1996 BMW Z3 vs. 1996 Mazda Miata M-Edition

More Fun than a Week at Disneyland

by B. Grant Whitmore,
Automotive Editor, Edmund Publications


Base Price: $29,320 (includes destination charge)

Options on Test Vehicle: All-Season Traction, Leather Upholstery, and On-board Computer

Price of Test Vehicle: $31,870 (includes destination charge)

Mazda Miata M-Edition

Base Price: $25,210 (includes destination charge)

Options on Test Vehicle: None

Price as Tested: $25,210 (includes destination charge)

The first time I saw the BMW Z3 I fell in love. Its glorious shape promised more fun than a dream date with Cameron Diaz. The fact that the Z3 is infused with the magic transmission, steering, and suspension dust found in all BMWs did nothing to quell my desire for this little roadster from Munich. (OK, we know that it's from South Carolina, but it's a BMW in the grandest of traditions.) Our managing editor, Chris Wardlaw, was quick to point out that although the new BMW was a pleasure to behold, it had serious competition from the venerable Mazda Miata, the car that reintroduced America to the pleasure of two seats and no top. Knowing that the big guy had a special place in his heart for the Miata, I smiled and nodded my head, secretly assured that there was no comparison between these vehicles.

As luck would have it, we received a BMW Z3 a few weeks ago, just as the weather was turning nasty here in Denver. We only had one week with the Z, and I positioned myself to drive it during what was supposed to be the warmest part of the week. Once again our local meteorologists failed miserably in their extended forecast, and I took possession of the car on a cold day with ominous clouds building in the west. Nonetheless, I dropped the top, a remarkably simple affair; sped out of downtown Denver, and headed for the hills. Murphy's Law held true that day, and as I decided to skip the exit nearest my house for an extended romp in the foothills of the Flatirons, it began to snow. Since I was on a 65 mph highway with no exit in sight, I had little choice than to turn up the heater and pray that the weather wouldn't turn to sleet or hail. After finally exiting the highway, I doubled back through my buttoned-down, minivanned suburb. God only knows what my fellow Westminsterites thought when they saw a young man sitting in this exotic-looking vehicle with the top down during a light snow on our burg's main drag. Oh well, it probably just gave them something to talk about, other than the unusually early snow, at their next canasta marathon.

The following morning, our photographer, Greg Anderson, appeared bright and early to take some photographs of this stunning auto. Unfortunately, we had to spend about 20 minutes de-icing the windshield and dusting snow off the hood before he could begin. When the car was finally prepped, Anderson took the keys from me, and with a funny glint in his eyes said, "I'll be back later." He returned at 10 p.m. Anderson is a great photographer, and very meticulous about his work, but I doubt that even he could spend fifteen hours snapping photos of a car that is only slightly longer than he is tall.

Such is the effect of the Z3 on anyone who has ever viewed cars as something more than a means of transportation. Strict adherents to any religion should not even look at one of these cars, such is the covetousness that it will stir in their hearts. In my glorious three days, twelve hours and 15 minutes with the Z3, I was stopped 14 times by people who had to ask me about the vehicle. The questions can be lumped into three categories. First, "how fast is it?". Not very, came my apologetic reply. Second, "how does it handle?" Remarkably well, was my enthusiastic response. Third, "how much did it cost?" Not too much, was my snobbish rejoinder. (Unable to admit to the unwashed masses that the car was not, in fact, mine.) Not surprisingly, I received few if any questions about the Z3's gas mileage, interior comfort, storage space, or usefulness; questions that I am used to getting from my neighbors, friends, and family whenever I pull up in a new set of wheels. It's as if even the most naive autophiles know that this car has nothing to do with practicality and everything to do with image.

Since this car is a BMW, however, it has the goods to back up its image with a healthy dose of performance, function, and fun. The Z3 is equipped with the 1.9-liter engine that is standard on all 4-cylinder 3-Series cars. This engine produces 138 horsepower at 6000 rpm; not earth-shattering, but good enough to move this lightweight car down the road. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on the Z3, and is recommended for anyone who doesn't suffer from a debilitating right hand injury. Running the Z3 through its close-ratio gears is more fun than a week in Vegas on Daddy's credit card. The interior of the Z3 has the same spartan functionality that we have come to expect from 3-Series cars. What we didn't expect to find was the copious passenger space. This car is certainly not going to be confused with a Cadillac DeVille, but passengers in the Z3 will enjoy more room than is typical of two-seat roadsters. Additionally, the trunk is large enough to hold two large duffles and a couple of tennis rackets; perfect for that weekend getaway in the mountains or at the shore.

Top-down driving is fantastic in the Z3 except for one glaring problem: the stereo is nearly inaudible at speeds above 50 mph. Other than that, the experience is without reproach. Top-up driving is also pretty good, but we didn't like the distortions caused by the plastic rear window. Nor could we discern why this $30,000 car should have an unlined convertible top. We know that most people will drive the Z3 with the top down, but on those few occasions when the top must be raised it would be better if the occupants didn't feel like they were sitting inside of a pup tent with all of those exposed bars overhead.

