BMW Z3 Buying Guide
BMW’s first two-seater roadster since the 507, the BMW Z3 is accessible, stylish and better to drive than its reputation might have you believe
How much to pay
• Project £1000-1500 • Good £2500-4500 • Concours £5000-6000 •
Running costs ★★★
DIY Friendly ★★★
When the BMW Z3 made its debut in 1996 it was loved and loathed in equal measure. Those who cared more about style and image loved it; here was a premium two-seater convertible that was well made, good to drive and came with some brilliant engines that focused on either performance or economy, depending on which was selected.
However, the hard-core press weren’t so keen on the Z3. It wasn’t focused enough. Apart from the rare and costly M Roadster, none of the various Z3 models handled as well as it should have, if you were a press-on driver. Well, not if you believed the hype.
Now that the BMW Z3 is a classic, handling in extremis isn’t as important – and arguably never was. Instead, buyers revel in the excellent build quality and usability along with the low running costs. Throw in a range of brilliant engines and slick transmissions and you can see why modern classics like the Z3 hold so much appeal.
Your AutoClassics BMW Z3 inspection checklist
Z3 buyers could choose between 1.8 8v and 1.9 16v four-cylinder engines, but it’s the 24v six-cylinder units that really make the Z3 shine. The choice expanded into 2.0, 2.2, 2.5, 3.0 and 3.2-litre straight-sixes and they’ll all notch up 200,000 miles without murmur if cared for. However, while the glorious soundtrack of the six-cylinder engines has by far the most appeal, the four-cylinder units tend to be less problematic. Incidentally, while American-spec Z3s got a cast-iron block, European cars have an alloy unit.
Any Z3 engine can suffer from a failed thermostat, which tends to stick open. As a result the engine struggles to get up to temperature once the car is moving, but replacement parts are cheap. If you’re looking at a four-cylinder car check that the engine management lights illuminate when the ignition is switched on, and go out with the engine running. If not, the lambda sensor has probably failed.
If you’re considering a six-pot Z3, check if the engine gets too hot or if there’s any evidence of it having overheated, such as a blown head gasket. If so it’s probably because the water pump has been struggling to cope. Its plastic impellors aren’t really up to the job, which is why the cooling system must be kept scrupulously clean.
The VANOS variable valve timing that’s fitted to the M Roadster and Coupé can give problems on early cars. It’s all fixable but if it fails completely it willll cost plenty to put right. The secret is to watch out for any flat spots or hesitation when accelerating and to listen for grumbling from the engine as you accelerate, or on the over-run.
Finally, check for rattling that indicates a dual-mass flywheel on its way out. All Z3s had one of these and while official BMW replacements are expensive, high-quality pattern parts are available at much lower prices.
The M cars came only with a ZF five-speed manual gearbox and a limited-slip diff, but more prosaic Z3s were available with either a Getrag five-speed manual or a THM four-speed automatic transmission. All of these gearboxes are tough so just make the usual checks for smooth changes and if buying an auto make sure the fluid has been changed recently.
If a manual gearbox jumps out of gear the car has been abused, and the only solution is to replace the gearbox with a decent used one – or to spend a lot more on a rebuild.
Suspension and brakes
One of the reasons why the Z3 is so good to drive is the speed-sensitive hydraulic power steering that’s fitted to all cars. Although the system tends not to give problems, it’s still worth checking for leaks, especially the gaiters.
Expect tired shock absorbers along with worn rear damper mounts; the latter is betrayed by rattling as the car is driven but it’s cheap to fix. Cars with modified suspension will probably be uncomfortable and could be suffering from cracks in the floorpan as well as increased scuttle shake, so tread carefully.
All Z3s came with alloy wheels, which corrode and are usually kerbed, but reviving them isn’t expensive – or you could just slot some Z4 rims straight on. More owners are fitting cheaply made alloy wheels that are made in China; they crack, buckle and corrode so they don’t age well at all – make sure any potential purchase isn’t fitted with these.
As you’d expect, the Z3 is well protected from the elements, so if there’s any sign of significant corrosion anywhere on the body, the car has probably been crashed then badly repaired. It’s worth checking the boot for signs of leaks though, as the seals perish and let water in.
However, there are localised areas that can rust and these include the door mirror bases along with the area around the boot lock. You also need to get the car on a ramp and check the mountings for the diff and rear subframe; the latter might also be cracked if the car has been abused.
Some Z3s got a manually operated roof while many got an electro-hydraulic mechanism. Problems are unlikely apart from tired seals around the side windows or along the header rail; water leaks into the cabin will be obvious. The rear window was always plastic (with no glass option) and this can go opaque, but it can usually be revived.
Some Z3s were supplied with cloth trim and some with leather. Both are comfortable and wear well; predictably it’s the outer edges of the seats that are most likely to be damaged.
The electrical system generally doesn’t give problems as long as it hasn’t been butchered with aftermarket sound or security systems spliced in. The one area that can play up is the electric seat adjustment that’s fitted to some Z3s, but not all.
The Z3 was supplied with two keys and you should get both of these when you buy the car. if you get just the one key and you lose it, the whole car has to be reprogrammed, which costs a small fortune.
- 1997: Z3 introduced in 1.9-litre form; a six-cylinder 2.8-litre engine arrives later.
- 1998: M Roadster and M Coupé arrive with an M3 engine and major suspension changes.
- 1999: 1.8 and 2.0-litre engines supersede the 1.9; the 1.8 has the same 1895cc displacement as the original 1.9. A mild facelift brings restyled wheelarches, boot lid, rear lights and bumpers.
- 2000: A 3.0-litre engine supersedes the 2.8-litre unit and a 2.2-litre engine replaces the 2.0-litre powerplant.
- 2001: 1.9, 2.2 and 3.0 Sport Roadsters are now offered, with sports suspension, 17in alloys and electric seats.
The BMW Z3 is one of those cars that forces you to question the sense in buying an older, more established classic. Usable, great to drive, safe and reliable, you can buy a superb Z3 for less than the cost of a ropey old MG or Triumph.
Of course the Z3 doesn’t have the charm of these older cars and it isn’t as interesting, but if you are after a cheap two-seater convertible for some year-round fun, few classic cars will tick as many boxes as the Z3.
The four-cylinder engines are reasonably muscular, but even if you’re not a performance junkie it’s worth going for a six-cylinder car because these are the best to drive and are likely to prove the most collectible in the long term. If you want an automatic it’s definitely worth buying a six-pot Z3 as these torquey engines are better suited to two-pedal motoring.
The most collectible of all the Z3s is the M Roadster but you’ll pay much more for one of these as they accounted for only around five per cent of production. Whatever you buy shop around and haggle, as there are plenty of Z3s to go round so there’s no need to settle for anything less than a minter.
BMW Z3 cars for sale here.