MIAMI — Look, as much as I enjoyed driving the updated 2023 BMW Z4, I’m not going to lie and tell you that it’s just as spry and nimble as the original Z3 that stole our hearts in the 1990s. Today’s Z4 is a nice and totally capable car, but it has more of a luxury grand tourer vibe than an outright sports car. It’s also a niche player in the dying segment, and honestly, if BMW wasn’t able to share development costs with Toyota (hey there, Supra), there wouldn’t even be a new Z4.
So since the future of the Z4 is a bit bleak – did I mention that BMW only sold 1,567 of them last year? Let us throw some light on its glorious past. And what better way than to drive some holy-smoke-that-antique examples from BMW’s private collection? From Z3s to Z4s to M Coupes and beyond, this Bavarian greatest-hits catalog proves that BMW’s small two-seater has done a great job.
- BMW Z3 1.9 Action Front Three Quarters
The BMW Z3 became an instant hit
The original E36/7 Z3 made a cameo in the 1995 James Bond film.golden eye” (Though it was supposed to be in the Nintendo 64 game as well, just saying), and for a lot of people, it was love at first sight. There was strong initial demand, with around 15,000 orders by the time it actually went on sale. Personally, this generation Z3 is still my favorite today. And fun fact: It was the first BMW to be built exclusively outside 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 nimble and tossable roadster—a more luxurious take on the Mazda MX-5 Miata of sorts.
One of the earliest roadsters in BMW’s collection is the green-over-tan Z3 1.9, which makes a modest 138 horsepower and 133 pound-feet of torque. This was the engine the Z3 launched with, and it wasn’t really well liked, mostly because it’s not as powerful or as smooth as the straight-six options. Still, there’s a high-revving nature to the Z3 1.9 that makes it enjoyable in unexpected ways. Less weight at the front end is also a good thing.
In 1999, the Z3 received a mid-cycle update, most obviously a more curvaceous rear end with L-shaped taillights. But the best option for 2000 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 clutch’s super high take-up point – make this a car you just can’t live without liking.
If BMW hadn’t brought an M variant to this test drive, the Z3 3.0i would have been my favorite. Rewarding steering, perfect arm-at-the-height of door beltlines, a good engine… I could go on forever.
- BMW M Coupe in Laguna Seca Blue Action Profile
But Then Came The ‘Clown Shoe’: Meet The BMW Z3 Coupe
I believe that the BMW Z3 Coupe is one of the most iconic and best designs since the Millennium. Like, it is with the Audi TT above. The shooting brake-styled hatchback is perfect, and it really accentuates the Z3’s generous dash-to-axle ratio. And those hips. those hips, Seriously, there isn’t a single bad angle.
It is said that the Z3 Coupe was born from the brains of a group of engineers who worked on the project outside normal business hours, so three cheers for those idiots. Importantly, the hatchback’s added structural rigidity made the Z3 Coupe nearly three times as stiff as the Z3 Roadster, and you can really feel a difference on the road. Where a Z3 can feel soft at times, the coupe keeps 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 that car is quite desirable, the more powerful M Coupe (the allure of the “Z3” wasn’t hard to ignore) Official typically part of the name). Based on the M Roadster that debuted in 1998, the M Coupe initially used BMW’s 240-hp 3.2-liter S52 inline-six engine, but switched to the upgraded S54 3.2-liter inline for its final years (2001 and 2002). Borrowed from the six engine. The just-introduced E46 M3 boosts output to 315 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque.
I went into this test drive fairly determined that if I couldn’t easily secure some time in the M Coupe, I’d have to kneel down to one of the other journalists. It’s not just the best version of the Z3, it’s my favorite BMW ever made. 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 okay to meet your heroes.
The straight, boring-as-hell roads of Florida don’t do the M Coupe justice. The car excels out of tight curves and high-revving corners. But at the same time, it’s perfectly happy to cruise in fifth gear with… uh, not the posted speed limit. It also has a cup holder that fits Dunkin’ Donuts Iced Coffee. Try doing that in an early 2000s German sports car.