On a run through the mountains, the BMW handled very well. No surprise, since it rides on the same basic underpinnings as the highly acclaimed 3-Series coupes and sedans. A strut-type front suspension and semi-trailing arm rear suspension soak up bumps nicely while communicating important information about the road surface to the driver. The Z3's 16-inch performance tires and front and rear anti-roll bars guarantee that the car will grip capably through tight corners without much squeal or excessive body roll. The steering in this car is superb, but the little Bimmer did have more understeer than we have experienced in other 3-Series models. The Z3 accelerates well, and when the traction assist is turned off has no trouble squealing its rear tires. Since the Z3 is the most fun to drive in the 3,000-4,000 rpm range, the manual gearbox requires constant attention. While this doesn't bother us, we think that driving a model equipped with an automatic would sap the car of much of its fun since the transmission would be constantly hunting for the proper gear.

Most people won't worry about driving the Z3 fast, though, because the whole point of this car is to be seen. Beautiful green paint, a tan leather interior, nine BMW propeller badges, and an almost musical exhaust note guarantee that people will stop and stare. At a few stop lights in town we even had people get out of their own car to come and talk to us about the Z3. On the freeway during rush hour people would courteously open up a space to let the Z3 in, just to get a better look at this rolling masterpiece. (We think that this amazing courtesy alone is worth the Z3's price of admission.)

All good things must come to an end, though, and after our joyous week we had to send it back. After mourning the loss of the Z3, despite my fervent prayers to the Almighty that BMW would forget which publication they had lent it to and just decide to leave it in my garage, I engaged in a discussion with Edmund's staff about this car. The consensus among the junior staffers was that the BMW Z3 is unmatched by any sports car that has a base price under $30,000. We felt that its wonderful handling, eager engine, sensible interior, and drop-dead styling were far superior to the other roadster or 2+2 offerings from Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, Ford, Chevy, and yes, even Mazda. Then Wardlaw, the Miata lover, asked when any of us had last been in a Miata. We all looked a bit sheepish, and it occurred to me that outside of sitting in a Miata at last year's auto show, and taking a quick spin around the block in a one way back in 1990, that I had never really tested a Miata. Upon confessing this, Wardlaw decided that I needed to indulge in the Miata experience before I could proclaim the BMW Z3 the best sports car under $30,000.

Since Mazda doesn't source many press cars through the Rocky Mountain region, I was wondering how I was supposed to conduct an extensive road test of the Miata anytime this year. Then serendipity smiled on Edmund's, and I was called to Los Angeles for the launch of two of our books. Since Mazda has a large press fleet in the Los Angeles area, Wardlaw got on the phone and arranged for me to spend a week with the Miata while I was away from home. There are worse ways to spend a week in SoCal, I thought, and began getting ready for the trip.

Talking to Wardlaw the day before my departure, I asked him about why he loves the Miata so much. Never one to be at a loss for words, he cryptically told me to wait and see. Before ending our conversation, my managing editor, knowing that I rarely travel without at least half of my wardrobe and a good portion of my library, wisely cautioned me to pack light.

On my flight to Los Angeles, and on the subsequent shuttle ride to the place where Mazda had parked the Miata for me, I didn't think much about the little car that I'd been assigned to drive for the next week. I went to school at Arizona State, for heaven's sake, and at that suntanned ivory tower had seen more than my share of beautiful people cruising around in Miatas. The truth be told, I never really considered them to be anything more than a Barbie-car. Despite the raves it received in enthusiast magazines and from a certain editor at Edmund's, the Miata always looked a bit too small, and way too cute for my liking. For that matter, I always thought that I would look like a fool in one, my head poking above the windshield like some deranged, post-modern Mr. Magoo.

Upon being dropped off at the airport parking lot I was confronted with a beautiful M-Edition Mazda Miata. Oh, I laughed to myself, is Wardlaw going to be ticked when he finds out about this. I'm certain he wanted me to have fun, but I doubt that he intended for me to land smack dab in a top-of-the-line M-Edition. Had he known, he probably would have decided to come on this trip himself. I took the keys from the parking attendant, opened the trunk and discovered why Wardlaw told me to pack light. There was no way that my Samsonite pullman was going to fit back there. In fact, after squaring away my small carry-on bag there was not much space left. Thus, I climbed into the cockpit, with my pullman riding shotgun, and prepared to be lost as I embarked on my quest for Hollywood hotel where I was going to be staying.

Upon firing up the engine, I was rewarded with a throaty hum that didn't sound at all like it was coming from a 1.8-liter engine. Cautiously, I revved the engine and let out the clutch, and was instantly rewarded with an attention-drawing chirp of the rear tires. As I pulled up to the parking lot toll booth the attendant told me that I had a nice car. I nearly fell over. There I was in a Southern California parking lot surrounded by Jaguars, Mercedes, BMWs, Audis, Lexus, and Cadillacs, and this guy was telling me that he liked the sheetmetal on this car that hasn't changed shape in over 6 years. Wow, I guess Wardlaw wasn't the only one enchanted by the Miata.

