EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit News's view

The roadster revival seems to be one of the main automotive themes of 1997. Just look at the Plymouth Prowler, the Porsche Boxster and Mercedes SLK – all in the $35,000-$45,000 price range. Because this turned into roadster week, we decided to take a second look at the BMW Z3, which has been around for about a year and now comes in a six-cylinder variant. (Last year, Anita gave the four-cylinder Z3 two stars and Paul gave it four.)

Does the extra power on the Z3 2.8 make the car that starred in the latest James Bond movie any more appealing?

She: Let’s talk bottom line to start since I fully expect that few people will use the Z3 as their primary car. I suspect that many folks will keep the rear-wheel-drive roadster under a blanket during the winter. So cost may be a serious consideration. The base price on the new Z3 2.8 model is almost $36,000, while the four-cylinder Z3 base price is $29,425. That may be the deciding factor for a lot of people. I know it would be for me. And we’re not going to trust your opinion on this issue since you’re not even sure what a gallon of milk costs.

He: Baby, I’ve got gasoline in my veins, so I can tell you what a gallon of gas costs – if you’re interested.

She: Just shows you where our priorities are.

He: All seriousness aside, the Z3 gets even better than I remembered it with the new six-cylinder engine. There’s a pretty hefty price gap between the base model and the 2.8, but you also get a lot of extras for the $6,500 premium. The suspension, brakes and gearbox have been beefed up to accommodate the extra power. You get a wider rear track for better high-speed stability, and a redesigned rear end with mildly flared fenders. The front-end design and alloy wheels are also specific to the 2.8. BMW adds a limited-slip differential to the standard traction-control system, so you actually can drive this baby in snow without much problem. Inside, you get standard leather upholstery and wood trim. Is all that stuff worth another six grand? I think so – especially considering the Boxster and the SLK start at just under $40,000.

She: Shockingly enough, I think so too. The Z3 2.8 felt more stable to me than the base model, and more powerful. Consequently, I had a lot more fun driving it. In the four-cylinder Z3, I recall clutching the steering wheel so tightly that I had fingernail imprints in my palms.

He: You didn’t seem to be sweating much when you climbed out of the 2.8. Nothing like an extra 50 horsepower to breed confidence, huh? BMW’s twin-cam six is familiar to owners of the 328i sedan. It delivers 189 horsepower, which is more than the SLK’s supercharged four-cylinder, and makes 203 pounds-feet of torque, which is more than the Boxster’s flat-six. The Z3 also weighs less than the SLK, and it really feels quicker off the line than either the Porsche or the Mercedes. BMW claims a 0-60 acceleration time of only 6.3 seconds, which is nearly a full second q uicker than the SLK. Of course, the BMW comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission, while you can only order the Mercedes with an automatic. But the Z3 2.8 is also half a step quicker than the Boxster, which does the 0-60 sprint in 6.7 seconds. Got your stopwatch out, dear?

She: I don’t need a stopwatch to convince me. I became more sold on the Z3 after parking it in downtown Detroit today, and watching the reactions of the usually jaded valets. The owner of the lot began screaming at his workers to clear a space in the front of the lot so he could show off the car. He kept mumbling: “Little jewel. It’s a little jewel.”

He: Did he say anything about the weird leather upholstery? It reminded me of those candy dots that came on rolls of paper when we were kids, and you could chew the dots right off the paper. I didn’t think the so-called “extended leather” seats and trim looked like they belonged on a $38,000 car, which is what our test model costs with a options. By the way, the extended leather costs an extra $1,200. And I didn’t think much of the $150 chrome interior trim either. At least, BMW has spruced up what used to be a dreadfully dull and drab cabin with a little color.

She: Gee, I liked the upholstery and the chrome. It’s very evocative of a classic sports car, and it kind of reminds me of all the nostalgic stuff you find at Restoration Hardware, that yuppie hardware store. This version of the Z3 really worked for me. It felt less gimmicky and less faddish. My only concern is the price. But if money is no object, definitely go for the bigger engine.

He: Your father didn’t think too much of the Z3, did he?

She: No, he thought it was too small for the money. And Great-Grandma said: “This isn’t a car, it’s a bicycle.”

He: Maybe you could get them both a job parking cars downtown.

1997 BMW Z3 2.8

Type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger roadster.

Price: Base, $35,900; as tested, $38,295 (inc. $570 destination charge).

What’s new for ’97: New six-cylinder engine.

Standard equipment: Power four-wheel disc brakes, central locking, variable-assist power steering, alloy wheels, 225/50ZR16 tires, cruise control, air conditioning, wood trim, leather seats, AM-FM stereo cassette, leather-wrapped steering wheel, power seats, power windows.

Safety features: Dual air bags, antilock brakes, traction control.

Options on test vehicle: Chrome interior trim ($150), extended leather ($1,200), metallic paint ($475).

EPA fuel economy: 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway.

Engine: 2.8-liter I-6; 189-hp at 5300 rpm; 203 lb-ft torque at 3950 rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed manual.

Competitors: Porsche Boxster, Mercedes-Benz SLK.

Specifications: Wheelbase, 96.3 inches; overall length, 158.5 inches; curb weight, 2844 pounds; legroom, 41.8 inches; headroom, 37.6 inches; shoulder room, 51.7 inches.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $1,928. Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.

Where built: Greer, S.C.

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