BMW Z3 buyers guide produced by Richard Bird, Nubodi Automotive.
The first thing to consider is the capacity – in spite of the comments of most journalists and other entertainers that the 1.9 is grossly underpowered, it is a very nice car. It must however, be judged as a 1.9 litre 140 bhp car; it is fruitless to compare it to an M Roadster, for example. In terms of performance and fuel consumption the engine is streets ahead of the VW 1.8 16 valve equivalent. In terms of performance it goes like most modern 140 bhp cars, and up to 100 mph will probably leave a lot of them, thanks to sensible gearing, as it has a non-overdrive fifth gear and fairly low final drive ratio. It also handles really well, and has good brakes. The same comments apply to its replacement, the 2 litre model. These are a straight six cylinder configuration
The 2.2 litre model (167bhp) offers a very good package of performance and economy, and has the advantage that it is newer than the 2.8, which is now getting a bit long in the tooth in terms of a used buy. However, the important thing is to look at the condition, rather than the mileage.
If looking for a 2.8 or any six-cylinder model do not worry about the old BMW problem with Nicasil bores – these engines were never fitted to a Z3. Likewise, do not worry about the problem with premature wear of the VANOS unit – this problem applies only to the earlier M Roadster (with the S52 engine) usually costing about £2000 per 40,000 miles – or more frequently if you are unlucky!
Compared to the 1.9 and 2.2 litre models, the 2.8 has more power (189 bhp), an incredible level of torque, surprisingly good fuel consumption, power hood, leather seats and door trim, and often other ‘essentials’ such as air conditioning, passenger air bag (yes- it was an extra!) roll-over bars, seventeen-inch wheels etc. All 2.8 models have 2.5 inches more rear track, the pre-2000 models having the wings ‘stretched’ outwards and downwards across the tyres.(widebody). All the Z3’s are the same under the panels though, but when ordering a kit we just need to know if its a pre-facelift or facelift. Call us if you are unsure.
The later 2.8 (built from Sept 98) has the double-VANOS engine – meaning automatic timing adjustment of both camshafts, whereas the earlier engines had VANOS on the inlet cam only. These can quickly be identified by the use of smaller tail pipes with circular trims – the later engine has larger slightly ‘squashed’ tailpipes.
The 2.8 will be just out-accelerated by the 2.5 litre Boxster of the period, when run to peak revs, but will easily leave the Porsche when accelerating in any given gear. For example, even Autocar (notorious Porsche lovers!) found that when using fifth gear the 2.8 would go from 20-40 mph in 8.8 seconds, relative to the Boxster (12.2) with a similar edge up to 80-100 mph in 9.9 seconds (Boxster 13.4). The later 3 litre Z3 is even better, and can be surprisingly economical.
The 3.0 litre engine has 231 bhp but comes with a price premium of about double a 2.8L. They have a design fault that the inlet rubber splits on the tight small bend. This causes weak running and an engine management light to come on (cheap to fix though). The 2.8 does not have this fault. On the road there is little to choose from them, so my recommendation is buy a 2.8. Automatics are rarer and usually are more money but the boxes are indestructible. Later ones are tiptronic.
Handling is good, but is compromised for grip rather than comfort, as a penalty for using the old semi-trailing arm rear suspension from the E30 M3. It works well, however, and suits the car. The general handling characteristic is slight understeer, changing to neutrality as power is applied – the ordinary Z3 is not a tail-happy car, which is why journalists hate it!. In the real world it is better to have a car with bags of grip, which simply goes where the driver points it, does not argue, and gives lots of warning to lift off before gently breaking away. You could happily send your wife or daughter etc off on a long run on a wet day, knowing that the car will be with them all the way. If you want to improve the handling we suggest a front strut brace across the engine bay, coilovers or preferably Eibach springs if you don’t want track based suspension.
Reversing is an acquired skill, as with the roll-over bars and mesh wind deflector rear three-quarter vision is not as good as one would expect in a small sports car, but the rear window is a decent size. Generally speaking, rear vision (roof up) is better than the Audi TT in convertible form.
BMW Z3 practicality is also fine – we have regularly gone for a two-month European tour every summer, mostly camping, and found that we could fit everything (tent, table, chairs, stove, laptop, DVD movies etc) into the car.
The driving position is fine up to about six feet high – and the seats are OK for up to 200 miles at a time. We have done 500/600 mile days, and could still walk afterwards, so the ergonomics cannot be that bad.
