Review and Features BMW Z3 VS Z4

“With both a Z3 and a Z4 in their possession, the White family are living roadster life to the full. We look at each model’s history and why they’re such a big part of the family..”

Review BMW Z3 VS Z4Most of us will probably go through life without having fully sampled the delights of an open car. Sure, you might have a ride in a friend’s soft top every now and then, but for most of us the roadster or even the slightly more practical convertible won’t be on a list of potential cars when it comes to replacing your current motor. For many of us this will simply be down to practicalities – fitting a family in a convertible or roadster just isn’t possible and worries about leaking hoods and cold and damp interiors over the winter months puts many people off running one – even if they don’t need the space of a larger car.

But not the White family who own not one, not two, but three two-seat roadsters that they use every day. We’ll not dwell on the car not pictured – whisper it, it’s not a BMW – but there’s no doubt that with two BMW Zed cars in the stable the White family are living life to its full, dropping the hoods whenever possible and reveling in the top down lifestyle. Roadsters offer that certain je ne sais quoi that you just don’t get with a saloon or a coupé and most owners delight in the hood down experience.

But before we have a look at our brace of Zed cars we should have a quick whistlestop tour of BMW’s roadster history. For a company that has built its reputation on creating entertaining, sporting machinery it’s a little odd that BMW didn’t really pay all that much attention to the roadster segment until the mid-1990s. In part it’s to do with the company going through a huge restructuring project in the 1960s which was probably the heyday of the two-seater soft top, but when companies like MG, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes and Fiat were churning out roadsters by the lorryload BMW stuck steadfastly to sporting saloons and coupés.

Even once it was back on a firm financial footing in the 1970s and 1980s it didn’t really pursue the roadster avenue, perhaps as a result of stringent American safety regulations making it almost look like the roadster would be banned on safety grounds. And while the first of the Zed cars, the Z1, did see the light of day at the end of the 1980s that was more of a design exercise than a proper production car.

Just 8000 were produced, a number so small that it probably hardly registered on the Munich accountants’ spreadsheet. But all that changed in the 1990s with the arrival of the Z3 but its genesis owed more to Japan than to Munich.

Review BMW Z3 VS Z4 1Yes, it was the soaraway success of Mazda’s MX-5 that prompted BMW to get involved with the roadster project with Mazda’s simple but fun drop-top selling as fast as it could be produced after its debut in 1989. Many of these sales were in the US where the MX-5 was immensely popular and BMW fancied a slice of the pie.

BMW’s sales predictions weren’t as ambitious as Mazda’s – the first generation MX-5 sold over 400,000 examples by the time it bowed out in 1997 – but BMW thought that a modest 100,000 Z3s would still turn a tidy profit, especially if it was based on tried and tested mechanical components and an existing chassis.

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Burkhard Göschel was tasked with leading the Z3 project and using the E36 Compact as the basis for the roadster development costs were kept to a minimum while the car’s styling was unashamedly retro with a long clamshell bonnet, fake side gills that harked back to the 507 of the 1950s and set back cockpit with a short stubby tail. Despite initial press reports reckoning that it wasn’t quite fast enough and that it didn’t quite have the sweet responses of the MX-5, the Z3 was an overnight success.

Initially powered by four-cylinder engines these were joined in 1997 by six-cylinder versions making the Z3 a genuinely quick car, especially in 2.8- and 3.0-liter form, the latter model knocking off the 0-62mph dash in six-seconds. The Z3’s sales figures significantly exceeded BMW’s projections with nearly 280,000 roadsters finding happy owners so it was nailed on that a successor would be produced. And that car was the first generation Z4, the E85. Where the Z3 was a hastily readied machine the Z4 was a more sportingly orientated proposition that BMW hoped would go head-to-head with its nemesis, the Porsche Boxster. Available initially only with six-cylinder engines and with Bangle’s now (in)famous ‘Flame Surfacing’ styling it was as modern as the Z3 was retro.

It was a more driver-focussed machine than the Z3 but the more expensive, larger engined versions still couldn’t quite compete with the Boxster and despite generally being accepted as a better car than the Z3 its sales didn’t quite garner such enthusiasm from the buying public and just over 180,000 roadsters were manufactured.


“With both a Z3 and a Z4 in their possession, the White family are living the roadster life to the full. We look at each model’s history and why they’re such a big part of the family…”

Review BMW Z3 VS Z4 2During the E85’s life the market for soft tops was contracting but BMW forged ahead with a successor and decided to take a different approach this time. The result of discussions with customer focus groups suggested that many potential owners for the Z4 had felt it was just a little bit too sporting, with a firm and uncompromising ride and an interior that was sorely lacking in stowage space. The first Z4’s replacement, the E89, was to be a more refined, slightly softer proposition than its predecessor and it’s interesting to note that in BMW’s press material at the time it cited Mercedes’ SLK and Audi’s TT as the car’s main rivals… the Boxster wasn’t mentioned.

As a result of the Z4’s new remit it was a far more refined prospect than either of its predecessors and, thanks to its folding hard top, it doubled up as a coupé and a roadster depending on whether the roof was raised or lowered. Initially launched in 2009 with straightsix engines, it had excellent performance along with significantly enhanced refinement and while it might not have offered Boxster levels of driver involvement that wasn’t really its remit. As an all-round prospect it really did excel.

