Straight six pushes BMW Z3 into the lead

The Z3 roadster has been transformed by BMW’s straight six. Andrew Frankel discovered it has the grunt to match its looks

The die-hard traditionalists continue to hold sway at BMW. There can be no variety of sportscar more steeped in history than the open two-seater, and Munich’s latest intepretation, the BMW Z3 2.8, remains faithful to the breed.

There’s nothing clever or visionary about creating a roadster these days, as everyone’s doing it. From a position at the start of the decade where Mazda’s MX-5 ruled the roost almost unchallenged, the maker who now does not possess a roadster is, indeed, missing a trick.

It is the Z3’s conformity to roadster values that makes it different.

Rivals such as the Alfa Spider or Fiat Barchetta are converted from hatchback platforms and share their frontwheel drive layouts, while the MGF moves the hatchback drivellne assembly behind the driver so it now drives the rear wheels. The Porsche Boxster, too, is mid-engined.

The Z3 is concerned with no such trickery. Its large capacity, multi-cylinder engine is under the bonnet, its drive directed to the rear wheels alone. Not that this, in any way, militates against the Z3.

The packaging disadvantages of a longitudinally mounted six-cylinder are inconsequential in a two-seater and add to the car’s visual appeal, thanks to the evocative long bonnet.

Indeed, it is this engine which provides the Z3’s best argument. BMW knows how to do a straight six better than anyone, and this 2.8litre version, with its twin chain-driven camshafts and 24-valves, offers 193bhp. This may not sound too exciting, but bear in mind first that it’s a largely artificial figure designed as a tax dodge for the German market and, second, it’s backed up by a fat 202Ib ft of torque.

The result is the car that the Z3 has always threatened but, with four-cylinder power, ultimately failed to be. It now has the performance to carry off its sharkish looks, hitting 60mph in under 7sec and going on to a noisy 135mph. Variable valve timing ensures solid response at all points in the powerband, while the exhaust note, muted at idle, rises to a crescendo that stands out in stark comparison to the annoying drone of the Mercedes SLK. But you do wish that the show would go on a little longer before reaching for the next gear; as peak power arrives at a mere 5300rpm, while the fuel feed is cut at 6400rpm.

Despite using the rear suspension from the previous 3-series, the oft-recalled twitchiness it was alleged to induce has been exorcised. Wet or dry, under extreme provocation, it will not misbehave. Sure, it’s not entirely foolproof but, even if you turn off the standard traction control, you’ll not shake the tail loose unless you’re trying hard in the wet.

What remains is a chassis of consummate ability which needs a little more character to really sparkle. Point to point speed is all very well, but if it’s not accompanied by the kind of balance and adjustability that some drivers crave, its appeal will fall far short of being all-encompassing.

In most other respects, the Z3 makes a fine roadster. The hood mechanism is both simple and convenient and while it will not fool you into thinking it’s a coupe with the hood up, like the SLK, it is still refined on long journeys.

The interior is disappointing, not for its ergonomics, which maintain BMW’s traditionally high standards, but because it looks so little different to those of its stable-mates. Such cars need a few design splashes to help create the sense of occasion upon which their existence depends.

Even so, the Z3 2.8 is a fine car. It’s not simply the perfect alternative to those who will not wait until the next century to reach the head of the SLK queue, as it has massive appeal of its own. If what you’re after is a roadster with traditional values applied in a thoroughly modern but respectful manner, it gets close to the bullseye. The predicted list price is £24,500, going on sale in August.