BMW Z3: Not Much to Look at, but a Model RoadsterThe Z3 was not a case of love at first sight. For me, BMWs are all about understated elegance but everything about this car is so out of character for a BMW. After a drought of nearly four decades without a roadster, was this butt-ugly design the best they could come up with, I wondered? A mishmash of '50s retromorphed with who knows what else? And its four-meter-long body looks punier than it actually is, like a midget car, to the point of looking almost unsafe. The sheet metal is a stylist's snub at chiseled edges and all that defines modern sports car design.
But it's the BMW engineering that redeems this car. After a spell at the wheel, I was smitten. The Z3 is everything you could ever want in a two-seater. I could even learn to live with those front fender gills of dubious function and the garish chromed rings that trim the gauges. I just take it all as a rebel yell －like a Harley Davidson and its "who cares?" in-your-face school of design.
As I said, the rewards of driving the Z3 more than compensate for its styling deficiencies. Maybe that's all that matters. The Z3 is everything a roadster should be: a top-down, wind-in-your-hair driving experience. The engine is the same 2.8-liter inline six as found on the 3 and 5 series sedans and this free-revving baby just loves to be spanked. At 5,500 rpm, output reaches its peak of 194 hp emitting a shrieking exhaust note that intoxicates the senses. Top torque is 28.6 kg.m made available at 3,500 rpm in the mid-range where most driving is done.
BMW also offers a 2-liter four banger, a 138 hp wimp that doesn't even deserve a second look unless you're pinching pennies and want to save yourself 9 million won ($7,000). The pick of the litter has to be the M Roadster version of the Z3, a rocket sled that comes with a 240 hp 3.2-liter inline six. Part of the M treatment includes beefed-up brakes, fatter tires and a wider stance. But BMW Korea isn't even bothering to import this one because demand would be so puny. However, you can thank grey importers for bringing in several examples that are now to be found on used car lots around Gangnam and are quite reasonably priced.
You're going to love the automatic gearbox because that's the only choice. As I was being first shown my Z3 test car by BMW Korea's PR staff, my disappointment registered at the sight of the automatic gearbox. My groan was followed by a polite reminder: "This is Korea." It's the only flavor available.
BMW Korea's market research shows most potential buyers want to forego the manual and prefer the convenience of automatic shifting since most of their driving is limited to a five-kilometer radius around Apkujong-dong.
But I'm a purist when it comes to sports cars. Putting an automatic into a sports car is like mixing orange juice with Dom Perignon. Why dilute the pleasure? With an automatic in a sports car, much of the involvement and intensity of the driving experience are lost, not to mention control. With manual shifting, there's a rhythm and dance involving the hands and the feet as you play with the clutch, the shifter and the accelerator pedal. Will there be an auto pilot in future sports cars? An automatic sports cars? Why, it's an oxymoron.
Next to the shifter, there's a small sliding switch on the center console that offers a choice of economy or power mode shift schedules, a technology that's sadly behind the times. What the Z3 automatic gearbox really needs is semi-automatic mode for clutchless shifting a la Porsche Tiptronic.
Leather heated seats (with rheostats for adjusting the temperature of the cushion and backrest) plus an industrial-strength heater fan extend the top-down driving season. However, they won't prevent the long questioning stares you'll draw when driving around with the top down in December.
The car is nicely balanced with a near-perfect front-rear weight distribution. As with all rear-wheel-drive cars, the tail does twitch when pushed hard through corners but everything about the handling is predictable and manageable.
It may be of interest to note that the Z3 is a little less German than you might think. It's built in South Carolina.
Price as tested: 65.1 million won.
Next Week: Cadillac DeVille
by Oles Gadacz