As the world decided that something had to be done about emissions and smaller engines were the way forward, BMW replaced most of the six-cylinder Z4s with four-cylinder versions utilising its N20 turbocharged units and despite the loss or displacement they were still quick cars, even the sDrive20i model like Rick White’s we have here was capable of a sub-seven second 0-62mph time.

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All good things come to an end though and the E89 Z4 was replaced in 2018 by the all-new G29 model… which appears to have headed back towards the first generation model’s remit with a soft top and increased emphasis on its sporting credentials. It’s almost as if BMW can’t make up its mind as to what exactly it wants the Z4 to be…

For the White family though, the emphasis is firmly on fun with three roadsters in the household: “One of the biggest attractions of a roadster or a convertible is that you can really enjoy the drive without having to hare around the place, taking in the sights and the smells that you get when the roof’s down. They’re such fun cars to drive,” advises Rick White, the owner of the Z4 sDrive20i. He bought the car five-years ago and it was love at first sight.

“It was one of those things where I didn’t know all that much about Z4s, wasn’t really looking for a Z4, but I passed a garage and it was sitting on the forecourt, front of house in pride of place and I said ‘Oh, what’s that?’ as it really caught my eye. I went in, took it for a test drive and bought it! And I love the car, I love the fact that it’s two distinct cars. With the roof up it’s pretty much like a coupé and in the summer with the roof down it’s a brilliant convertible,” says Rick with a smile.
Review BMW Z3 VS Z4 3
Indeed, it was the roof that was one of the main attractions of the car for Rick; “I’ve never had a hardtop/soft top before so when I got in it and pressed the button to watch the BMW ingenuity and engineering in action with the boot opening up and it all folding away I was just amazed – I still am – it’s just incredible,” he says.

While he’s often asked when he’ll be replacing it and what he’ll buy next Rick doesn’t see himself moving on from Z4 ownership anytime soon. “I do love the car still, today I was just thinking whether it was time for a change when I jumped into it and I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that I’ll just keep it – it’s such a good car. While it’s not a rocket ship, it doesn’t hang about either – it’s more than fast enough for me. There’s cameras everywhere these days and the traffic’s just so much heavier than it used to be that I just don’t think you need a fast car in the UK any more.

Many years ago I had a 3.0-liter Toyota Supra and that was fantastic, it just kept accelerating when you put your foot down but today the 2.0-liter Z4 fits the bill perfectly.”

There’s certainly a lot of love for the Z4 in the White household but despite being a much older and cheaper car the Z3 gets a lot of love too. “The Z3 is my son Ben’s car and we bought it as a project car – he saw it advertised and we went to have a look at it and to be honest it needed some TLC so we bought it and his face absolutely lit up when we went to look at it. So we bought it and together we spent some money and some time addressing its issues and it’s now at a more than an acceptable standard for its age,” Rick tells us.

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When the car was purchased it had a problem with coolant loss and Ben and Rick spent some time trying to rectify the issue but in the end they had a local garage skim the head and it’s been as right as rain since. Other little jobs involved replacing bits of perished trim and the like and the Z3 is now used on a daily basis.

Ben’s headed off to university and while he has used the Z3 for the journey it’s not the most practical machine to lug all his kit between home and university so he’s temporarily requisitioned the White family car which has left his mum, Donna, as the Z3’s custodian. “My wife’s been driving the Z3 pretty much daily now, driving to work and back,” Rick says, “And she absolutely loves it, she doesn’t want to get rid of it and ends up using it all the time, so it’s a good little family car.”

As if any proof were needed that you don’t need a larger-engined Z3 to enjoy yourself the fact that the White’s example is equipped with the relatively humble 1.9-liter eight-valve fourpot proves the point. Despite its seemingly slow 10.2-second 0-62mph time the M43 engine’s plenty torquey enough and with not much over a tonne to lug around it’s more than sprightly enough on the move. As Rick says, “The engine and the ride quality in the car is really good, especially when you consider it’s an old car.” So it doesn’t seem like either of the White’s Zed cars will be going anywhere anytime soon, the family love them both and appreciate them for their style and sense of occasion as much as they do for their performance.

In terms of bang for your buck you’d probably have to say that the Z3 offers the best of both worlds – plenty of style yet modern enough to keep up with traffic and available at a very affordable price. Values are on the rise though, especially for the six-cylinder cars so if you fancy joining the Z3 crew don’t delay and don’t discount the four-cylinder cars either – they still represent excellent value for money. The Z4, while being a more expensive car, certainly offers a little bit more in terms of versatility, especially as a daily driver with its hardtop giving better protection from the elements. But what meeting up with the White family really taught us is that when it comes to roadsters it’s perhaps less about the outright performance and more about enjoying the drive, blowing away the cobwebs and revelling in hood down motoring. And you can’t really argue with that

E36/7 Z3 1.9i E89 Z4 sDrive20i M Sport
ENGINE: M43 four-cylinder, 8v N20 four-cylinder, 16v
CAPACITY: 1895 cc 1997 cc
MAX POWER: 118hp @ 5500 rpm 184hp @ 5000 rpm
MAX TORQUE: 133lb ft @ 3900 rpm 199lb ft @ 1250-4500 rpm
0-62MPH    : 10.4-seconds 6.9-seconds
TOP SPEED: 122 mph 142 mph
ECONOMY    : 35.8 mpg 41.5 mpg
WEIGHT    : 1175 kg 1470kg
PRICE (NEW): £18,990 (2000) £32,645 (2012)

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