Day in the Life – Road Trip to Laguna Seca in the Worst BMW Z3M Coupe and Why it’s Near Perfect

I am convinced that car guys have the same life as doctors and lawyers.  Not in any responsible sense, but in the advice column.  Go to a dinner party with any of those three people and inevitably, someone beside you will lean over and either present their mole, their legal woe, or their car problem.  I am sure more educated and patient people like the aforementioned MDs and JDs would find this as an insult to the profession, after all, why did they study so hard to give away free advice?  But this author is more closely aligned to a drug addict when it comes to cars, so any excuse to talk machines is fine by me. 

Of course, there are always questions about their misbehaving car, what car should they buy, what to invest in and what’s your favorite car.  But one of the more interesting questions posed to me recently was “What modern car under $30k would make the best road trip car?”  After the steam whistle blew at an alarming decibel, calling all of the hamsters to their wheels in my head, I quickly narrowed down to a small list. 

Ok, let me preface this:  I am jaded.  Having been fortunate enough to have driven so many different cars in life, I have many “car loves”, but few “car lusts”.  There are loads of cars that are great cars and by all means, I would encourage buying those, but under that same umbrella, there are select few that fall into a category that keeps me up at night bursting with desire. 

When the Z3 M Roadster was first unveiled, unlike most BMWs for me, it was instant love, rather than acquired taste.  I loved the fat hips, the low beltline and of course that soulful six, and when the Coupe arrived, boy howdy.  Shooting brake style with a great motor and J-Lo inspired rear?  Sign me up!  Unfortunately, when that car came out, I still found myself in study hall or chemistry, rather than in any position to purchase a car, especially a BMW.

Time passed, and new car designs came and went and in many ways, the Z faded into memory a bit.  I didn’t often see them on the road and the magazines had long since stopped coverage.  So a couple of years ago, when I was presented a with a Z3 M Coupe to borrow, while eager, I found that I also forgot why I fell in love a bit. Like lust, the memories fade and you sometimes scratch your head as to why you were ever infatuated. Nonetheless, I agreed and figured the best time to get familiar would be on a road trip.

Here was the plan:  Head from Santa Monica to Malibu to pick up the car and drive out immediately to Pebble Beach for the Concours weekend.  I had clients to meet and a tight deadline to make it there.  It would be my chariot for the next week while there, combined with a Ferrari Dino 246GT which needed to find itself around to several events.

I drove one of my favorite leaky work trucks up to get the M, a GEMs Land Rover Discovery.  It had something like a hecta-acre of miles on it and leaked oil at a rate that likely has caused some form of climate shift.  But damned if it didn’t start every day and take any abuse that got thrown at it.  I pulled off at the fairly non-descript beach house and parked my Exxon-Valdez in the dirt to avoid staining the otherwise white washed driveway where the M Coupe waited for me.

I didn’t know much about the car, only that it had arrived to my friend as part of a large collection he had purchased, but would not be core to the fleet.  Aside from that, I had been told that the brakes may pulse a little, from the ocean air giving every piece of bare metal a little coat of iron oxide, and I was instructed to “wring every last ounce out of her.” It was about 10 am and the early morning sun did not sugar coat the car.  Black over tan, dirty paint and there was chrome flaking off the wheels in what could probably be measured in kilograms.  That being said, she looked whole and after I stuffed my bags into the rear hatch, I hoped in to start her up.

Dead.  Of course, why not?  Pull the bags back out to reveal the battery access panel. Whew!  Just a disconnected terminal.  Plugged in and she started right up.  Oil pressure – check; most things seem to work as they should and the brake pedal has pressure.  Now where the heck is that traction control button?  Yep, shut that off, we won’t need that were we are going.

Off I went to the lovely Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and aside from a fairly pronounced brake pulsation, all was well.  Though I was left a car with which I was certain had only essence of gas in the tank and the next station wasn’t for several miles, I made it there without needing to do the familiar “go-around wave” while sitting dead in a lane.  Now two miles from the gas station and more than several from the house, a check engine light (CEL) and massive hesitation introduced themselves.  Hmm, my choices were looking poor.  The Discovery was a garbage heap, and the Z3 wasn’t appreciating being used either.  Oddly, I happened to have an OBD2 scanner in my bag and the CEL revealed just a misfire code, common to BMW coil pack.  Started her back up and the light was gone.  Ok, maybe just some growing pains, but the choice remained – press on, or look for other transport.  Screw it, pain is pleasure.

Getting on the way was uneventful, thankfully, and the BMW started to feel happier after waking from its slumber.  I decided to cut over the mountains to the head over to the 5 freeway, rather than the more scenic 101/PCH route.  It also gave me an excuse to give the Z3 M a little juice around LA.  Starting my way up the mountain, I get reminded of all the little things that give that BMW “feel” to the Bavarian’s cars.  The shifter has a fairly short and succinct throw, yet it has a note of plasticity to its bushings.  Almost like when you push on a piece of plastic that gives just a hair.  Not unsatisfying, just uniquely BMW.  The S52 motor’s note is mechanical and wonderful, like a sewing machine with a guttural undertone.  You get hints of intake noise and harmonies of exhaust, but the star is the baritone block and heads.   Throttle response is excellent and the brakes, regardless of their pulsation, are quite good.

