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Here's the latest chapter in the ongoing BMW Z3 story: It's called the M Roadster. And it's real speed reading.
First there was the Z3. It's gorgeous, but with just 138 horsepower from its 1.9-liter inline 4-cylinder engine, it's a bit too tepid for serious sports car enthusiasts.
BMW followed up last year with the Z3 2.8. Its 189-horsepower inline 6-cylinder engine pretty much silenced the power pundits, but it was overshadowed by the new Porsche Boxster.
Now comes the M Roadster, with raw performance that makes the Boxster look just a bit tame. In the BMW alphabet, M stands for Motorsports. The engines and suspensions are developed in a separate skunkworks that's also home for BMW's racing activities. The Z3 is assembled exclusively at BMW's new facility at Spartanburg, South Carolina, and the M Roadster is the first M model BMW has ever assembled outside of Germany.
The M power in this case is BMW's familiar 3.2-liter dual overhead cam 24-valve inline-6 tuned to the high levels of the M3 coupe and convertible. The result is 240 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. With a curb weight of 3,084 pounds, this adds up to impressive acceleration: 0-to-60 mph in less than 5.5 seconds, 0-to-100 in less the 14 seconds. The C5 Corvette is quicker, but not by a whole bunch.
The basic Z3 starts at $29,995, the 2.8 at $36,470, the M Roadster from $42,770.
For all its handling precision and quick response, the dynamic trait that impressed us most about the original Z3 was its ride quality. Like all of BMW's recent offerings, it managed to blend sports car reflexes with a supple ride that took the harshness out of small potholes and pavement patches while leaving the driver connected to the road.
During a couple days of white-knuckle barnstorming on mountainous country roads around Spartanburg, we were surprised to find that the M Roadster has this same quality. Driving through the Blue Ridge mountains gave us little time to think about ride quality, however.
For the most part, our driving sessions became a blur of braking, downshifting, and switchbacks, and we emerged even more impressed with how well the M Roadster accommodated our every whim. Perhaps its most endearing trait, sheer go-power notwithstanding, is its margin for error. This car inspires confidence and forgives mistakes--a great combination for a sports car.
Part of this is the massive grip of its huge tires, but part of it lies in rear suspension tuning that's actually a bit softer than the 2.8. As a result, the M version doesn't feel quite as nervous in quick maneuvers at a brisk pace. Enter a decreasing radius turn a little too quick and the M Roadster seems to give the driver just a little more time to do something about it.
And if that something happens to be stopping, this is the right setup. The stopping power that goes with the wheel and tire package on our M Roadster was nothing short of raceworthy, even when we found ourselves approaching corners at an eye-widening pace. The brakes seem virtually immune to fade--loss of performance in repeated hard applications--no matter how hard or how often they're applied.
If you're not in a big hurry, we still think the basic Z3 1.9 provides a joyous sports car experience, enhanced by excellent quality and seductive good looks. The new 2.8 version definitely nudges that experience into the realm of fast-forward. And the M Roadster takes it to the edge of the Corvette performance class. With the addition of the third flavor, this is an exceptional sports car menu.
Having said that, we must add that the Z3, Mercedes SLK and Porsche Boxster all provide different interpretations on the small two-seater theme, and each has its own set of virtues. We still think that if you're shopping in this realm you should drive them all. Maybe twice. Maybe three times.