In terms of running costs, the 2.8 double VANOS model is the cheapest car to run, at around 30-32 mpg. Remapping is an option if you want more power, both mid-range torque and fuel consumption will improve markedly, with up to 20% better mpg at 55/65 mph.
Expect viscous fan couplings to fail around 80,000mls but electric conversions are cheap.
Servicing costs depend on if you do it yourself (my choice) which is easy and cheap, use a BMW specialist, or a BMW dealer. Many Z3 owners are terrified of losing the string of dealer stamps in their service record, and so pay up to £400 for an Inspection (little more than an oil change, as are all the services). Many again pay £800 per year for BMW extended warranty, which forces them to use BMW dealers for servicing, so adding mightily to the running costs. These factors combine to reduce their annual mileage, so making a used Z3 one of the best buys. All parts are e36 3 series so cheap cheap!
A new soft top could be expensive, but excellent replicas can be obtained for about £700 (see carhoodwarehouse.com). I would guess a life of around 10 years if lowered and raised a lot, but as too many Z3 owners never lower their roofs, they should usually last longer. Rear windows can be unzipped and replaced, but it is a job best left to someone who has done it before! Again, a well cared for rear window will last for at least 10 years.Available from Germany in clear, green or blue tint for around £90.
The 2.8 engine has lots of torque, but has really too much at very low speeds, betraying its pedigree as being intended to lug a ‘Seven’ series saloon around, driven by a lazy driver in fifth gear all the time, or with an automatic box. I would trade some of the 800 rpm torque for a real kick in the back at about 3,000 rpm.
MAKE SURE YOU DRIVE THE CAR HARD FOR AT LEAST 3 MILES. The temperature gauges should not move off the 12 o’clock position. Especially four cylinder 8V models! If it overheats, ignore the seller explanation that it “needs water” or “the thermostat is stuck”, etc
A head gasket replacement is £600 minimum and it’s never the same after this.
BMW Z3 1996-2002 All 330000 were assembled in South Carolina USA. We suspect they over engineered them hoping to get future contracts. We have never found a rusty Z3 under the panels. The outer sills and wings do rot but these are unbolted anyway, but this can be a way of beating the price down.
1.8 118 bhp 10.1 secs 1295 kg (1999-2002)(avoid at all costs!)
1.9 138 Bhp 9.8 secs !275 kg (1996-2002) 8v (if nothing else available)
1.9 140 bhp 9.2 secs 1275 kg (1996-1999) 16v
2.0 150 bhp 8.6 secs 1345 kg (1999-2002)
2.2 170 bhp 7.6 secs 1345 kg (2000-2002)
2.8 193 bhp 6.7 secs 1360 kg (1997-2000)
3.0 231 bhp 5.8 secs 1360 kg (2000-2002)
3.2 321 bhp 5.1 secs 1450 kg (1998-2002)
(2.3, 2.5 units were used in the USA and the less powerful s52 3.2 in the Z3M)
(4 speed autos are slightly heavier and slower than the 5 speed manuals)
4 pots are under powered but lighter and can be supercharged along with the six cylinder cars. One of our Kobra customers is having his turbocharged (2.8)
2.2, 2.8 and 3.0 engines offer an exciting drive. 3.2M engines are FAST and FUN but can be a handful in the wet as most lack traction control. Also have unreliable double Vanos gears on the engine.
2.8s and 3.0 had wider rear wings and axles
Facelift in 2000 changed:
All models had wider rear wings and axles not just widebody models
Remote central locking
Headlining in hood
Rear light / boot shape
Wider rear arches and bumps over the wheels
Some had clear lenses to headlights and indicators
Chrome headlight rings
Redesigned boot and boot brake light
DSC dynamic stability control replaced ASC traction control
A few interior modifications
Use the s50 engine with 321 bhp (post 2000 cars were given the s54 engine with 325bhp)
They share the same rear wings as the 2.8 wide-body but have a shorter rear axle and run rear wheels with a crazy low offset.
Most Z3m's do not have traction control like many of the other six cylinder Z3's. (post 2000 models do have TCS)
All Z3M's have a LSD - these were an option on the Z3's.
They benefit from uprated suspension, bushes and chassis(this reduces the rear end droop experienced under acceleration on the higher power Z3s)
The Z3m has a colour coded interior dash
Common problems and things to look out for:
It should be noted that the BMW Z3 is an exceptionally reliable car – the items below are just potential known issues to look out for:
ABS light. Make sure it comes on and then goes out once started.
Central locking remote not working.
