With the E30 M3 came the birth of a whole new type of car for BMW—a car more precise, more in tune with driver and road, something for the sake of driving and nothing else. It was the true ultimate driving machine. Over the following years, the mad scientists behind BMW MgmbH released a number of true blockbuster hits: M1, E36 M3 LTW, E34 M5 Touring—a different car for nearly every type of driving enthusiast.
When it came time for a smaller, lightweight sports car, BMW introduced the Z3. Borrowing parts from an already well-refined 3 Series, the Z3 provided drivers with a true top-down, open-air experience. For the M variant, the performance engineers truly went all-out: They increased track width and engine displacement, and tweaked suspension components to create something seriously special to drive.
Simple is good: That’s the ethos of the Z3 M roadster. You get in this car with no other purpose than getting lost on some of your favorite twisties, winding out that beautiful S52 at every available opportunity. A stick, three pedals, and the road: That’s it.
Going into my time with the Z3 M, I expected it to be at least something like Mazda’s MX-5. The MX-5 is a fantastic enthusiast car. Similar to the Z3 M in ethos, the Miata is a far-less-powerful, much lighter cousin once-removed. But both cars were born from the love of driving.
After not five minutes with the car, I can tell you that it’s nothing like a Miata.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and BMW’s and Maza’s vastly different takes on “The Weekend Sports Car” are proof. While Mazda went for a subtle approach, BMW pulled out the M parts bin and grabbed some of its best bits. From the S52 pulled straight out of the E36 M3 to the massive rear arches, the M roadster is anything but subtle.
This lack of subtlety is also quite evident in the driving experience.
The Z3 M is far too much fun to drive. The chassis is significantly lighter than 3ers of the same period. The most fun part about the roadster is its seemingly endless torque curve; in just about any gear, you can stab the throttle and get out of the hole. This sense of surging torque makes up for the period-correct power figure.
The M roadster isn’t fast, but it’s awfully quick. I could see this car being a hoot at an autocross event. On the back roads, the little car holds its own. With its famously short steering rack and quick ratio, pointing the nose in and following through turns is addictive. I can see why every E30 owner wants a Z3 rack!
As a package, the Z3 M roadster is exactly what it is, and nothing else: It is perfect at driving for the sake of driving. You don’t take it to the grocery store or to pick up your new guitar, although I suppose you could do both. You take it out to drive.
This is a car that has aged magnificently, not only in styling, but in its message. So many modern mimics of this car are packed full of tech, adaptive suspension, DCTs, automatic hard-top roofs, lane-assist, navigation. The M roadster has none of this. To enthusiasts like us, this is fantastic news, because in a car like the Z3 M, you really don’t need any of it.
All you need is a heavy right foot and a taste for corners.—Tucker Beatty
[Photos courtesy Tucker Beatty.]