THRILL SEEKER

M-POWER GRUNT AND OPEN-AIR ACCESS TO ONE OF THE BEST SOUNDTRACKS IN THE BUSINESS. THE BMW Z3 M HAS ITS VICES, BUT IT OFFERS MYRIAD TOPLESS THRILLS

BY JOHN-JOE VOLLANS

THINK OF BMWís model history and youíll no doubt be picturing one of the Munich firmís many excellent sedans. With good reason, too: those four-doors have been among the most engaging and enjoyable driving machines ever produced.

Cast your glance a bit wider, though. In 90 years, BMW has made microcars and supercars and just about everything else between. The M3s and M5s might have forged the firmís sporting image in the modern era, but BMW never forgot its open-top roots. Right from the early days, it made convertibles and sportscars, a fact we were reminded of with the arrival of the prototype in 1985.

The Z3 followed in 1995, and the Z8 in 2000. The Z3 was such a success that it ensured a follow up in the form of the Z4 in 2002. These two models proved how important the sports car market was to BMW, especially in the USA, where they were built. Chuck some M-Power magic and these cars get very interesting. The M arrived as both Coupe and Roadster in 1998.

Originally, the retro-inspired design craze of the 1990s was ushered in by the MX-5. Suddenly, cheeky little sports cars that looked like discarded design sketches from four decades earlier were being greenlit for production. After the hedonism and bombast of the previous decade, the 1990s felt like the hangover. Inspiration for a new cultural identity came from the past, in this instance, the 1950s and 1960s.

Styled by Japanese-born designer Joji Nagashima (who also penned the E39 5 Series), the Z3 was a brilliant blend of fresh and familiar. Sporting a long one-piece bulging bonnet that tapered towards the trademark kidney grille, there was a traditional 1960s roadster vibe to it, further reinforced by the 507-aping Ďgillsí that adorned the back ends of the bonnet.

It was certainly a striking and bold design that won many admirers. What wasnít so well received was the lack of performance. Conceived as a direct rival to the MX-5, the Z3 sold best in the frugal but underwhelming four-cylinder format. Thankfully, that long snout meant there was plenty of room for few more cylinders.

ONE A five-speed manual was the only gearbox offered, resulting in a 0-100km/h time of 5.4 seconds before going on to a limited 250km/h top speed

TWO If the pumped-up exterior isnít enough of a clue that this Z3 has been given the M treatment, the logos within the interior are

THREE With the amount of g-forces generated, youíll be thankful for the copious lateral support on offer from the front seats

After the Z3ís first appearance in the James Bond film Goldeneye the previous year, attendees of the 1996 Geneva motor show were treated to the unveiling of a very special Z3. BMWís M Power division had been tasked with tweaking the Z3 into the M Roadster. Visual aggression was upped with a new boot lid, deeper front and rear splitters, and revised bonnet gills and door mirrors. The M Roadster was also given staggered 17-inch Style 40 alloy wheels - the Z3ís image was transformed. You were unlikely to see this roadster at your local hairdresser.

ITíS GOT HUGE RESERVES OF PERFORMANCE AND ONE OF THE BEST SOUNDTRACKS

The production version of the car arrived in 1998 largely unchanged. Running gear was assembled at M Power HQ in Garching, with the new Spartanburg factory in South Carolina carrying out final assembly. Power initially came courtesy of the E36 M3 Evoís S50 engine, a 3.2-litre making 236kW at 7500rpm. From the end of 2000 onwards the E46 M3ís S54 was used. This more modern 24-valve, 3246cc six-cylinder engine made slightly more power at 239kW, but it delivered that peak power at a much more attainable 4900rpm. This meant you didnít need to wring out every last rev. Less entertaining? Maybe, but factoring in its rarity explains the modelís desirability today.

The suspension designed for the M Coupe found its way into the M Roadster. These stiffer springs, together with revised damping, improved handling over the stock Z3 roadster. With the introduction of the S54 engine came traction control as standard. Z3 production ended in 2002 when the Z4 took over.

