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The BMW Z3: History, Generations, Specifications

All things BMW Z3 on Automobile.

Aaron GoldWriterManufacturerPhotographerBring a TrailerPhotographer

BMW Z3 Essential History

The BMW Z3 is a two-door rear-drive coupe and roadster produced for the 1996 to 2002 model years as a follow on to the Europe-only Z1. Though it made its official debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, 1996, many folks got a sneak preview in the 1995 James Bond movie GoldenEye, in which 007 briefly drove a blue Z3 in Cuba.

The Z3 employed 3 Series underpinnings, with its MacPherson strut front suspension based on the E36 and its trailing-arm rear suspension derived from the E30. The initial power offering was a 138 hp 1.9 liter four-cylinder that just about let it keep pace with a Miata. Critics clamored for more power, but they would not get it until 1997 when BMW added a 190-hp, 2.8-liter straight six as an option, which was additionally distinguished by a wider rear track than the four-cylinder car. Even more exciting was the new M Roadster, with a 3.2-liter, 240-hp six (a far cry from the 320-hp European version, but we had to take what we were given), a stiffer chassis setup, and a top speed of 155 mph. Finally, the Z3 was able to step into the league of the Porsche Boxster and Mercedes SLK.

The Z3 had a banner year in 1999: The underachieving four-cylinder was dumped in favor of a 170-hp, 2.5-liter inline six, and a new coupe arrived badged as either a Z3 2.8 or M Coupe, with the same engine choices (193 hp or 240 hp) as the Roadster.

For Y2K, the Z3 saw minor styling changes, and 2001 saw across-the-board power bumps: The base 2.5-liter's output rose to 184 hp, while the 2.8 was replaced by a 225-hp 3.0-liter. But it was the M cars that finally got the engine they'd been looking for: The 315 hp 3.2-liter six from the E46 M3. The joy was short-lived, however, as 2002 would prove to be the last year for the Z3; it was replaced by the all-new 2003 Z4.

BMW Z3 Highlights

The Z3 was the first BMW model that was never built in Germany. All Z3s were built in South Carolina by BMW Spartanburg.

Neiman-Marcus offered a limited-run James Bond Edition, which had blue paint and unique trim but, sadly, lacked the movie car's Stinger missile launcher and built-in parachute. Neiman-Marcus initially planned a run of 20 cars, but upped that to 100 because of demand.

Legend—at least the one promoted by BMW—is that the Coupe was designed by a rogue group of engineers who goaded upper management into putting it into production.

BMW produced a one-off V-12-powered Z3 prototype, though obviously it never entered production. (What a shame.)

BMW Z3 Buying Tips

The BMW Z3, M Roadster, and M Coupe all have excellent collector potential. The roadster was popular from the moment of its introduction, and the polarizing styling of the coupe ensured plenty of detractors, but also a significant and devoted fan base. Commonality with the 3-Series ensures a good supply of parts and plenty of repair know-how.

The Z3 has held its value well over the past few decades, so beware of cheap fixer-uppers—they may need a lot of fixing-up. M models will be the most valuable and collectible, especially the 2001-2002 models which had the most powerful engines. The early four-cylinder cars were often dismissed as pokey Miata-fighters, but as far as we're concerned, there ain't nothin' wrong with a Miata—or a four-cylinder Z3. If you're not looking for maximum speed, the oft-overlooked 1.9s are robust cars that will give good open-air thrills, though repairs, parts and restoration will cost just as much as the more potent Z3s.

The Z3, M Roadster, and M Coupe appealed to a variety of buyers, from well-to-do BMW fans who were religious about maintenance to weekend racers who could barely afford the oil changes. Evaluate the owner as much as the car, and get a vehicle history report. If the car has had several owners, you might want to pass in favor of one with an easier-to-divine history.

When buying a convertible, be sure to check the top carefully for tears and leaks. If the roof looks new, it might be a replacement—be sure to check the interior for water damage. (Or it might just mean that a thief knifed open the old one to steal the stereo.)

BMWs can be complex machines and, while robust, aren't known for being trouble-free. There are plenty of specialist BMW mechanics to be found, and it's best to engage one to perform a pre-sale inspection before you buy. They'll know the trouble spots to look out for.

BMW Z3 Articles on Automobile

Engineered more for the hearts than the minds of the roundel's faithful

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BMW Z3 Recent Auctions

BMW Z3 Quick Facts

  • First year of production: 1995 (1996 model year)
  • Last year of production: 2002
  • Total sold: Nearly 300,000
  • Original price (base): $28,750
  • Characteristic feature: First BMW built entirely outside of Germany

BMW Z3 FAQ

How much does a BMW Z3 cost?

Costs vary widely based on model and condition. Drivers can be found for less than $10,000, but low-mileage M Coupe models can fetch $20,000 or more.

Is the BMW Z3 reliable?

The Z3 is a fairly straightforward car by BMW standards, but BMWs tend to be more troublesome than Japanese cars, and they can be expensive to fix. As a collector car the Z3 is pretty robust, but as a daily driver it may prove troublesome.

Is the BMW Z3 a classic car?

The Z3 has been out of production since 2002, and several of its variants have good collector potential. Yes, we would consider the Z3 a classic car.

When did BMW stop making the Z3?

BMW stopped making the Z3 in the 2002 model year. It was replaced in the autumn of 2002 by the 2003 BMW Z4.

1996 BMW Z3 Roadster Specifications
ENGINE: 1.9L DOHC 16-valve I-4/138 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 133 lb-ft @ 4,300 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual, 4-speed automatic
LAYOUT: 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
EPA MILEAGE: 23/32 city/highway
L x W x H: 158.5 x 66.6 x 50.9 in
WHEELBASE: 96.3 in
WEIGHT: 2,690 lb
0-60 MPH: 9.1 sec
TOP SPEED 116 mph