BMW Z3 and Z4 Retro Review: Celebrating roadsters and clown shoes

BMW Z3 and Z4 Retro Review: Celebrating roadsters and clown shoes

MIAMI — Look, much as I enjoyed driving the updated 2023 BMW Z4, I’m not going to lie and tell you it’s as lithe and nimble as the original Z3 that stole our hearts in the 1990s. Today’s Z4 is a good and perfectly competent car, but it has more of a luxury grand tourer vibe than outright sports car. It’s also a niche player in a dying segment, and honestly, if it wasn’t for BMW being able to share development costs with Toyota (hey there, Supra), there wouldn’t even be a new Z4 at all.

So since the future of the Z4 is a little gloomy – did I mention BMW only sold 1,567 of them last year? – let’s shine some light on its storied past. And what better way to do so than by driving a handful of holy-smokes-that’s-pristine examples from BMW’s private collection? From Z3s to Z4s to M Coupes and beyond, this Bavarian greatest-hits catalog proves BMW’s little two-seater has had a hell of a run.

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The BMW Z3 was an instant hit

The original E36/7 Z3 made a cameo in the 1995 James Bond film “GoldenEye” (though it should’ve also been in the Nintendo 64 game, just sayin’), and for a lot of people, it was love at first sight. There was strong initial demand, with some 15,000 orders placed by the time it actually went on sale. Personally, this generation Z3 remains my favorite to this day. And fun fact: It was the first BMW to be manufactured exclusively outside of Germany – in South Carolina, no less.


Four- and six-cylinder powertrain options were offered, with four-speed automatic and five-speed manual transmissions. Combined with a classic front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout, this made the Z3 a spry and tossable roadster – a sort of more luxurious take on the Mazda MX-5 Miata.

One of the earliest roadsters BMW has in its collection is a green-over-tan Z3 1.9, making a modest 138 horsepower and 133 pound-feet of torque. This was the engine the Z3 launched with, and it isn’t exactly well loved, mostly because it’s not as powerful or smooth as the straight-six options. Still, there’s a high-revving nature to the Z3 1.9 that makes it entertaining in an unexpected way. Having less weight over the front end is a good thing, too.

In 1999, the Z3 received a mid-cycle update, with the most obvious tell being a more curvaceous rear end with L-shaped taillights. But the best new-for-2000 option was the 3.0-liter naturally aspirated I6 engine, offering 228 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque (an upgrade over the outgoing 2.8-liter’s 189 hp and 203 lb-ft). BMW has one of these in its fleet, complete with a five-speed manual transmission, and this Z3 is a total peach. Smooth power delivery, plenty of low-end torque and crisp shifts – once you get used to the super high take-up point of the clutch – make it a car you can’t help but adore.

If BMW hadn’t brought any M variants to this test drive, the Z3 3.0i would’ve been my favorite. Rewarding steering, perfect arm-on-the-door beltline height, a sweet engine … I could go on forever.

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But then came the ‘Clown Shoe’: Meet the BMW Z3 Coupe

I genuinely believe the BMW Z3 Coupe is one of the most iconic and best designs from the turn of the millennium. Like, it’s up there with the Audi TT. The shooting brake-style hatchback is perfect, and it really exaggerates the Z3’s generous dash-to-axle ratio. And those hips. Those hips. Seriously, there isn’t a single bad angle.

It’s said that the Z3 Coupe was born from the minds of a group of engineers who worked on the project outside of normal business hours, so three cheers for those nerds. Crucially, the extra structural rigidity of the hatchback made the Z3 Coupe nearly three times stiffer than the Z3 Roadster, and you can genuinely feel a difference on the road. Where a Z3 can occasionally feel soft, the Coupe snaps it in line.

You could get the Z3 Coupe with the same 2.8-liter and 3.0-liter inline-six engines as the roadster, and while this car is plenty desirable, it’s hard to ignore the allure of the more powerful M Coupe (“Z3” was not officially part of the name). Based on the M Roadster that debuted for 1998, the M Coupe initially used BMW’s 240-hp 3.2-liter S52 inline-six engine, but for its final years  (2001 and 2002) borrowed the upgraded S54 3.2-liter inline-six from the just-introduced E46 M3, boosting output to 315 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque.

I’d pretty much decided going into this test drive that if I couldn’t easily secure some time in the M Coupe, I’d have to kneecap one of the other journalists. This isn’t just the best version of the Z3, it’s my favorite BMW ever built, period. I could drive this Laguna Seca Blue M Coupe every day for the rest of my life and be happy as a clam. Sometimes it’s OK to meet your heroes.