Be warned the car breaks the long-held BMW policy that states: “Take a block of granite . . . “

Here’s a Bimmer with firm, but not harsh, ride and handling and seats with exceptional lateral support in aggressive maneuvers and above-average cruising comfort.

The suspension focuses on driver control and stability and prompts you to look for bends in the road. The 16-inch treads grip firmly, but not in snow, where they act like ice skates. This month the Z3 will add traction control as an $1,100 option to ensure even greater roadability. For $1,100 we’d expect the radials to bleed Super Glue. Dual air bags and ABS are standard.

The Z3 looks more than a bit like a Mazda Miata except for the side vents on the hood and the kidney-shaped BMW grille.

It is slightly bigger and more comfortable than Miata. The two occupants have ample leg, head and arm room. There’s a roomy glove box and a pair of lockable compartments behind the center console for small items from maps to umbrella. Trunk space allows for a few flexible overnight bags and maybe a suit carrier. Golf clubs? Leave the woods at home.

The Z3 comes with a manually operated canvas top. Pull two release handles and lift the top up and back and into its stowage compartment behind the driver. Getting the top up while in the driver’s seat is easy only if you are blessed with long arms. The rear window is thick plastic.

The top was quiet on smooth roads, noisy when the pavement got bumpy. Blame retractable metal hardware. Z3 will add a removable hard top option, but not until the 1997 model year.

The engine will separate purists from wannabes. The 1.9-liter, 138-h.p. 4-cylinder is fairly spirited, but a V-6 is needed to do the car–and performance buffs– justice. A V-6 is undergoing testing. Obviously, the traction control option is earmarked for those who wait for the V-6 or venture out in the snow on performance treads.

Porsche this year will unveil its Z3 rival, the Boxster, with a 2.5-liter, 204-h.p., 6-cylinder. Shortly after the first of the year, Mercedes-Benz will bring out its Z3 rival, the 1998 SLK, with a 2.3-liter, 200-plus-h.p., 4.

A 5-speed manual is standard, a 4-speed automatic optional ($975). Our test car came with the 5-speed, a smooth-shifting, short-throw unit. We only suspect that those choosing the automatic will be more concerned with the look of performance than 0- to 60-m.p.h. times (roughly 9 seconds).

A few Z3 features bear mention. A power plug is standard, an ashtray an option.

Kudos to BMW for a gas strut-held hood rather than a cheap prop.

And please sit down before reading the next line. Ready? The cupholders are terrible and don’t belong in the car. They pop out of the center console and A) don’t pop out/retract well; B) don’t hold well; and C) are behind occupants where they do little good.

Base price is $28,750, or $6,000to $10,000 more than a Miata, but about $10,000 less than some of the European roadsters to come. The only item added to the test car was freight at $570. Popular options, other than those already noted, include leather seats at $1,150, heated seats and mirrors at $500 and metalic paint at $475.

Thanks to the promotion the car received after apearing in the last James Bond film, Z3 orders have exceeded production. The car is built at BMW’s Spartanburg, S.C., plant, which also produces the 3-Series sedans. The plant has capacity for 60,000 to 70,000 cars, but the Z3 is such a hit that $200 million more is being poured into the facility to boost output by 20,000 cars annually.

Other than the current Dodge Viper and the Plymouth Prowler, coming in January as a 1998, the Big Three are leaving the roadster market to foreign competition.

At the Chicago Auto Show, Honda showed the SSM, a roadster targetedaround $30,000 that mig ht carry an Acura nameplate, Audi showed the TTS coming in 1997 for around $30,000 and Ford the Indigo, which may or may not give life to a Ford roadster.

>> 1996 BMW Z3
Wheelbase: 96.3 inches Length: 158.5 inches Engine: 1.9-liter, 138-h.p., 4-cylinder Transmission: 5-speed manual; 4-speed automatic optional at $975 EPA mileage: 23 m.p.g. city/31 m.p.g. highway Base price: $28,750 Price as tested: $28,750. Add $570 for freight. Pluses: Dual air bags and anti-lock brakes standard, traction control coming as an $1,100 option later this month. Roomy comfortable seats. Easy-down top. Minuses: Removable hardtop not available until 1997. Canvas top noisy. 4-cylinder engine two cylinders short of optimal power. Cupholders from discount surplus store. >>

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