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BMW Z3 Roadster verdict

1996 - 2002 (change model)
Parkers overall rating: 3.5 out of 53.5

Written by Richard Kilpatrick Published: 6 June 2019 Updated: 6 June 2019

Which BMW Z3 is best to buy used?

Over an eight-year lifespan, from 1996 to 2002, the BMW Z3 evolved from a rather simple and tentative step into the roadster market, to a serious high performance sportscar with refinement worthy of the BMW badge. Enthusiasts took time to be convinced, particularly as the entry-level models featured a rather gutless 1.8 or 1.9-litre four-cylinder engine, and all were based on a mixture of older, less sophisticated suspension components than the most advanced BMW saloons available at the time.

Once established, six-cylinder models joined the range, from 150hp 2.0-litre to the 231hp 3.0-litre, though the highest performance can be found in the rather more expensive, and collectable, Z3M with up to 325hp.

If you’re looking at older, badly listed examples, look for wider arches and twin tailpipes as an indicator of a six-cylinder model before making enquiries. However, we think that as a lazy, just enjoying the sun affordable roadster, there’s still plenty to like in the four-cylinder versions, particularly given their low values.

BMW Z3 – what goes wrong?

BMW Z3 roof up

Unlike other 1990s BMWs, the Z3’s simplicity saves it – and you – from the nightmare of constantly failing electricals and expensive worn bushes. At the back is the old semi-trailing arm layout of the E30 – 1980s to early ’90s – BMW 3 Series, and as the Z3 is relatively light, it doesn’t have to work too hard. Add some options, like power roof or electric seats, and there’s the opportunity for them to go wrong, but purely down to age or neglect rather than inherent weaknesses.

The less you want to spend, the more basic the car you should look at, in essence.

On four-cylinder models, look for oil leaks, indicating neglect, and listen for rattles from the timing chain. These engines are essentially robust and relatively unsophisticated.

On six-cylinder models, look for a good service history as maintenance is proportionately more expensive – you don’t want to be replacing wear and tear items prematurely. Pre-1999 2.8-litre models have single VANOS and are generally problem-free as long as maintenance has been carried out.

Dual-VANOS cars can be more expensive to repair – listen for rattles at idle from the front of the engine – but are otherwise even more robust and have a little more power, too.

On all models, if the car takes a long time to reach operating temperature the thermostat has probably stuck – a common problem, but make sure you fix it (around £200 if you get the rest of the cooling system checked and hoses changed).

Gearbox and clutch issues are equally rare, though the Z3 does feature a dual-mass flywheel. Any untoward yelps or squawks when changing gear quickly at speed, or rumbles when pulling away, are a reason to walk away or haggle hard on a manual car.

What about the body and cosmetic parts of the Z3?

For the most part, the BMW Z3 isn’t as much of a rust trap as a contemporary MX5 or MG TF – and what there is, you’ll be able to see around body fixtures and fittings, arches and sill edges. Some structural areas to consider are the rear suspension mounting points, and check the boot floor for water ingress.

Fabric trim can wear on the seat bolsters, leather is more robust, but can suffer from sun exposure and feel dry if neglected.

Plastic headlight lenses can become opaque and unsightly, and while these can be fixed with abrasive polishes and even toothpaste, we’d recommend replacement if you plan on keeping the car for the long-term. Want to flip it? Break out the Colgate and a J cloth.

What to pay for a BMW Z3?

You can find a used, four-cylinder Z3 in most classifieds for less than £1,000, but it’s going to be neglected and shabby. As long as it’s road legal, safe and you’re buying with open eyes, that’s no bad thing – a great way to enjoy summer drives.

We’d recommend budgeting a little more, though, and around £3,000-£5,000 will secure a clean, well maintained six-cylinder Z3 in good condition. Cared for, it’s unlikely to lose much money or cost much to run for a couple of summers.

Looking for the high performance Z3M? Then you’ll want to budget around £20,000. though you can find them for as little as £15,000 with care. Enthusiasts may have mocked the Z3’s previous-generation axle and cartoonish retro looks, but perhaps, not enough to overlook M3 power in a lightweight, two-seater roadster after all.

BMW Z3 rear view