EXPERT REVIEW

AZCentral.com's view

The beautiful BMW Z3 roadster, teased into our minds by countless magazine photos and a cameo part in a James Bond movie, was hotly anticipated by the time it arrived for 1996.

Here was the first BMW roadster in nearly 40 years, since the acclaimed 507. (The Z3 sports a bit of 507 detailing in the gill-shaped styling on its fenders.)

Plus, it’s American-made, produced in a South Carolina factory.

And that gorgeous shape, a classic sports-car form, the kind of body that proclaims: I’m ready for some fun.

So it was with a tinge of disappointment that the car-buff magazines concluded that the Z3, though indeed beautiful and in most respects enjoyable, was not quite up to snuff in the horsepower department.

The four-cylinder, 138-horsepower engine was chastised for not fulfilling the chassis’ capabilities, and being a bit spare for a $30,000 sports car.

So, the Z3 was branded as not-quite-there, and lost some of its luster.

But as promised, BMW has added another Z3 model for ’97, with a beefed-up suspension, wider rear stance and, most important, a powerful six-cylinder engine.

Good thing, too, with Mercedes-Benz and Porsche both unleashing all-new, highly desirable sports cars at around the same price range. And, of course, the Mazda Miata, which some think offers about the same feel at two-thirds the price.

The BMW’s 2.8-liter six, which will sell alongside the 1.9-liter four at a $6,000 premium, puts a new performance spin on the Z3. Straight-line power and hill climbing are enhanced, naturally, but so’s flexibility.

Where the four needed revving mightily to get at the power band, the six-cylinder is ready to deliver anytime.

Get on the throttle, and you’re rewarded with a clean surge of pulling power, and a satisfying high-pitched growl. The Z3 is not fast, in muscle-car terms, but strong and aggressive. Shifting is precise, and the clutch feels about perfect.

All BMW cars are known for superior steering and handling, and the Z3 pushes that reputation up a notch. Cornering is wonderfully balanced and stable, and the Z3 can take curves at surprisingly high velocity.

The steering response really shines. This car goes where you point it, obeying steering input almost instantaneously.

The four-wheel disc brakes are excellent.

When the road gets rough, there is some body shudder and jiggle, just enough to remind you that you’re driving a lightweight roadster. Otherwise, the car felt screwed together pretty well, with no rattles or creaks worth mentioning.

The unlined cloth top is appealing but allows a considerable amount of traffic noise to filter in. The manual top fit well and was very easy to raise and lower.

The interior is fairly cramped, with scant legroom for a 6-foot-6-inch driver like myself. And the seat back hits the bulkhead far too soon, blocking the possibility of reclining the backrest.

Otherwise, the interior felt cozy and well-finished in attractively embossed le ather. The gauges are traditional, as befitting a classic sports car.

The stereo system was disappointing. The treble is tinny and the bass rumbles.

The six-cylinder Z3 is distinguished from the four-banger model by its more-aggressive front spoiler and wider rear flanks, which are subtle enough touches that most people won’t notice the difference. This could bother some Z3 drivers who need the world to know that they’re driving the upgraded model.

But let’s get one thing straight. The Z3 is not about performance. It’s about driving for pleasure, pure enjoyment, all the senses working.

There are few driving experiences as satisfying as traveling quickly along a winding country road in a well-sorted sports car. What’s finer than rushing along under a blue Arizona sky with the sounds of the wind rushing by and the engine winding out – and a favorite companion occupying the passenger seat?

It’s why there’s still a place in my garage for an old MG. And wh y I found the BMW such a satisfying update of a classic form.

1997 BMW Z3

Vehicle type: Two-passenger, two-door roadster, rear-wheel-drive. Base price: $35,900. Price as tested: $37,670. Engine: 2.8-liter straight six, 189 horsepower at 5,300 rpm, 203 pound-feet of torque at 3,950 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed stick shift. Curb weight: 2,844 pounds. Length: 158.5 inches. Wheelbase: 96.3 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes. EPA fuel economy: 19 mpg city, 27 mpg highway. Highs: Beautiful styling. Exceptional handling. Strong engine. Lows: Cramped interior. Crummy radio. Uninsulated top.

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