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The 2002 BMW Z3 brings the rewards of six years of consistent and conscientious development and improvement. The exciting, odd-looking Z3 was BMW's contribution to the rebirth of the sports car that began with the Mazda Miata and has included the Mercedes-Benz SLK, Toyota MR-2 Spyder and other two seaters. However, the 1996 Z3 didn't reach the company's high standards of refinement, in particular with its suspension, but all of that began being corrected almost immediately.
And now we have the 2002 Z3. Its sawed-off looks haven't changed much (though now they're fully accepted). But the engine has jumped from the original 138-horsepower 1.9-liter four-cylinder to an available 225-horsepower 3.0-liter six-cylinder, reducing 0 to 60 mph acceleration performance from about 8 seconds to less than 6.
As the last model of its generation, the original Z3 won't get any better than this.
BMW's 3.0-liter engine is powerful, yet efficient. It gets good gas mileage and emits low emissions. It feels understated around town, unless you're engaging in continuous spirited squirts of the throttle, which is neither realistic nor particularly mature. Cruising on the highway, 60 mph comes at 2400 rpm in fifth gear, which is an enormously relaxed (other possible adjectives: under stressed, boring) pace for the engine.
This is a sports car that gobbles up the real estate and hungers for more. We didn't fully appreciate the Z3 until we drove it fast, and the faster we drove it the more we appreciated it. If you want to feel the fantastic smoothness of the BMW inline-six, try 6000 rpm in third gear, at which point you'll be pushing 90. That's a mere 500 rpm below beginning redline, but the engine likes it there, which may only prove how conservative that redline is. The rev limiter is smooth and sophisticated; at 6800 rpm the power goes radically away, as the engine simply and firmly lets you know there's nothing more for you. It's the best rev limiter in the business: no misfire, no snatch, no nosedive.
At low rpm, there's not much to write home about, but the torque is excellent so you don't have the work the gearbox a lot. The full 214 foot-pounds comes at 3500 rpm, and that's where you feel the engine begin to surge and the fun begin. The exhaust note also comes into its own, up there at higher rpm.
The throw of the gear lever seemed longer than it needed to be (especially compared to the S2000's racer-like six-speed), though shifting is smooth when you pay attention. When you don't, the upshift to second gear can be notchy. Our days in the Coupe confirmed this, as its second gear was notchier than the Roadster's.
Throttle response is excellent thanks to electronic control, and during downshift blips, it was downright wonderful. Especially for that common third-to-second shift, made even better by the pedal position that allowed smooth heel-and-toe movement during simultaneous braking and downshifting. Pulling away from a stop in first gear wasn't always effortless, however, as the ratio felt a bit tall.
The vented front discs on the 3.0 have been increased in diameter to a whopping 11.8 inches to accommodate the higher speeds delivered by the 225 horsepower. We have little doubt that the stopping power is all you'll ever need (with excellent ABS). We had one great run on a remote road with the Coupe through our favorite curves, and couldn't have asked for more from the brakes. Earlier in the summer we did that same run with an Acura TL Type S, whose brakes couldn't take it.
The Honda S2000 handles like a go-kart; not since the Subaru WRX have we felt anything that hugged the road so surely and turned in so quickly. The Z3 feels bigger (it's not, really), heavier (it is, by only 100 pounds) and slower to respond. But the Z3 turns-in very quickly. Almost too quickly, on sweeping curves that require more precision than aggression.
The Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) is magnificent. The Z3 might slide sooner than the S2000, but you'll hardly feel it before the correction occurs, triggered by sensors and computer chips. Unlike certain cars with more horsepower (the M3, for example), a loss of traction can be corrected without a radical reduction in throttle by the computer, so your driving is only enhanced, not interfered with. Drive the Z3 very aggressively over a bumpy, twisty road, and you'll see the DSC light on the instrument panel flickering like crazy, but you won't be aware of all the magic happening at your wheels-braking, reducing power-to keep the car true in its tracks.
On wet curves, you can deliberately drive beyond the point of adhesion, and DSC will act like a big invisible rubber bumper around the road. Of course DSC was never intended to be used like this, and in fact BMW specifically and reasonably warns against it. The point is, DSC works so well that it can be done. The p
Engine, gearbox, brakes, handling, ride, electronics, safety, reliability, style, image ... if you like the looks, the Z3 3.0i has it all. If the seat fits, wear it.
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