BMW’s Z models may not generate the massive sales volumes of the 3 Series or X5, but they’ve been a key part of the Bavarian marque’s line-up since the Z1 debuted 29 years ago. wheels had the rare opportunity to pedal some historic Zs at the recent international launch of the all-new Z4 in Portugal so, without further ado, here’s our impressions…
This was the car that kicked off BMW’s series of Z convertibles, and in many ways it remains the most interesting to date. The Z1’s novelties included plastic body panels and vertically sliding doors that dropped into the sidesills — you could legally drive (although not in all countries) with the doors in their lowered position. In fact, all body panels were removable, so you could even drive the car with them off. The roadster’s platform and 2.5-litre straight-six were derived from the E30 325i, but the Z1 was one of the first BeeEms to feature multilink rear suspension (later adopted for the E36 3 Series).
First impressions on getting a few kilometres down the road are of how connected you feel to this car — modern-day BeeEms are faster and more efficient, but this tactile link is missing. The Z1 has terrifically feelsome steering, and that straight-six sounds superb. Outputs of 168bhp and 222Nm mightn’t sound huge, but they’re enough to propel the 1,250kg drop-top with decent vigour. Its light weight, low centre of gravity and well-sorted suspension make the Z1 a very chuckable and entertaining device and, of all the Zs I pedal today, this is the one that leaves the most indelible impression.
The Z3 was the first mass-produced Z model (BMW built only 8,000-odd Z1s), but in many ways it was a backward step from its
predecessor. While it was based on the chassis of the E36 3 Series, it ditched the multilink rear suspension of the latter in favour of a more rudimentary semi-trailing-arm setup. Also not weighing in its favour was the fact that the Z3 was initially offered only with weedy four-cylinder engines that couldn’t pull the skin off the proverbial custard. Things got better with the 2.8-litre straight-six that joined the line-up in 1997, and from that point on the range was fattened up to eventually include even the beefed-up Z3M, which scored a potent 316bhp 3.2-litre powerplant.
Our drive today is thankfully not in the 1.9-litre four-pot version (we’re mounted up in a 2.8), and the Z3 comes across as a reasonably engaging drop-top, although lacking the outright dynamism and charisma of the Z1 I’d driven earlier. It may not go down as a great, but the Z3 notched up over 300,000 sales over its seven-year life cycle, so it was a solid cash cow for the company.
With voluptuous proportions penned by Henrik Fisker (who later designed the Aston Martin DB9 and 2005 Vantage), this is arguably the most beautiful BMW to date. The Z8 was originally conceived as a styling exercise that evoked the sublime 507 roadster from the Fifties, but it went on to become a low-volume production model that cost around Dh500k back in 2000. For this spend, buyers got an immaculately built drop-top with an aluminium body and chassis. They also got the wonderful 4.9-litre V8 from the E39 M5, which served up a 395bhp/500Nm punch, accelerating the Z8 from 0-100kph in under 5sec. Due to the ultra-premium, low-volume nature of the Z8, all elements were either constructed or finished by hand, so it was a bespoke offering in the truest sense.
I have to take a moment to stand in reverential silence before setting off in the Z8. It’s so drop-dead gorgeous that it wouldn’t be appropriate to simply leap in and tear off down the road. Thankfully, the spell isn’t broken within the first few kilometres. That brawny naturally aspirated V8 growls out a wonderful note, and the sixspeed manual ’box is super-slick and precise. The Z8 doesn’t feel rocket-ship fast by today’s standards, but there’s enough pace and agility there to make it a satisfying driver’s car. Mind you, not many will be able to experience this first-hand because the few Z8s that are out there are worth a king’s ransom — they change hands these days for Dh750k or more. A true BMW great.