Three is The Magic Number
Updated: Jul 17
In 1989 Mazda changed the rules. With the MX5 the firm proved that a small, inexpensive sports car could sell very, very well. And make lots and lots of money.
The MX5 wasn’t a new idea, of course. Britain had been churning out inexpensive sports cars for decades, albeit with a steadfast refusal to develop them and therefore subject to diminishing returns. But it did prove that there was a lot of latent demand for decent convertible sports cars. Which is hardly surprising really when you think that human nature doesn’t really ever change. Quite a lot of us like to get our tops off in hot weather.
It took a while but not surprisingly a lot of other car makers decided to get in on the act. Honda launched the S2000, MG gave us the F, Mercedes created the SLK, Audi the TT and BMW the Z3.
BMW had never seriously mass produced a cheap convertible before. There had been convertibles, like the Z1 and Z8, but these were over-clever low volume efforts for people with a lot of money.
The Z3 was different to them, but only because it followed another path. Taking its cue from Mazda, BMW rode the wave of 90s retro nostalgia by designing its new car with a distinctive swooping style that didn’t seem to look like any other previous BMW and yet felt like a firm nod to the past. Likewise, where Mazda had the set the template for lots of fun and just enough power, BMW tried to do the same. At launch the Z3 came with one engine - a 1.9 139 bhp four cylinder lump.
And that was a problem. Where the MX5 was a highly focussed sports car - small and light, it didn’t need to be fast to be fun - the BMW didn’t quite reflect the same level of focussed precision. To did use quite a lot of proven 3 Series mechanicals - A Good Thing - but it wasn’t light, it was quite a lot bigger than the Mazda and its 139 bhp didn’t zing like everyone expected a sporting BMW should.
The Z3‘s looks, which we now rate as stylish and distinctive, also didn’t win it many media friends when new. Journalists felt the lines were slavishly retro, at a time when Going Retro was every car designer’s touchstone. Perhaps because it was built in America rather than Germany, it was also labelled as a bit soft and spongy compared to the more focussed MX5.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Where the MX5 was small and flimsy, the Z3 was solid and with decent cabin space. Despite being born in America, it did handle tidily and came with Teutonic reliability.
BMW quickly realised its errors. A year after launch the firm finally seemed to recognise where its real market lay - not in low powered MX5-wannabes but upmarket, chunky-engined sports cars. So the car gained a straight six 2.8 engine option and ‘wide body’ styling, a combination that addressed criticism of its performance and looks. The revised car was immediately more purposeful and with performance that took the game to BMW’s true rival, the Porsche Boxster.
From then on BMW continued to improve the Z3, adding more engine options as well as a quirky ‘bread van’ style coupe that laid claim to the Scimitar GTE’s long-abandoned crown.
The Z3, despite its initial stumbles, was a huge success for BMW. It was never going to match the much cheaper MX5 but the firm shifted nearly 300,000 units, many of them in the USA. Proving the value of savvy market positioning, the most popular version was the 2.8, comfortably outselling the smaller engined versions as well as the 3.0.
For a good reason. The Z3‘s clever underpinnings welcome more power and the 2.8 straight six is an absolute peach of an engine, smooth with a sinuous power band. With sufficient power you can enjoy the car’s excellent weight distribution, grippy rear wheel drive and sharp steering. The Z3 isn’t as firm and responsive as a MX5, but over longer distances, or just to relax and enjoy, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
With the benefit of 25 years and shorn of the sense of marketing gimmickery than overshadowed its launch, those looks have mellowed well too. The Z3 is a great looking car, distinctive, with a squat look - exacerbated by the widebody style - that oozes classic sports car. There is an economy to the design that seems to just work.
I‘ve never owned a BMW before and never had a hankering for one. But driving the Z3 has seriously impressed me. From the little crackle on the exhaust over run to the shimmy from the rear wheels as you exit a fast bend, the Z3 has a character you somehow don’t quite expect from a BMW. A Boxster is more capable, a MX5 more engaging, but the Z3 has more personality. And, for anyone who hankers after an E Type, the view down that bonnet has to be savoured.
You can drive the Z3 on any of our driving experience packages. It’s part of our Gold Hire Fleet. Find out more
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733