Z4 came after Z3
The original E85 Z4 produced from 2002 to 2008 came straight out of the love/hate Chris Bangle era of BMW designs, and if I’m honest, I think it’s aged badly. Of course some specifications look better than others – the Z4 M Coupe is clearly a piece of genius – but these cars just don’t do it for me aesthetically. No, not even with the cool Z-shaped creases on the sides.
BMW sold a four-cylinder Z4 outside the United States, but here, we only got the 2.5-liter and 3.0-liter inline-six engines, with automatic or manual transmissions, as well as the dreadful six-speed SMG automated manual in later years. . The most powerful non-M model was the Z4 3.0si introduced for 2006, with 261 hp and 232 lb-ft of torque, while the now-officially named Z4 M Roadster and Z4 M Coupe used the 3.2- did. liter inline-six with 338 hp and 269 lb-ft.
Notable features of the original Z4 include a flip-up infotainment screen with built-in navigation, part of BMW’s initial iDrive infotainment suite. And due to the success of the Z3 Coupe, a Z4 Coupe was always in the cards, with a more exaggeratedly sloping hatchback and double-bubble roofline.
The E85 Z4 is a much bigger car than the Z3, and you can feel it from behind the wheel. It also features a more refined multilink rear suspension adapted from the 2000 era E46 3 Series, compared to the Z3’s semi-trailing design borrowed from the 1980s era E30 3 Series. An aluminum hood and magnesium roof frame were used to reduce weight. The Z4 was also the first BMW roadster to receive such things as electronic power steering and variable valve timing engine technology, although the M variant continued to use the older hydraulic steering setup for better communication and more direct response.
- BMW Z4 sDrive35 Action Front Three Quarters
The next BMW Z4 was better
I guess everyone forgets about the E89-generation Z4 (2008 to 2016), but I guess I can see why. There was no M version, and because this Z4 had a power-folding hardtop, there was never a proper coupe. I think these cars still look great, but they don’t quite stand out the way the Z3 and original Z4 did – even in brighter colors.
BMW offered everything from a 2.0-liter turbo inline-four engine with stop/start to a more powerful naturally aspirated inline-six model. But the version the company brought to Miami to drive was a later 2011 Z4 sDrive35is — yes, that’s when we started using the washing machine naming system — which BMW made for the Z4 M for this generation. was the closest thing. In the 35is, a twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-six made 335 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, but was mated only to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Sad Trombone. From just 1,500 rpm all that torque kicks in super low, helping the 35is to 60 mph in a BMW-estimated 4.8 seconds.
I like driving this car, but not as much as its predecessors. This DCT really shows how far these transmissions have come in the past decade. The Z4 35is can be a bit jerky initially when engaging first gear, and you’ll feel the occasional lurch in upshifting and downshifting at high speeds. At least the chassis is good, and why wouldn’t it be, considering that this Z4 shares its bones with the E82 1 Series and E92 3 Series, both of which are great cars.
- 2023 BMW Z4 M40i Action Front Three Quarters
Which brings us to the 2023 BMW Z4
The new Z4 should really feel like the culmination of everything BMW learned during its decades of roadster (and coupe!) production, but it doesn’t. Again, this isn’t to say that the Z4 is a bad car, it’s just… different.
However, the Z4 still has a lot going for it. The powerful turbocharged engine and luxurious interiors make this roadster really nice to drive. And more than any of its predecessors, this Z4 feels like a car you can actually use every day, rather than another car you only take out on the weekends.
Will BMW customers respond better to a more focused Z4 similar to the Z3s of yesteryear? Perhaps. But honestly, probably not. So I guess it’s a good thing that the used car market is flooded with great examples of BMW’s earlier ZS. Which reminds me, I have a perpetual clown shoe to find.