Make sure the car does not overheat, test drive for at least 5 miles.
Corrosion - Rotten sills, mini front wings, rear wings, wingmirrors (check that they retract..if not you cant sell them)and lock on rear boot
Vanos problems characterised usually by loss of power at low revs and a funny sound for the front of the engine. (Mr Vanos can help repair these)
Rear cross member welds & boot floor spot welds coming loose due to flex from the diff in the Z3M, 3.0 and 2.8 - check the boot floor for broken spot welds. Although I’ve never come across this personally...yet.
Electric hoods which are common on the higher spec. cars can often be temperamental
Bonnet release mechanism often stick and need to be kept greased
Electric seats use 2 motors each these can sometimes fail, also the rail bushes can become worn - check the seats in all directions. Brake and accelerate hard to see if the driver seat plastic bushes are worn. There should be no movement.
Seat belt clips on the side of each seat that funnel the seatbelts often brake
Water/condensation in the boot - often caused by faulty weather gaskets
Electric Hood operation - These are often prone to failure, often due to a faulty switch or hydraulics
Hood water penetration - if leaking then it is often just the hooks that need tightening
Rear plastic window on the hood is difficult to replace – cloudy with a crease along the window this is an unavoidable problem – Maguires plastX polish can help. But if its split it can be replaced easily as its a zip in type (£90 ebay) but knock off £150 from sale price.
Accident damage - resprays and panel gaps
Service history BMW engines are usually sound if well maintained (however viscous coupling and the water pump are well worth looking at changing around 80,000 miles along with the guibo/flex disc)
Bushes tend to wear also especially the top mounts - this can be a good opportunity to install a polybush kit.
Gearbox shift pins - Difficulty putting the car in 1st or 2nd gear can indicate worn shift pins caused by aggressive driving or high mileage.
Stereo speakers sometimes degrade over time – this is worth checking.
Glove box on the Z3 can sometimes sag and not align properly.
Broken fan resistor can result in the heating fan always blowing at level 4.
Tyre wear - Moderate uneven tyre wear is normal due to the factory camber toe setup, however heavily uneven wear can be due to a suspension geometry problem/sagging springs
Clutches are usually good but make sure they engage near the bottom. These all have a dual mass flywheel which is very expensive to replace along with the clutch (£600)
Best Modifications: (But not essential)
Front strut brace
Bilstein shocks and Eibach progressive lowering springs
Poly bush kit
Butt Strut system (ok with a lowered Z3 but clearance can be an issue with a lowered Z3M)
Braided clutch hose on z3m induction kit (carbon airbox comes recommended)
Reinforcement to the rear cross member (this mounts the rear diff - Randy Forbes USA do a kit)
Price guide (UK Summer 2016)
The prices change a lot depending on the time of year and the quality of the car.
1.8 and 1.9 cars can be as cheap as £700 - nice low mileage example can be close to £2000
2.2, 2.8 and 3.0 cars start at £1500 and rise to £4500 for well kept examples with low miles.
The Z3Ms can range between £6000 and £10,000 depending on the condition. But you may have to wait for the right one to come along, most are overpriced and do not sell.
Look on Gumtree, Autotrader, CoPart, Pistonheads and if you want to pay too much ebay.
Wheels and Wheel options
BMW Z3's came with 16 or 17 inch wheels.
18 and 19 inch will fit with lower profile tyres.
Avoid the run-flat tyres that come on many second hand sets of BMW wheels
BMW Z3s had 5x120 PCD with 72.3 centre bore
Z3 & Z3M have a front ET of 41
Widebody and facelift Z3's have a rear ET 37
Slimmer body early 1.9 Z3's have a rear ET of 41
Z3M has a crazy rear ET of 8
Standard Z3 wheels do not 'fill the arches' well, 10mm to 25mm wheel spacers enhance to look on Kobra models. If it needs these go for Hubcentric spacers (safer)
There is a temptation to buy a crash damaged or write off car. However the resale value of the unused Z3 parts is high so this rarely makes economic sense unless it’s very cheap..
The best donor? (just our opinion)
Buy as late as possible up to 2002 as these have a better roof and no immobilizer/alarm issues. Mileage is irrelevant. Service history same. It’s not a guarantee to be better. Pointless paying thousand more for low mileage or/and service history. Mechanical condition is everything. 2.2 & 2.8 are the best value for money. Any smaller engine will affect resale. Widebody cars cost more but its only the rear wings which we don’t use anyway so no benefit.