Our view: 1997 BMW Z3

Little Noddy, the main character in a series of English children’s books, has a teeny-weeny car that goes “parp, parp.” I was reminded of this the other day, when I picked up my wife for the first time in the BMW Z3 2.8.

“Does it go parp, parp?” she wondered as she slipped into the passenger’s side of BMW’s newest two-seat roadster.

“It is a cute little thing,” I conceded as we pulled away. “But with 190 horsepower, it really doesn’t parp-parp. What it does is growl. See what I mean?”

“Yes I do. Now, slow down!”

The parp question was a reasonable one. The first Z3, the Z3 1.9 introduced last winter, is powered by a 1.9-liter four that develops 138 horsepower. That amount of power makes the cute little sports car barely fast enough to be fun, and certainly qualifies it for parp-parp status.

There is, on the other hand, no whiff of the wimpy about the Z3 2.8 model that joins the roadster line for 1997. Motivated by the gutsy 2.8-liter six employed in BMW’s 3 and 5 Series cars, the Z3 2.8 vaults from 0 to 60 in a scant 6.7 seconds.

What fun this machine is! Taking turns at normal speeds seems like such a waste in the Z3 2.8. This beautifully suspended rear-drive roadster stays wonderfully flat and composed in the corners, and has enough stuff to send the car merrily on its way when the tail starts to come out at the end of the turn.

Taking the test car’s standard manual gearbox through its five gears also is a kick. The shifter is smooth and precise, the clutch feels just right, and the engine is powerful enough to shove you back in the seat.

At first glance, the Z3 2.8 looks just like its older stablemate, the Z3 1.9. In fact, the cars are largely identical. But there are subtle and not-so-subtle differences.

Certainly, there is nothing subtle about the price differential. The 1.9 starts at $29,425. The more powerful and more heavily equipped 2.8 opens at $35,900.

Mechanically, the 2.8 uses not only the bigger engine, but the heavier drivetrain that comes with it. The differential and suspension have been modified, and the rear track widened from 56.2 to 58.8 inches. This car also comes with a limited-slip differential and traction control. In addition, the front disc brakes have been vented for increased resistance to fade during heavy, prolonged use.

There are cosmetic differences, too. The rear fenders have been flared out more to accommodate the six-cylinder car’s broader track. The 2.8 also is fitted with different 16-inch alloy wheels and a new front spoiler that increases air intake.

Inside, the Z3 2.8 comes with such additional standard nifties as leather upholstery and walnut veneer trim.

In addition to being a blast to drive, the Z3 is a showstopper. It is one of those cars that gets a thumbs-up from male drivers and appreciative looks from female motorists.

Aesthetically, the Z3 is certainly offbeat business. It manages to be cute – and aggressive and muscular, too. It is a deeply carved car that says BMW in a clear voice. But it is a little too stubby to get the beauteous accolades awarded to most BMWs.

Like the Z3 1.9, the 2.8 is a hot seller. In fact, it is selling as well as the cheaper 1.9, at least in the early going. BMW sold 863 1.9s during January, and 862 2.8s.

Both Z3 models are built at the German automaker’s new assembly plant in Spartanburg, S.C. BMW spokesman Thomas Zauber told me the plant has enough orders to run at capacity – 300 cars a day. But the assembly line is being run a little slower than that for the moment while the new 2.8 model is worked into the production process.

Base vehicle: Rear-wheel drive, 2.8-liter engine, five-speed manual transmission, power four-wheel disc brakes, antilock braking system, traction control, 16-inch alloy wheels, P225/50ZR16 performance tires, speed-sensitive power steering, dual air bags, safety belt tensioners, theft- terrent system, central locking, cruise control, air conditioning, wood trim, leather seats, stereo/cassette, leather-wrapped steering wheel, power seats, power windows, manual top.

Test model: Interior chrome trim, additional leather upholstery, metallic paint.

Base price: $35,900

Test model: $38,295 (inc. shipping)

EPA city rating: 19

Test mileage: 21

Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles bumper to bumper, three years/36,000 miles free scheduled maintenance, roadside assistance.

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