Values for good Z3 M Roadsters, if you can find one in Australia, are fluctuating. Examples with high odo readings can be had for cheap, but examples in good condition go for around $30,000. At the top end of the price spectrum, you can get into an S54-engined example. Good Coupes are harder to find.

The prices might be miles apart, but what about the driving experience? Letís get the obvious stuff out of the way first. The M Roadster chassis isnít as stiff as the Coupe - shocker. However, the M Coupe chassis was BMWís stiffest design to date, so itís hardly a fair comparison. As with almost any convertible, when you lose the roof you get some scuttle shake. It actually seems more pronounced in this M model, probably because the ride is harsher than the standard Z3ís.

Thatís the bad news, and to be honest, if ultimate torsional rigidity is your bag, then itís best to look elsewhere. However, if youíre after a weekend car thatís got huge reserves of performance and one of the best soundtracks out there, read on...

The softer chassis actually means very little in the real world. You can sense some flex over the worst road surfaces, but when youíre pressing on along a good road, or better still on an alpine pass, this Roadster is impressive. Grip levels are right in the Goldilocks zone. Push hard and thereís very little understeer, with oversteer only coming into play when you provoke it. Thereís a compliant nature thatís surprising considering the parts-bin nature of this carís underpinnings, but then itís quite a parts bin being pillaged. The M Power engineers extracted the very best from the setup available.

Braking performance is progressive and strong, allowing for heavy leaning on the stoppers. The steering is exceptional. Thereís a wonderfully analogue feel to this old-school hydraulic rack-and-pinion setup. It was great in the M3, a perfect example of Ďif it ainít broke, donít fix it.í Turn in and the M Roadster responds with an immediacy thatís rarely equalled in any soft-top this side of a Lotus Elise. The weighting is perfect, too.

Gearchanges are a bit on the hefty side but the throw is nice and short. Clutch operation is also a bit heavy. Not that you need to worry, as the real joy from this car comes by delaying each change and letting that party-piece engine do its thing.

The S50 engine in this early car feeds on revs, making its peak 236kW at 7500rpm, a zone most will be very happy to and with a suitable section of trafficfree country road ahead, give the right pedal a heavy press and hang on. Pulling out of a well-sighted junction at near full revs in first causes the rear to break traction. Short-shifting to second pacifies it, the rear tyres chirping in protest as the M Roadster stops slithering and straightens up.

Extending second gear to the redline brings up the national speed limit. Thereís just time to catch your breath. When those huge rear tyres find some grip, the M Roadster charges toward the horizon like itís come out of a slingshot, accompanied by the full audible majesty of one of Garchingís greatest six-cylinder engines. Itís so visceral it seems as if you can hear every valve opening and closing with each rotation of the camshafts. You donít get that in the Coupe.

THE M POWER ENGINEERS EXTRACTED THE VERY BEST FROM THE SETUP AVAILABLE

After an all-to- brief time behind the wheel, weíre sold. Those bulging arches and quad exhausts promised that this Z3 would have a mean streak, and itís a pleasure to say that itís every bit the animal weíd hoped for.

I know convertibles have a slightly wimpy image. Iím as guilty as the next person of often overlooking them. Theyíre not the heroic choice for the true driving enthusiast.

However, this Roadster the exception M is to the rule. Its thuggish looks are backed up by a soundtrack thatíll scare the neighbours on a Sunday morning. Put simply, the M Roadster is a muscle car that happens to lack a roof. If you canít square the soft-top image in your head, you can always buy a removable hard-top. Youíll certainly be able to afford one if you choose an M Roadster over a Coupe.

As M Power machines lose cylinders with each new generation, there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when the vast appeal of an old-school, naturally aspirated BMW six-cylinder engine will become much clearer to a wider audience. With the price hikes that will inevitably follow, youíll wish youíd bought a good M Roadster when you had the chance. That time is now.