As the traffic dissipates and the road clears open, it’s time to explore some corners.  Let’s give her a smooth steering input and see what a little throttle does…and holy hell we are super sideways.  I suspected the tires were old, but maybe that was a little more off-camber than I thought.  Let’s try that again… and yep, massively sideways again, but as controllable and predictable as the first time.  Ok, I am really started to like this.  Let’s stuff it in and have some real fun.  The car responds in the same manner, a massive, controllable, beautiful pendulum with only dainty fingertip corrections needed at the wheel and a right foot on “steering” setting.  Minor inputs make minor changes and the car falls right in line with your foot’s position.  With the long nose and the seating close to the rear axle, the car always feels way more sideways than it probably is, but frankly, all the better.  I can have just as much pleasure being only mildly into a misdemeanor rather than fully into a felony.

Now on the highway though, I’m hunting for reasons to find some off ramps to get my slidey buzz going again.  On the highway, the car is laser straight and firm, yet comfortable.  The short gearing has the rpm much higher than I expected though and my MPG is suffering, but for a good cause – speed.  As the road opens up the car and I bury ourselves deeper into rural farm-land California and the opportunity arises to amp up the pace. 

I like to think most cars seem to have their natural frequency.  A pace they fall into nicely without any real driver effort and where the car is not feeling wound out.  In the Z, that seems to fall around 90-110 mph.  With clearings in the road for as long as the eye can see, a few attempts are made to see the full possible sweep of the needle, but with upcoming environment dictating self and outward preservation, about 150 mph was all that could be managed.

As the miles passed, the more I found myself giving the car a little pat on the dash and in an old dog kind of way, saying, “you’re a good car, aren’t you?”  The fuel tank is, in reality, a small tub, but feels especially tiny when your average speed is closer to that of a small private plane.  But with each stop, the more bugs she was covered in and the more the wiper swish outlines framed in the dirt, the more I contemplated what made the car so special.  After all, wasn’t it a stubby E30/E36/E46 M3 hybrid of sorts?  Or was this car something special in its own right?

However, my poetic thoughts were interrupted in the stretch of road south of Kettleman City.  A massive pack of wild bulls was making some obscene noises up ahead.  To clarify, I am a big Lamborghini fan. Not because they are the best cars, nor because I love all of them, but they are generally so silly and fun, that you can’t help but smile when one is near.   Eager to perhaps get into a nicely paced pack, I cruise up to the back, hoping to tag-in.  What I instead encounter is one of the worst examples of a driving event I have ever witnessed.

It went down like this:  One car would get in the left lane and go screaming up to speed, another car would follow, and another and so on.  Then the first car would randomly slam on the brakes as if the freeway suddenly had disappeared and create a massive chain of extremely hard braking Italians and one little semi-terrible looking Z3M.  Then the process would resume in the right lane, creating the most comical, and frustrating, self-imposed traffic jam.  My average speed had dropped from “Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200” to “Sir, there is a minimum speed limit on this road.”

Finally, after almost 30 minutes of trying to work through the cars, I made it out.  The air felt cleaner, the sky brighter… and M*@$%# F@$^&^$!!!! I am almost out of gas again.  After stopping, I found myself in the same pack, again, this time with less empathy I made it through a bit quicker. At high rpm in 5th, she sits right in a sweet spot of the torque curve and I rarely needed a lower gear to make all but the most aggressive passing moves.

While speaking of shifting, the interior is cozy, not too snug and not F-350 cavernous either. The seats are supportive and reasonably comfortable for long drives.  The sunroof in this particular car not only did not work, but had tape covering it to become the cheapest sun shade in existence.  The A/C did not work either, so the car philosopher voice in my head had to scream over the wind noise. The check engine light came on a few more times but found I could clear it by restarting the car. Plus, after a few more insanely angled exit ramp drifts and some sultry S52 notes on the highway, I really didn’t care.  The headlights were yellowed, the front end peppered in stone chips and she was more soulful then so many other cars I had driven lately.  The question I kept repeating in my head, (and possibly even aloud, since I couldn’t hear anyway) was “Why aren’t all cars this good?”

Room for my luggage; a traction control button that was allowed to go fully off; and a slippy, slidey car that would allow me to load up the tires if I chose to try and glimpse at my own rear plate.  The little car provided a symphony of a motor packed into a uniquely penned shooting brake, with that immediate BMW comfort and familiarity. Yet it was a car that you may only see a few times a year if you are lucky – even in LA.  What I loved more about the car was that it was probably the worst Z3M in existence.  But in only a half of a day, it already felt like a member of the family. Plus, since it wasn’t pristine, you didn’t have mild palpitations when parking in a lot or hitting assorted birds while doing double the posted speed limit.

I arrived at Laguna Seca at the Monterrey Historics Reunion and when pulling up to the ticket booth, despite the Jaguar D-Type coming in directly in front of me, one of the employees yelled over “Dude!  Nice M Coupe!”  After explaining that it had seventeen quadrillion miles and knocked my fillings out when I hit the brakes, I also added it was utterly perfect.  Like a supermodel with wonky eye.

The week went well and the Z3M became a bit of the town bicycle.  Even a fairly car-snooty client of mine drove it and got out beaming.  With prices even for low mileage cars in a very affordable range for many car collectors, the Z3M Coupe represents incredible value.  Rare, pretty, fun, functional, and comfortable, it could be one of the best multi-tasker sports-touring cars in the $30,000 price range.  So much so, that as I write this, the worst Z3M Coupe in existence sits in my driveway, with this new owner who appreciates how eager she is to please, even when her younger friends may get the limelight.  And as I leave the house in an absolutely lurid slide, I can’t help but grin knowing I get to tell a way more interesting story at the next dinner party.

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