An In-Depth Honest Review – E85 BMW Z4 3.0i

A Short Summary

For those of you that aren’t up to speed with the E85 BMW Z4, it was birthed by BMW at the end of 2002 from the ashes of its older brother the Z3. After mixed reviews of the Z3, the Z4 really needed to be a sales success for BMW and in short it was, with the E85/E86 models selling nearly 200,000 units in their model run of just under 6 years. These models were then replaced by the E89 Z4, which had a metal folding top, was heavier and more of a cruiser than the E85 model line.

The E85 model line did undergo a facelift in 2006, bringing more refined engines, a coupe version (E86) and the Z4M models. There was also a host of exterior and interior changes but the theme and focus of the car remained very similar.

The E85 or E86 (coupe version, facelift only) could be had with a mix of 4 and 6 cylinders, with the model line being topped by the ‘M’ versions with the infamous S54 engine (borrowed from the E46 M3). The model I am focusing on here however was the original top of the line model at initial release (until the facelift and subsequent ‘M’ models), with the 3.0i straight six engine.

Single spinner, no LSD to be found here

Single spinner, no LSD to be found here

Performance and Acceleration

The 3.0i Z4 offers good performance for its age and price range. It will do 0-60mph in a shade under 6 seconds and hit the limiter at 155mph (so it’s basically as fast as an M5, wink wink), though I imagine the wind noise may be a little unbearable at this speed. The 6-cylinder engine never appears to be breathless and can hold high cruising speeds at low RPM with minimal effort.

The cars acceleration is aided by the wide and grippy rear tires and the linear power delivery, allowing full throttle starts with minimal wheel-spin, though an LSD would be the icing on the cake here. The weight of the car (1365kg, heavy for a 2-seater convertible) is only noticeable as the speeds begin to rise, but the torque on offer is enough for overtaking, even at motorway speeds.

Ignore the Dirt…

Ignore the Dirt…

Engine & Gearbox

The pre-facelift BMW Z4 came with a range of engines including a 2.0i 4-cylinder and two 6-cylinders, a 2.5 and the range topping 3.0 as viewed here. The 3.0 engine used BMW’s renowned M54 shared with the 3, 5 and 7 series of the era, this engine produces around 230bhp and 220lb ft of torque. The engine has a linear power-band and good torque for a naturally aspirated engine due to its large capacity. The engine really starts to come on the power above 3,000rpm and will happily rev all the way to the redline.

The engine makes a great tone, especially with one or both of the noise restrictions being removed (a simple modification, removing foam from pipes between the engine bay and the cabin). The noise may be a little loud for some but BMW 6-cylinders are renowned for their great noise, though a little more exhaust noise from standard would be welcome.

The 3.0i engine here uses a 6-speed manual gearbox (it was also available as an automatic) with an open rear differential. The gearbox has a good mix of ratios, short enough for quick acceleration in lower gears but with a tall 6th gear making motorway driving relaxing.

The engine, being naturally aspirated will not respond very well to the usual bolt-on modifications (exhaust, intake, ECU tune etc..), meaning this will not become a huge-bhp monster without introducing forced induction. There are supercharger kits available for these engines but costs will generally run above the purchase price of the car, making it questionable as to whether they are worth the investment.

Ride, Handling & Braking

The Z4 is not exactly what you would call comfortable, the ride is firm and the standard seats are not all that supportive, however the car is perfectly acceptable for short town journeys and plenty comfortable at a motorway cruise. The ride does give good feedback of the road surface allowing you to judge the grip levels well (especially in wet and slippery conditions). Many owners fit aftermarket springs to lower the car without having much detrimental effect on the ride quality.

The handling of the Z4 is great for road use, the front-end bites well on dry and wet roads, though it can come undone on damaged and cambered surfaces. The rear follows the front well, not stepping out until you apply large amounts of throttle at high RPM’s. The throttle response is improved and steering made heavier via the sport button, useful at high speeds but can make low speed manoeuvring difficult. The steering weight in sport mode at high speeds is useful, but provides limited feedback through the wheel, meaning you need to rely on the ‘seat of the pants’ feel.

The brakes are the Z4’s least well performing aspect, as though they will stop the car quickly, they will fade quickly when tasked with some large stops. The brakes can be easily updated with facelift models and 3/5 series parts. Performance pads and drilled discs can help to a point but these are often nearly as expensive as a full brake upgrade.

The ride of the Z4 from the factory was generally frowned upon, this was largely due to the run-flat tyres that BMW insisted on fitting as standard. Most cars will have had these removed by now but if they are still fitted, I would recommend them being changed for Avon/ Michelin alternatives.

Good MPG for a 3.0

Good MPG for a 3.0

Fuel Economy and Running Costs

My Z4 has, thus far, provided better than expected mpg, with a running average of 34.0mpg over the past 3,000 miles. This is probably a 60:40 motorway to town driving split, but over 30 as an average is easy to achieve, though it will eat fuel at a much faster rate when pushing on into the higher rev ranges. I personally choose to put in 99 RON Tesco Momentum fuel, but the car will run fine on any 95 RON petrol.

Parts for the Z4 are much cheaper than you may expect, many parts are shared with other BMW models meaning consumables such as brakes and spark plugs are no more than any ordinary cars. One part that is expensive is the rear tyres, at 255/30/R18 they are wide and not a widely used size, which means you will be looking at roughly £100 per tyre minimum for premium level tyres. Though this is entirely worth it for the improvements over run-flats if they are still fitted.

