When the BMW Z3 made its debut in the Bond flick, GoldenEye, it became the must-have sports car of 1995/6. It wasn't hard to see why; stylish, brilliantly built and offering decent (if not Tarmac-tearing) performance, it was the roadster with everything. Now that the svelte soft-top is a classic, its appeal is arguably greater than ever, especially as you can buy one for less than the price of a decent MGB.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Excellent rustproofing on the production line (the Z3 was the first BMW to be built in the USA - at Greer in South Carolina) means significant corrosion shouldn't be an issue, and it helps that the front and rear bumpers are plastic.
Even the usual areas, such as the wheelarches, sills and floorpans, shouldn't be affected by corrosion, so if there are any rust bubbles, the car has either been neglected or repaired badly after a crash. Either way, such a car is best avoided.
Despite the Z3's affordability and the BMW roundel on its nose, it has tended not to appeal to hooligan drivers. Most examples are cherished, especially now that the car is a modern classic.
You still need to check for evidence of crash damage, though, such as rippled inner wings up front or a boot floor that's not quite straight.
Other areas that can corrode include the bodywork around the boot lock, the door mirror bases and the mounting points for the differential and rear subframe. As well as rust, the latter can also suffer from cracks if the car has been driven hard.
It's also worth checking the boot for evidence of water ingress. The boot seals can perish, and once water gets in it'll collect in each side of the boot floor.
The folding cloth roof is simplicity itself to use. An electro-hydraulic mechanism is common, but not universal. Problems are rare, both with the covering and its frame, but check the general condition and make sure it goes up and down smoothly. What can be an issue is damaged or perished seals around the side windows or along the header rail; if these leak, the interior will always be damp. Also inspect the plastic rear window, which can go opaque; there was no glass window option, but it's usually possible to revive what's there with a suitable plastic window polish. New roofs are rarely needed; with labour, replacing a hood typically costs upwards of £1500.
From 1998, there was an aluminium hard-top offered as an accessory. Costly when new and consequently rare, it makes the Z3 more usable in the winter, but the standard cloth roof is weatherproof and generally problem-free. Removing and refitting the hard-top is rather a faff.
The Z3 came with eight-valve four-cylinder (1.8 litre), 16-valve four-cylinder (1.9-litre) or 24-valve six-cylinder (2.0-, 2.2-, 2.5-, 2.8-, 3.0- and 3.2-litre) fuel-injected engines. All need to be run only on unleaded petrol and all will easily take 200,000 miles in their stride, if properly maintained.
While the six-cylinder engines provide more aural accompaniment and greater muscle, the four-pot units tend to be more reliable. European Z3s got an all-alloy straight-six, while US editions got a cast-iron block. Some early Euro powerplants featured Nikasil-coated liners that could be damaged by high-sulphur petrol, but any affected engines should already have been fixed under warranty. From September 1998, steel liners were fitted instead, eradicating the problem.
Six-cylinder engines also have a plastic water pump, which can struggle to cope, so look for evidence of the engine getting hot or having overheated. With the four-cylinder engines, problems are likely to be restricted to a faulty Lambda sensor. See if the engine management light illuminates, or check if it'll pass the MoT emissions test - it's a £180 fix. Other potential issues include a rattling timing chain (£500-£650 to fix) or a failed thermostat. The latter fails in the open position, so if the engine takes ages to get up to temperature, assume a new thermostat is needed - a specialist will charge £75-100 to fix it.
The M Roadster and Coupe came with an iron block, some of which suffered from sub-standard big end caps that could fail, taking out the engine with them. Any affected engines should have been fixed by now, though, probably under warranty.
The M Roadster and Coupe also featured VANOS variable valve timing and on early cars this can give problems. If it fails altogether it'll cost around £2500 to fix, so listen for grumbling from the engine when accelerating or on the over-run, along with hesitation or flat-spots.
Aside from M editions, which had no two-pedal option, all Z3s came with a choice of Getrag five-speed manual or THM four-speed automatic gearboxes. There are no weak spots as such, but you still need to make the usual checks. Look for clutch slip by accelerating through the gears and seeing if the revs rise without the car gaining speed (fitting a new clutch costs £250). The dual-mass flywheel can fail - listen for a rattle when you start and stop the engine. A genuine BMW part costs over £800, but the same from LUK is under £300. Labour is around £500 and it's sensible to renew the clutch at the same time.
Also make sure the car doesn't jump out of top gear. If it does, a gearbox rebuild looms, although it'll be much cheaper to simply fit a decent used transmission. Expect to pay around £450 for labour.
STEERING & SUSPENSION
All Z3s have speed-sensitive hydraulic power steering, which makes the Z3 a delight to drive. It's a reliable system, although it's worth ensuring there are no leaks anywhere and that the gaiters and track rod ends are in good condition. Unsurprisingly, everything is available, and unless you need to fit a whole new power steering system (highly unlikely) there's nothing that should scare you financially.
Although road testers complained about the Z3's unsophisticated suspension when the car was new, the reality is that unless you thrash your classic at every opportunity, the standard set-up is unlikely to disappoint.; the M cars got a heavily revised system that's far more adept. While there are MacPherson struts up front, at the rear there are semi-trailing arms, coil springs and telescopic dampers, with anti-rollbars, with anti-roll bars at each end. Dampers can wear out, but more likely are worn rear shock absorber mounts, given away by rattling as the car is driven - expect to pay £85 per side to fix the problem.
Most Z3s are largely as they left the factory, but sometimes owners feel the need to lower or stiffen the suspension. Be wary of such cars as they're likely to be uncomfortable at best - and, at worst, may be suffering from cracks in the floorpan along with increased scuttle-shake.
WHEELS & BRAKES
All Z3s have alloy wheels, which can suffer from corrosion and kerbing. Refurbishment costs £75-£100 per wheel; for which you could buy some aftermarket rims instead, or Z4 wheels will go straight on. Z3s already sporting non-factory wheels with seriously low-profile tyres will have an unyielding ride, so beware. Also be wary of cheap Chinese wheels: they're becoming increasingly common and are poorly made.
TRIM & ELECTRICS
Most Z3s came with leather trim, but some have cloth. Both wear well, but check the condition of the outer edges of the seats, including where the seatbelt rubs.
The electrics aren't as complicated as you might think, but still more complex you might think, but still more complex than most older classics. You can expect reliability, although if the system has been played with (particularly with aftermarket stereo or security systems) there could be problems. Most likely to give trouble is the electric seat adjustment, but not all cars have this. Make sure you get two keys with your Z3. If you lose the sole key, you'll need to have everything reprogrammes, which will cost hundreds.
The Z3 makes a great modern-classic buy, but if you go for an entry-level model you might be left reeling a bit underwhelmed. While the four-cylinder engines are quick enough - and certainly when compared with more established classics - it's the six-pot cars that stand out. That straight-six soundtrack, the extra muscle and sublime smoothness are compelling, and with so many Z3s available and prices all over the place, the chances are that you'll be able to buy a worthwhile six-pot edition for the same money as many four-pots.
If you want something seriously unusual, track down one of the M Coupes offered from 1998. Even better to drive than the M Roadster, rarity keeps values high.
Whatever you buy, shop around, and do the same when it comes to maintenance; car and parts costs can vary wildly. There's an army of independent specialists out there who can slash the cost of running a Z3, and if you find the right outfit, you could easily enjoy the reliability, usability, safety and comfort of a modern roadster for a much smaller outlay than if you take the established classic sports car route.