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New Car Test - BMW Z3 2.2i Roadster

The current 2.2-litre double VANOS Z3 destroys any conceptions that base-model Z3s are 'wank mobiles'...

By Michael Knowling

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Entry-level BMW Z3s have always been looked down upon with a 'pretender' image; plenty of coffee culture cred but a long way off being a true performance car. The current model Z3, however, adds power with pose very nicely...

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One of the most impressive areas of the current Z3 is its DOHC, 24-valve, 2.2-litre straight-six engine. Most engines can be caught out struggling 'off cam', but the Z3's 2.2 is always ready to deliver torque. It's wonderful double VANOS system (where both the inlet and exhaust camshaft angles are altered) ensures maximum efficiency the whole way through the rev range. There are no obvious points of peak torque or peak power, and the top-end remains so strong it's all too easy to bump into the 7000-rpm rev cut.

Add to this the Z3's electronic throttle control system and you've got an engine that's willing to react to even the smallest accelerator pedal movements.

Largely thanks to these features, the Z3's 2.2 is one of the sweetest engines we've ever driven. It sounds great, too, with regular pops through the exhaust on heavy decel.

The Previous Base-Model Z3s...

The earliest Z3 sold in Australia (in 1997) was offered with only a 103kW 1.9-litre four-cylinder - this was the lump that established the Z3 as a zero performance vehicle.

From 1999 to 2000, however, the 1.9 was replaced by a 2.0-litre double VANOS six-cylinder engine. This engine produced 110kW and 190Nm, and - thanks to the inclusion of double VANOS - performed much better on the road.

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The Z3's M54 engine runs DME (Digital Motor electronics) engine management tied to a hot-wire airflow meter, solid state ignition system and cylinder-specific knock sensing.

Power output is listed at 125kW at 6250 and 210Nm at 3500 rpm.

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BMW claims the 5-speed manual Z3 can reach 100 km/h in 8.2 seconds and it certainly feels capable - it's a stark contrast to the original 1.9-litre Z3's near-10 second effort...

Fuel economy by AS2877 standards are 10.5-litres per 100 kilometres in the city and 7.2 on the highway; our spirited road test averaged nearly 12-litres per 100 kilometres, however.

Note that it's recommended to fill the 51-litre fuel tank with premium unleaded (95 RON plus) - normal unleaded should be used only where premium is unavailable.

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The immense flexibility of the 2.2-litre engine has a favourable effect on twisty road drives. The Z3's front-engine, rear-drive monocoque chassis reacts the throttle inputs, allowing very fine mid-corner adjustment to the car's attitude. Turn-in is reasonably sharp, and - because you sit toward the rear of the 2446mm wheelbase - any oversteer movement is quite noticeable. There's good grip, though, from the 225/50 tyres worn on 16 x 7-inch alloys.

Automatic Stability Control + Traction comes as standard to make the Z3 foolproof. Even with the ASC switched off, though, the Z3 gets its power and handles down very well.

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The Z3's suspension tech sheet reveals there are MacPherson struts with lower L-arms and a ball-joint mounted swaybar used at the front, while the IRS employs good ol' semi-trailing arms, separate spring and dampers, anti-squat and dive geometry and a rubber mounted swaybar. Ride quality is about perfect - firmer than the average commuter vehicle, but supple enough to absorb speed humps and train crossings without rattling your teeth.

Interestingly, our test vehicle had been equipped with non-factory tyres and suffered massive tram lining. We can't be sure if the different brand tyres are the cause, but it's something to keep in mind if you ever buy a Z3 and it comes time to replace its shoes. Other than that, the power-assisted rack and pinion performs reasonably well despite a moderate amount of indirectness at the straight-ahead position.

Braking the 1320 kilogram show are ABS-controlled ventilated front discs with twin pot calipers and solid rear discs with single pot calipers. Stopping power is quite good and the system is extremely reactive to light pedal pressure.

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Driving the Z3 for the first time may be a little daunting at first, depending what sort of vehicles you regularly drive. The accelerator is responsive, the brakes are sensitive and the clutch has a fast take-up. Expect to take a couple of kilometres to become accustomed.

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Inside, the Z3 has a classic sports feel to it without being old-fashioned. There's Oregon leather sewn over the seats, dash, door trims, gear knob boot and the steering wheel. The red/black combination seen here is just one of the colour combinations available. Timber panelling is also available as an option for those people into that sort of thing.

