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Way back in the late 1990s, before the Z4, BMW made its first roadster as the Z3. It was a convertible two-seater that lasted from 1996-2002, but in its short reign, delivered unique style and inspired performance. The first few years were a little rough, as the Z3 chased speed but coming up short and only contending against the Miata. However, it would soon gain traction and, before its pardon, provided proper sports car speed worthy of the Bavarian flag emblem. BMW depreciation has gripped it whole, and now the Z3 sells for a low price, but there are many variants to choose from. Here’s how to tell which one to get.

The ultra-reliable BMW Z3 inline-four

BMW Z3 on display in Hong Kong
BMW Z3 on display in Hong Kong | Visual China Group via Getty Images

For a time, the BMW Z3 had a 1.9-liter inline-four. It made 140 horsepower, which meant it could comfortably compete against the Miata. Owners swear by the 1.9 reliability and fuel efficiency. It gets almost 30 mpg, has fewer spark plugs, and takes less oil, all contributing to its cost-effective nature. However, it’s essentially a Miata engine, according to MotorTrend, and BMWs should be in a different league, especially for the cost of repairs and maintenance. If you have a special attachment to BMWs and want manageable speed and reliability, this might be the engine for you. Otherwise, moving swiftly on.

Lots of six-cylinder options for the BMW Z3

1996 BMW Z3 driving on the road
1996 BMW Z3 driving on the road | National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The BMW Z3 continued to chug forward with the four-cylinder until the next model year, when it received a 2.8-liter inline-six. This sent 190 horsepower to the rear wheels, which vaulted the car into the next tier of competition. BMW replaced the four-cylinder with a 2.5-liter inline-six that made 170 horsepower in 1999. The 2001 model year was the beginning of the end for the Z3, but it went out with a bang. The 2.5-liter got 15 extra horsepower, while the 2.8-liter got a displacement increase to 3.0-liters and 225 horsepower. 

All Z3s adopted the 3-series suspension and was by all accounts a point-and-click car. The steering was responsive, the handling superb, and the inline-six brought with it a wider track at the rear. All that mattered at that point was the engine. From 1997 Z3 customers could choose a separate coupe body style, with more powerful inline-six engines and a stiffer chassis. 

Which one is the best?

1998 BMW Z3M coupe driving on country road
1998 BMW Z3M coupe driving on country road | National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The Z3 has excellent handling across its tenure, so the only real question lies in which engine to get. The inline-four might be the most reliable and cheapest to maintain, but by rights, it’s a Miata engine, and more power is often the right choice. The 225-horsepower 3.0-liter is ideal but costs more than other models at around $10,000. With that in mind, we say the 190-horsepower 2.8-liter is the way to go. It can be found on Autotempest for about $6,000 and should provide all the power you need. 


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