Featuring a celebrity-like intro, the BMW Z3 was first spotlighted in the James Bond flick Goldeneye, even before its introduced for model-year 1996. Along with being featured in Neiman Marcus' 1995 Christmas catalog that showcased the sports car as the 'perfect Christmas gift,' the Z3 launched a sales stampede that resulted in sold-out Z3 numbers for the BMW before the first model even made it to the showroom floors.
The first 'modern mass-market roadster produced by BMW, the BMW Z3 was also the first new BMW model assembled in the U.S. The Z3 was one of the first vehicles to roll out from BMW's Spartanburg, SC plant. Unveiled in the 1996 model year, the Z3's claim to fame appeared in the James Bond movie, GoldenEye. Production on the Z3 continued until 2002 and was eventually replaced by the BMW Z4, showcased at the 2002 Paris Auto Show. The Motorsports division of BMW produced the M Roadster, which included suspension upgrades and the engine from the BMW M3 from 1998 through 2002.
The Z3 originally came in only one version, a base-model convertible powered by a 1.9-liter inline-4 that could achieve 138 hp. This first model, built from 1996 through 2002, came with standard features that included an AM/FM cassette player and cruise control. Also standard was a five-speed manual transmission, but a four-speed automatic was available for those that wanted more. Other available options were leather seats and traction control. In 1997 BMW added an exciting model to the lineup that featured a 2.8-liter inline-6 engine, along with a 190-hp six-cylinder. The Z3 now featured heated seats and a CD changer on the options list.
Developed from the E36 platform of the 3 Series, the Z3 ended up on a platform sometimes dubbed as the E36/7 (roadster) or E36/8 (coupe). Initially, the 1.9 L M44B19 straight-4 engine was available, but consumers weren't impressed with its mere 138 hp. Rather than using the more refined multilink suspension from the E36, BMW instead chose to use the rear semi-trailing arm suspension from the E30. Buyers also weren't impressed with the interior of the BMW and felt that it wasn't up to the standards usually met by BMW. The plastic rear windows were also a sore point for consumers compared to the glass unit on the much less expensive '99 Mazda MX5.
The inline-4 engine was nicely balanced with the larger straight-6 engine in 1997, the 2.8 L M52B28. This engine was very similar to the BMW M52 in the 328i, except it came with an all-aluminum block and head and was very popular with its 189 hp. The 1.9 L 4-cylinder engine was replaced with a 2.5 L Straight-6 M52TUB25 engine capable of producing 170 hp. BMW renamed the 2.3 just like the 3. Series 323i, which came with a 2.5 L engine to distinguish the 2.8 L engine further.
In 1998 the BMW Z3 became even more adaptable to inclement weather with an optical power convertible top. The Z3 coupe arrived in 1999, and it came with a 2.8-liter engine only, and its hatchback design added extra body stiffness and versatility. Unfortunately, the public wasn't overjoyed with the strange tail now on the Z3. A new 170-hp inline-6 engine replaced the 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine. This model was called the Z3 2.3 for both 1999 and 2000. This year, a popular new feature was a Harman Kardon stereo and a hardtop roof optional on convertible models. Standard features now included side airbags on all Z3 sports cars.
For 2000 the BMW Z3 received stability control on its standard features list. The following year the 2.8 trim in both the coupe and convertible became the 3.0i with the introduction of a 3.0-liter engine that was good for 225 hp and 214 pound-feet of torque. The updated 2.5i received a power increase of 14 horses, and the Z3's optional four-speed automatic transmission was replaced with a five-speed automatic with manual shifting capability. The BMW Z3 received a CD player to its standard features list in 2002, its final year on the market.
For 2001 all of the available engines were replaced. The 2.2 L M54B22, the 2.5 L M54B25, 3.0 L M54B30, and the 3.2 L S54B32 for the M Roadster were available outside of North America. Until the car was replaced in 2002, all three of these straight-6 engines continued this way. The plastic window remained in the BMW Z3, while the vehicle's interior was also updated this year.
From 1999 to 2001, BMW also released a coupe that was available as the Z3 coupe, that featured a chassis-stiffening rear hatch area and featured the Shooting-brake styling. BMW also introduced the BMW Motorsport-enhanced M- coupe. The main problem that the Z3 had was the bad oxygen sensors, failing rear shock mounts, and an unreliable plastic water pump. The BMW Z3 continued to be a popular vehicle even after it ceased to be produced.
Images: Bayern Motoren-Werke AG