The car does take a large amount of oil (6.5 litres) and requires good standard synthetic 0W-30 oil, such as Castrol Edge or equivalent but does not burn any in day-to-day driving. Otherwise the car will obviously require 6 spark plugs of good standard, while all filters come in as cheap as any other car.

Red Leather, the Best Interior Colour for a Black Z4

Red Leather, the Best Interior Colour for a Black Z4

Interior and Equipment

The inside of the Z4 is a nice place to be on the whole, the seating position in particular is excellent. You are perched low down in the car, with your backside only a few inches from the tarmac and ample adjust-ability from the steering wheel to ensure you can sit far enough back as to not feel cramped but with a nice bend in the elbows.

The seats themselves are not particularly supportive, with no lumbar adjustment to speak of and minimal bolstering for a performance car. The sport seats and ‘M’ seats are a big improvement and plenty of owners retrofit these instead. The rest of the cabin however is comfortable with switches in easy reach of the steering wheel, which itself is a nice thing to hold with its nice thick rim and small diameter.

The technology on this 2-seater sports car from 2004 is quite impressive considering the minimalist interior, my example (a car without many options) includes cruise control, rain sensitive wipers, automatic headlights, AC and electrically adjustable seats. Other common options added heated seats, rear parking sensors and electric folding wing mirrors.

The infotainment for my particular car is a single CD stereo (with a 6-CD changer as an option) with ample speakers and bass provided considering the type of car. There was also a high spec Hi-Fi system available with more sub-woofers and amplifiers that holds up well even against modern cars (though this was an expensive option). The only downside I have found is the lack of Bluetooth or AUX connectivity, easily solved with an AUX adaptor cable.

Long Bonnet and Wide Rear Gives Powerful Image

Long Bonnet and Wide Rear Gives Powerful Image

Exterior Styling

Styling is obviously a subjective opinion but I personally find the long bonnet and powerful lines of the Z4 make it a handsome and powerful looking car, especially when compared to its bloated looking predecessor, the Z3. Facelift coupes and the M coupes in particular gave nice swooping lines at the rear end, with a snubbed rear end that some did not like.

Many owners have updated the exterior styling with added parts like splitters, hardtops (roadsters only obviously) and aero parts from BMW. I personally find that the cars tend to look best with a simple wheel change to CSL style wheels (as pictured here) or to similar looking BBS wheels, though upping the size above 18″ can start to make the wheels look too large.

Used Price and Rivals

2.0 litre early models with high mileage can be found from as little as £2,000 miles, however, with similar prices and much increased performance I would recommend stretching to the 3.0. The tax and insurance are higher but the running costs are surprisingly similar and the 6-cylinder changes the character of the entire vehicle.

3.0i models can be found from £2500 with 150,000+ miles, however do not let mileage scare you as the BMW straight 6 engines are known for their longevity as long as service intervals are adhered to. Nice, clean, low mileage models tend to start around £4-5,000 (August 2019) but chances are the prices will not drop much further now so your investment should not depreciate by much.

In the price range and category of the Z4 there are a large choice of cars to choose from, MX5’s give you that same 2-seater convertible feel for less outlay but also offer less performance. Also sporting 6-cylinder engines and rear wheel drive are the Mercedes SLK, Nissan 350Z and Chrysler Crossfire, all these are much heavier and more cruisers than the Z4 meaning more comfort but less impressive handling and feel. The Audi TT is another option with a V6 mid mounted engine, and it makes good power and noise but has uninspiring handling and questionable styling.

The main rivals I would personally consider are the Honda S2000 and Porsche Boxster (in 986 guise). Both of these models are more highly rated than the Z4 in terms of the driving experience and all out pace, the Honda having an extraordinary VTEC engine and the Boxster combining mid-engine balance with a powerful 6 cylinder. However, these cars do have their downfalls, the S2000 is more expensive than a Z4 (thank the internet fame for that) and the Boxster, while similarly priced, does cost more to run (with more reliability worries also) and features divisive styling.

Advice for Potential Buyers (Reliability etc)

So potential Z4 owner, you have read its praises, decided against the rivals on offer and are ready to get yourself into one of the bargains in the sports car segment. But there are a couple of things to watch out for:

Firstly, the engine, while generally very reliable, has a couple of issues that should be addressed or monitored to ensure longevity. Regular oil changes are obviously a must, while problems with the DISA valve and VANOS seals can cause issues. Both have solutions to stop and prevent issues from arising. Outside of this the plastic coolant system parts, particularly the header tank, can crack and leak but replacement parts are not expensive or difficult to find.

Additionally, there are common issues with the rear springs snapping (easy and cheap to replace) as well as corroded brake lines and roof motor issues. The roof motors are mounted in the N/S rear wheel area, where the water drains from the roof causing damage and eventual failure, luckily there are a large number of experts who can rebuild and relocate the roof motor to the boot for very reasonable prices. The brake lines can cause more of an expense due to the difficulty of removing and replacing but it does not affect all cars so will not necessarily need addressing.

Despite these issues I still advocate buying an E85 Z4, especially with a 6-cylinder engine. The pre-facelift cars can easily be found in good condition for under £5,000, making them a bargain within this sector with few cars offering the same performance, quality and driving experience without compromising on practicality (for a 2-seater roadster) and day-to-day usability.

Also, to note is the forum and expert support available online for these cars online. The Z4forum is a great place to read up and build your knowledge as well as ask any questions and even buy parts/ vehicles. There are also numerous Facebook pages and internet articles giving good details surrounding the car.

I’d love to hear the thoughts of fellow Z4 owners and potential owners alike, do you love your Zed? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below…

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