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It takes a while to come to grips with BMW's 1.9 litre Z3 roadster. On first acquaintance, there are things about its layout and design, and the way it performs and handles, that are disappointing.
Longer liaisons don't make the picture completely rosy, but at least they provide time to adjust to some of the car's foibles, and to appreciate that it does have quite a few endearing features.
BMW obviously places a lot of store on the nameplate and the image the Z3 projects, because in size and performance it's close to Mazda's highly regarded MX-5 which sells for around $20,000 less. The manual 1.9 litre Z3 (as tested) costs $65,900 and the automatic version, $67,900. s
Of course the Z3 comes with more standard equipment than an MX-5, and its list includes dual airbags, ABS brakes, leather upholstery, electric seat adjustment, electric windows, airconditioning, alloy road wheels, six-speaker stereo system and advanced anti-theft security. In the NRMA's car security rating exercise, the Z3 was awarded an excellent 89 points out of a possible 100.
The styling of the Z3 seems to generate mixed opinion; some love it, others think it looks too 'retro' for a late 1990s sports car. Personally, I like it because it's distinctive, and dares to be different. One thing for sure is that the Z3 attracts attention and turns heads like few other sports cars.
Finish standards on the Z3 look very good throughout, but I don't like the matt paint finish on the inside of panels such as the bonnet, boot and doors. The body itself feels solidly built, which is understandable in view of the car's hefty 1230 kerb mass.
The test car's all black interior trim, with cheap plasticky inserts on the seats and doors, looked unnecessarily drab - brighter colours would enhance the appeal. Putting the hood up or down is a straightforward task, but the hood tonneau cover is fiddly and awkward to fit.
The Z3 is strictly a two-seater and it does that pretty well, with good leg room and shoulder space, but the cabin ergonomics didn't suit me. I found the closeness of the pedals and their uneven heights uncomfortable, and the fixed steering wheel was too low and too large. The left footrest is not of much use, due to its angled position.
With a 1.9 litre four cylinder engine and a hefty kerb mass, the base Z3 was never going to be the performance model of BMW's new line-up. But while it's a touch quicker against the clock than both the Mazda MX-5 and the standard MGF, the 1.9 litre Z3 is by no means a road rocket. Overall, I would have expected better from a car costing nearly $70,000.
Regardless of actual acceleration times, most drivers would agree that it's important for a sports car to feel lively and responsive.
Unfortunately, the 1.9 Z3 doesn't feel responsive to drive, and much of the blame for that can be attributed to the throttle action which seems unnecessarily stiff. This is not such a problem out on the open road when the car is being hurried along, but it makes progress in stop/start traffic fairly tedious.
In the test car, the throttle was also slow to return to idle and sometimes the engine idled roughly, even after settling down.
What the 1.9 litre Z3 might lack in performance is balanced by its excellent fuel economy. Our overall test figure of 8.2 litres/100 km represents very economical sports car operation and compares favourably with both the MX-5 and MGF. However, the preferred fuel for the Z3 (and the MGF) is the more expensive Premium grade unleaded.
Handling is a bit of a mixed bag. On smooth surfaces with flowing corners, the Z3 is quite good, but on uneven, bumpy surfaces, it tends to jiggle about quite a lot. Also, the tyres tend to 'tramline' (follow road surface irregularities) at low speeds, and the car doesn't turn into corners as sharply as the MX-5 or the MGF.
The brakes are superb. Only a very light effort is required for normal stops, so you need to get used to that in order not to overbrake, but the braking is very powerful and fade-free under heavy use.
In the sports car market, image is everything according to BMW, so the fact that the 1.9 litre Z3 isn't a class-leading performer, or as much fun in the handling department as say, a Mazda MX-5, may not matter too much.
The combination of a BMW badge and the 'look-at-me' styling may be all the 1.9 litre Z3 needs to attract a goodly number of buyers. If that's not enough, there's always the 2.8 litre model, so long as you're prepared to spend another $21,000.
Test vehicle supplied by BMW Australia Ltd.
|Price of vehicle tested||65,900|
Impressive braking performanc
Lacks a lively, responsive performance
|Country of manufacture||Germany|
|Warranty||2 years/Unlimited kilometres|
|Number of cylinders||4|
|Engine size||1.9 L|
|Induction||Electronic fuel injection|
|Wheel size||16 "|
|Turning circle (measured)||9.7 m|
|Width (including mirrors)||1862 mm|
|Fuel capacity||51 litres|
|Max towed mass (trailer plus load)||900 kg|
NRMA Theft Rating
|Points on scale 0 - 120 (high score is best)||89|
Acceleration - Test results
|50 - 80km/h||6.0 secs|
|60 - 100km/h||7.6 secs|
|0 - 80km/h||6.7 secs|
|0 - 100km/h||10.5 secs|
|Best recorded during testing||7.9 L/100km|
|Worst recorded during testing||9.0 L/100km|
|Average on test||8.2 L/100km|
|Distance to stop (from 80km/h)||26.2 metres|
|Interior noise at constant 80km/h||68 dB(A)|