surfaces, taking the sharp edge off small bumps and ripples that translate as harshness in some other sports cars. It accomplishes this without much apparent compromise in the area of its sports car responses. There's a bit of body roll in hard cornering, but the steering is quick and precise, and abrupt directional changes are barracuda-quick, with no trace of hesitation as the suspension accommodates side-to-side weight transfer. Fat, low-profile performance tires on handsome 16-inch alloy wheels give the Z3 exemplary grip in hard cornering, and also help to make the most of a powerful set of disk brakes. Beyond that, the suspension tuning helps keep the tires solidly in contact with the pavement over small chatter bumps, a very endearing trait on some of these rural Texas byways. Ultra-stiff suspension is fine on smooth pavement, but on bumpy roads it can make a car get twitchy because the suspension movements can't keep pace with what's going on underfoot. At higher speeds, this makes for tense driving. But even with its short wheelbase, the Z3 is largely free of this vice, and it zooms through bumpy high-speed corners with an aplomb that quickly builds the driver's confidence and sense of connection with the car. Stir in a crisp five-speed manual gearshift w ith short shift throws (a four-speed automatic is available for $975, if you must), and you have a superb expression of the sports car experience -- car and driver linked in the heady business of making the most of a particular stretch of road, destination unknown and unimportant. Perhaps you're wondering what the engine's doing while all this is going on. Well, it's doing just fine, thanks. You're probably going to see some carping from other auto writers about the Z3's power. With 138 horsepower, the Z3 is a fair distance from the realm of rocket sleds and its power-to- weight ratio -- the number of pounds each hp is required to propel -- isn't quite as favorable as the Miata's. However, the Z3's gearing is well chosen to make the most of what the engine produces, and the car hustles away from stoplights with satisfactory zeal. BMW lists 0-to-60 m.p.h. performance at about nine seconds, which is pretty ho-hum, but the car is actually quicker tha that. A Road & Track magazine road test recorded a 0-60 time about a second quicker, and this feels about right. The 1.9-liter 4-cylinder emits a civilized snarl while it's going about its business -- just enough whiskey tenor to let you know you're in a sports car. Inside, the Z3 is pretty much all business, and attractively so. A graceful scallop in the passenger-side upper dash lends a touch of elegance, and the center of the dash, with audio and climate controls, protrudes slightly, which makes those controls easier to reach and adjust. Instrumentation is classic white-on-black analog, and like all BMWs it's easy to scan with the barest of downward glances. However, the interior also inspires a bit of nit-picking. The cup holders top this list. They're mounted one behind the other in the center console, and flip up for use. It's a cute design, but the latches are flimsy and the position -- behind the driver's elbow -- makes them awkward to use. One of my colleagues actually managed to break both of them with his right elbow, although how he contrived to do this isn't clear. In any case, these cup holders feel a bit cheap, and cheap is out of place in a car that costs almost $30,000. Similarly, the folding top could be built to a slightly higher standard. It seals well, and like the Miata it's a snap to operate -- undo the two latches and just flip it back. But I'd expect a folding top from BMW to have an inner liner, and this one is a single layer. A lined top helps to cut down on noise a bit, and the Z3 is fairly noisy at highway speeds, though generally quieter than a Miata. BMW will offer a removable hardtop option for the Z3 later this year, which should quell noise considerably. The seats are snug and supportive, as you'd expect of a BMW. Our test car's seats were clad in an attractive synthetic leather material. Real cowhide is available as an option -- $1,150, please -- but the leatherette seems to breathe well, and will probably be more comfortable in warm weather. Drivers over, say, 6-foot-1 may find the Z3 a little short on legroom, but even so it's roomier than a Miata, both fore and aft, and laterally. You may have noticed that the Miata keeps popping up in this story. That's because Mazda's much-loved little roadster is just about the only car that qualifies as a direct competitor for the Z3, even though Miata pricing starts about $10,000 under the BMW. Other open air sports cars -- the Corvette convertible, Nissan 300 ZX convertible, Dodge Viper R/T, Porsche Cabriolet, for example -- cost a whole bunch more. So the question is whether that blue-and-white BMW emblem is worth the extra 10-grand. Speaking strictly for me, the answer is yes. Although the Z3's all-around performance doesn't exactly eclipse the Miata, it's a more substantial car, and a more comfortable one for extended travel. Judging by my brief day in a basic Z3 test car, assembly quality at the new South Carolina plant is up to BMW standards, and the standard equipment list is what you'd expect of a car that straddles the $30,000 luxury frontier. In any case, if you haven't filed your Z3 order yet, you'll probably have plenty of time to make up your mind on the value issue. BMW's 1996 Z3 production is pretty much spoken for. Its turn in the latest James Bond movie and '96 Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog provoked a stampede at BMW dealerships. So you're probably going to have to wait for a '97. By that time, the new Mercedes SLK roadster will be ready for launch, with Porsche's new mid-engined Boxster not far behind. And it's likely that BMW will be just about ready to introduce a six-cylinder version of the Z3 in the same time frame. Prototypes are circulating on test tracks even as we speak. Naturally, we're talking about substantially more money for all three of these future cr . For my money, though, the Z3 is nothing short of an absolute stone knockout as is. I want one. I want it now. SPECS
RATING: 4 Wheels out of four wheels VEHICLE TYPE: Front-engine, rear-drive 2-seat compact roadster KEY COMPETITOR: Mazda Miata BASE PRICE: $29,320 PRICE AS TESTED: $29,320 STANDARD EQUIPMENT: Dual air bags, ABS, AM/FM/cassette sound system, air conditioning, power windows, power mirrors, power seats, cruise control, power locks, limited slip differential SPECIFICATIONS:
(manufacturer's data) Engine 138-hp 1.9-liter 4-cyl. EPA fuel econ. 23 mpg city/31 hwy. Curb weight 2,690 pounds Wheelbase 96.3 inches Length 158.5 inches Width 66.6 inches Height 50.7 inches Where assembled Spartanburg, S.C. Guide to ratings: 4 wheels = best in class; 3 = worth serious consideration; 2 = middle of the road; 1 = substandard.
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