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1997 BMW Z3

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — If Wallis Simpson, the American

arriviste who became Duchess of Windsor, had been a car freak,

her famous quote might have been, "You can never be too thin,

too rich, or have too much horsepower."

So if the BMW Z3 roadster is a neat car with a 138 horsepower

1.9 litre four-cylinder engine, how bad could it be with a

189-horse six?

Not bad at all, thank you very much.

The Z3 2.8, as the car will be called, is not simply a Z3 with

the six from the 3 and 5-series BMW sedans stuffed in.

For starters, it's not the same motor. Its aluminum block with

steel cylinder liners makes it the third variant of this engine

(our sedans have an all-iron block; European sedans use an

aluminum block without liners). The differences stem from

problems the all-aluminum engine encountered with the high

sulphur content in some North American fuels. The

alloy-with-liners concept will appear in other BMW engines in the near

future.

The rest of the engine is the same as the sedans' — a classic

inline six with an aluminum twin-cam 24-valve cylinder head –

and produces the same 189 ponies and a peak of 203 poundfeet of

torque at 3950 r.p.m. Thanks to the two-stage variable valve

timing system, at least 80 per cent of this is available from

1500 r.p.m. on up.

The aluminum block is 23 kg lighter than the iron equivalent;

the six-cylinder engine ends up only 18 kg heavier than the

ironblock four. Beefier suspension components and transmission,

plus increased standard equipment, make the Z3 2.8 just 65 kg

heavier than the four-cylinder Z3.

BMW claims that compared to a V6, the longer, narrower

inline six helps maintain the Z3's 5050 weight distribution;

the battery is repositioned to the trunk for the same reason.

(It'll be interesting to see the spin BMW puts on its V6

engine family when it debuts in about a year.)

The five-speed manual transmission is lifted from the 328/M3

sedans, so it has plenty of reserve strength. A four-speed

automatic is an option.

Suspension upgrades include reinforced hubs and bearings,

thicker anti-roll bars, firmer springs and shocks, and stiffer

rear semitrailing arms, which also increase rear track by 65

mm. The standard wheel/tire dimension remains 225/50ZR16,

although the Z3 2.8 uses a different round-spoke wheel. An

optional sport wheel package includes 225/45Z 17-inch tires on

7.0 inch rims up front, with 245/40ZR17 by 8.5s at the back.

A limited-slip differential delivers 25 per cent lockup under

acceleration, increasing to 40 per cent on deceleration, to

reduce tail-happiness in trailing-throttle cornering. BMW's

Automatic Stability Control plus Traction (essentially,

allspeed traction control with both engine and brake

interventions) is standard on the 2.8. BMW calls this system

"acclaimed". Not by me, about which, more anon.

Four-wheel disc anti-lock brakes remain standard; the front

rotors are ventilated on the six, while the Z3 1.9 gets by with

solid fronts.

Apart from the wheels, visual differences between the four-pot

and six-pot models are subtle but effective. The 2.8 car's

gnarly appearance is enhanced by bulged rear fenders, to

accommodate the increased track and bigger (optional) tires. A

new lower front fascia offers a larger air intake and standard

fog lamps (oh, well).

Inside, air conditioning is standard on the six, as is leather

upholstery, wood trim on the console, cruise, power driver's

seat and a trip computer.

I had an ideal opportunity to back-to-back the four and

six-cylinder Z3s. I picked up a Z3 1.9 in Los Angeles, and drove

it to the Z3 2.8's launch party in Santa Barbara.

Normally, that's about two hours up the coast. But heck, it

was sunny California in January. I had a couple of days to kill.

I had a bright red convertible sports car. So I took the scenic

route. Via Phoenix, Ariz.

Get a good map of Southern California. Locate San Diego County

Rd. S22, where it passes through the San Andreas fault, near the

Salton Sea. You'll thank me some sweet day.

Interstate 10 to Phoenix is predictably boring you actually

pass through Hell (you could look it up). On the flipflop, I

took Arizona 95 to Parker; California 62 through Twenty-nine

Palms; Routes 247 and 18 into Hesperia; then basically followed

the San Andreas fault into Lockwood Valley, to Ojai, and on into

Santa Barbara by the back door.

And some people fly from Phoenix to Santa Barbara. Imagine.

This was all in the four-cylinder car, and it was just fine.

The engine needs to be rowed along with the gear lever, but

that's part of the fun of driving a sports car. The Z3 is

unfailingly comfortable, both to ride in and to press through

the twisties. The steering isn't perhaps as sharp as, say, a

Mazda Miata, nor is the experience quite as invigorating. But

with 24 hours of driving spread over four days, it was a darn

sight more relaxing.

The next day I split my time between a 2.8 manual and a 2.8

automatic, over some of the same roads.

The 2.8 is at once the same car and a completely different

car. Driven gently, you'll notice only the slightly firmer ride,

the rortier exhaust note and the additional passenger amenities,

most of which are options on the four. The trunk is a little

tighter that battery. The most draft-free topdown setup is

still driver's window down, passenger's window up. With heated

seats on and heater up full, even a cold desert night makes for

a fun ride.

Predictably, it's when you start to lean on the Z3 2.8 that

the differences emerge. This thing is quick. The BMW six is one

of the world's great engines. Bolting it into a responsive

twoseat roadster is its equivalent of being sent to heaven, and

we get to go along for the ride.

You can wind it out to (and, truth be told, well beyond) its

5300 r.p.m. power peak. Or, since it doesn't rev quite as

sweetly as smaller-displacement BMW sixes, you can upshift the

solid-feeling Getrag gearbox and let the torque do the work.

The car is almost equally quick with the automatic. BMW claims

a 6.3 second 0-to-96 km/h time for the manual, versus 6.7 for

the auto. It isn't the most alert-shifting of autoboxes though.

If you're restricted to the auto for whatever reason, you'll

find yourself manually stirring the lever on the twisty bits.

Either way, the Z3 2.8 really hooks up coming out of the

corners, of which there is no shortage in this part of the

world. The power is always on tap, and is easy to deliver to the

pavement. Turnin is trim and neat, body roll virtually absent.

The car is nimble.

The limitedslip differential plays no small role in this, I'm

sure. On only one occasion did I feel the need for more than the

25 per cent lockup this unit provides, as I got into a lurid

power slide on a hairpin on damp tarmac.

Now, about that traction control system. Regular readers know

I have little use for these things. The good news is that with

the limited-slip diff, the ASC+T seldom comes into play. My

question, then, is, Why bother? Keep the darn thing and, as they

say in the movie Jerry Maguire , "Show me the money!"

In fact, I won't be the only fan of the Z3 2.8 who would be

just as happy if BMW kept the cruise, leather, power seat and

trip computer too, and threw in the heated seats and about five

grand in change.

As it is, the Z3 2.8 at $49,900 looks a real bargain compared

to the Z3 1.9, which is only $9,400 cheaper.

Still dealing with the subject of never having too much

horsepower, Wallis Simpson might also have asked of sports car

fans: have you ever considered a Corvette? 345 horsepower, for

under $49,000? Most Z3 intenders probably won't; they'll look at

a Porsche Boxster or Mercedes-Benz SLK. If they choose any of

those they'll likely be equally happy.

As for me, I was perfectly happy in a Z3 2.8 in the hills

north of Santa Barbara. The red will do nicely.

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