Mixed in for good measure are four airbags (twin front and side), power windows and mirrors, central locking, a 'stylish' analogue clock, cruise control, a single trip meter and air conditioning - no climate control. Another curious omission is an adjustable steering column; this, however, is largely made up for by the electric seat adjustment for the drive rand passenger. The seats are quite comfortable, but they can get a bit wearing over time - adjustable lumbar support is missing too. There's generous headroom when the seat is lowered, though the pedals are a bit of a stretch away for some shorter people. The driver's footrest is also poorly arranged.

Instrument wise, there's gauges for road speed, engine rpm, fuel level and coolant temperature status.

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The sound system comprises a very business-like single CD/tuner as standard, which is wired to five speakers including a small woofer between the backrests. The system is easy to operate - though the bass, treble, fader and balance mode button is a bit fiddly - and sound quality is well up to standard. The woofer will overload if you drive it too hard, however.

A multi-disc stacker system is available as an option.

Storage throughout the cabin is a little tight. A net on the passenger's side of the transmission tunnel can be used to hold a street directory, the glove box is medium sized and there are only a few other small storage facilities - a small tray alongside each seat, pockets and ashtrays in the doors and a couple of cut-outs in the console, which are perfectly suited for mobile phones. Look hard and you still won't find a cup holder.

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The BMW's rag top roof is not up to the standard it should be. It's 'semi-electric', whereby the occupants need to release two grab locks on the windscreen header rail and manually raise the roof a few inches. Only once the roof has been partially raised, the electric mechanism can be used to fold the top down and, later, to bring it back up. The electric roof switch, by the way, is awkwardly positioned at the rear of the centre console.

Another disappointment is the use of a plastic rear window. This not only creases after a bit of wear and tear, it also comes lacking a demister.

BMW has made good use of the limited space available rearward of the cabin. The boot is quite shallow and is a modest 165-litres in volume, but it's all useable thanks to a flat floor and easy accessibility. The boot is hinged with two pivot points, which allow the lid to be opened to a near-vertical angle. The 12-volt battery can be found hiding in the boot behind a trim cover, and there's a tool kit, emergency triangle and a small plastic storage bin in the right-hand side.

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Looking up from your morning latte, the Z3 is a gorgeous vehicle to gaze upon - it's well proportioned and curvy, yet it's got just the right amount of aggression.

The rear arches are wider than those on original 1.9-litre Z3, the taillights maintain a similar look to the rest of the current BMW range and a third brake light is nicely integrated into the boot lid. The 2.2 badge on the boot lid should also be taken with some authority.

At the front, the dual reflector headlights have chrome rings, there's fog lights and the kidney grille has chrome shells.

Note that dual rollover bars have been located behind each seat since the 1999 Z3 update.

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The Z3 is exceptionally well built. Paint quality is brilliant, panel fit is good and all materials used are top quality. The doors, bonnet and boot shut nicely and the switchgear and controls have good feel. Our test car, however - with around 25,000 kilometres - had a noisy driver's seatbelt retractor mechanism and a small section of the driver's seat was also slightly blackened due to the seatbelt rubbing. The operator told us he'd had absolutely no problems with this vehicle.

Protecting the Z3 is a 2-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, including a 2-year warranty on paint, 6-years on corrosion, plus BMW's customer assurance program.

And now let's get down to it - cost...

Retailing for $75,200 in 5-speed manual form, the 2.2-litre Z3 is not a cheap toy. It's more expensive than the Audi TT, Honda S2000, Saab 9-3 Turbo convertible and considerably more than the Alfa GTV twin-spark - even the top-line 162kW V6 version. Perhaps the nearest comparison, however, is the supercharged Mercedes SLK200K, which starts at a hefty $86,600 - and then there's the Porsche Boxster, which steps onto the blocks at nearly 110k.

With some of its competition cheaper and some of it more expensive, the Z3 stacks up reasonably well in the marketplace. So, if you're after a prestige convertible with a bit of poke, the Z3 2.2 should not go overlooked - it is a very good all-round package. Forget what everyone says about the base model Z3s.

BMW Z3 2.2-litre Roadster Fast Facts...
  • Brilliant engine - electronic throttle control and double VANOS ensure maximum throttle response and torque on demand
  • Only a plastic rear window with no demister
  • Our test vehicle had excessive tram-lining (perhaps due to non-factory tyres)
  • Very safe to drive with the ASC system - even with ASC switched off, it gets its power down very well
  • Excellent overall build quality
  • No longer a shallow 'wank' mobile!

The BMW Z3 Roadster was hired by AutoSpeed for this test.


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BMW Australia

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