The first thing that struck me about the Miata was its sumptuous interior. The exceptionally comfortable leather seats offered great lateral and lumbar support. The tasteful Nardi wood shift knob and emergency brake lever looked like they were hand carved by conscientious craftsmen. The gauges were perfectly placed, as were most of the secondary controls. Due to space constraints, however, certain switches, like the cruise control and power window buttons, were poorly positioned. I was thrilled with the Miata's audio system which provided flawless sound quality with the top up or down at any speed. On a less positive note, the Miata's interior can be described as cramped at best. The shortage of space means that people will be searching in vain for a place to stash their purses, backpacks, briefcases etc. It also means that if the driver of the Miata is more than six feet tall their vision will be blocked by the top of the windshield. Nevertheless, the Miata's interior was much more inviting than I remembered, and decidedly more luxurious than the BMW Z3's.

Lest I bore you with the petty details of publishing our new car book, I'll skip to the fun part. Since I was staying in California through the weekend, I decided that it would be a good idea to drive down to Oceanside to visit some friends. I headed down the 405 late Friday evening and pulled into their driveway as their kids were getting ready for bed. After greeting me, the whole family crowded around the Miata and started asking the same questions I had gotten about the Z3. How fast is it? How does it handle? How much does it cost? My friend's son, Corey, was so enraptured with the car that he immediately jumped into the passenger's seat and demanded to be taken for a ride. Since I was exhausted, I made him wait until the next morning.

In fact, almost the entire next day was spent giving rides to Corey, his sisters Chelsea and Casey, and a good portion of their friends. We drove through the hills, we drove to the beach, we drove to the supermarket, we drove to the sporting goods store, and we drove to the surf shop. Chelsea, the oldest daughter, had me drive her back and forth in front of her friends' houses so that she could play movie star a bit. Corey had me teach him how to shift, from the passenger's seat, and he did an admirable job anticipating what gear would be required when entering a decreasing radius, off-camber turn. Casey, the youngest, just sat there happily belted in (the seat was just the right size for her) while the wind whipped her long blonde hair crazily over the trunk. At the day's end each of the kids told me that this was their favorite car, and that as soon as they turned 16 they would get one. We'll see what their parents have to say about that. When I was leaving, Corey made me promise to come back next time in a car at least as cool as the Miata. His suggestion was a Ferrari. Sounds like Mazda will have plenty of takers for their roadster well into the next century.

On the advice of Wardlaw I hunted down some twisty mountain roads in the mountains outside of Del Mar before heading back to Los Angeles. It was an early, cold morning with no traffic and I was able to get the Miata up to speed without having to worry about slow-moving tourists or eager highway patrol officers. From my jaunts the previous few days, I knew that the Miata was well balanced and responsive to throttle inputs. What I didn't know was that the Miata is the most forgiving of any sports car on the market. No matter what I did, the Miata never lost its composure. Hard braking on a cresting apex? No problem, the Miata's anti-lock brakes scrub off speed without pitching the car into off-wheel slide. Four-wheel drift coming out of high-speed left hander? Don't worry, a little goose to the gas pedal sets things straight in a jiffy. Dramatic lane change at 70 mph? It's absolutely nothing to the scrappy Miata.

Heading back to Los Angeles for the start of the next work week, I began to understand why so many people are crazy about the Miata. Of course there are those who buy it because it's cute and lovable, but there is another group of people who buy it because it is a surprisingly serious sports car. Forget the pop up headlamps and impish grin made by the grille; this is a car that can hang in the twisties.

At the end of the week I was sad to see the Miata go. I had logged over 600 glorious miles and had little to complain about other than the small interior compartment, no storage space, a quirky remote keyless entry key fob that wouldn't lock or unlock the passenger door, and a gearshift that felt a bit loose when it was in gear. Not bad for a car that costs thousands less than any of its competitors.

So, who's the winner in this haphazard comparison test? I'm not willing to say. Everyone in the industry, myself included, has been quick to call BMW's Z3 the best thing since sliced bread. Indeed, it has what most people want: beautiful lines, a roomy interior, easy driveability, BMW prestige, and great handling. I loved the time that I spent with the Z3 as much as I have enjoyed any car tested this year, and wasn't let down by its performance one iota. Still, it's hard to recommend the Z3 when the Mazda Miata M-Edition is out there, blazing through canyons like a banshee on a broomstick costing almost $4,000 less than a strippo Z3. I guess that I'll sum it up this way. The BMW Z3 is the car you need to buy if your life is about image and performance. Its looks are better than anything on the road, and it holds its own when put to the test. If, however, you are looking for some fun in the sun, not to mention handling, steering, and braking that will embarrass any muscle car owner in the country; and you aren't too worried about having the most exclusive car in town, we think that the Miata will fit you like a glove. Either way you'll be rewarded with a car that is built to please.

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