By on September 7, 2010

Stumping TTAC’s Best And Brightest is never an easy task, even with a relatively obscure picture clue. But if ever there was a car to do it, it’s the BMW M Coupe. Hell, three weeks ago, I had forgotten it existed… and now I own one.

The M Coupe’s ability to evade memory is simultaneously totally understandable and wholly mystifying. On the surface, it’s a completely distinctive model: the only true shooting brake-style sportscar to be built in my lifetime. It also generated a fair amount of controversy when it debuted. I can vividly recall seeing pictures of the weird be-hatched Z3 in my father’s Auto Motor und Sport, and thinking why on earth did BMW let a Z3 mate with a Civic hatchback? Then I saw one on the road, and was struck by how bizarrely good-looking it was. Before I ever got behind the wheel of one, I had already enjoyed a complex emotional relationship with the model, hating it, loving it, and ultimately respecting the balls it took to put it into production.

So how did I forget about it? Perhaps because the M3 has loomed so large in the minds of all automotive enthusiasts for so long. Possibly because it was only produced for four short years. More likely though is the fact that it got lost in my dislike for its sister model, the Z3 convertible. Having seen the Z3 appear in the Bond film Goldeneye, I instantly loved it. But in an inversion of my relationship to the Z3 Coupe, I quickly came to loath the Roadster. The appeal of its styling wore off extremely rapidly, and left behind only a stinging distaste for the car’s image. Middle-age Bond wannabes, Cougars (though the term had not yet been coined) and hairdressers dominated my perception of Z3 drivers.

Then, several weeks ago, I was on an evening walk with my significant other, when I caught sight of a long, low, shoe-like shape peeking out from under a carport. Even with a textile cover, the shape was unmistakable. Having wallowed in the shame of being an auto writer with no car of my own, my partner and I had been discussing several possible options for an editorial chariot, to which I tentatively added the Z3 Coupe. Being a young lady of extremely refined taste, I fully expected her to dismiss the Coupe on the grounds of its looks. When she expressed her enthusiasm for the model, I knew it was the one for me. Just weeks later, I tracked down a ’99 M Coupe with 89k miles, and didn’t think twice about plunking down my entire savings on it.

For the 1999 and 2000 model year, M Coupes came with BMW’s S52 3.2 liter inline six with “only” 240 HP and 236 ft-lbs of torque, and as a result cars from these two years are relatively affordable. Emphasis on relatively. The 2001-2002 models, which boast BMW’s 315 HP S54 engine can easily cost upwards of $40k. This is explained by the other reason M Coupes tend not to stick in the automotive memory banks: BMW only built a tiny number of the cars. Just over 2,000 US-market S52 models were built, while a mere 690 North American M Coupes were made with the more powerful S54. The former BMW-dealer broker who sold me my M Coupe off his tiny showroom in South East Portland said that when the model first debuted, he wished they had made fewer.

Luckily they didn’t, because the S52 M Coupe is a rare, distinctive, and some might say even exotic car, that can be had for the price of a new  mass-market midsize sedan. And though buying an 11 year-old BMW with nearly 90k miles and no warranty is a bit like playing Russian Roulette, the S52 engine has a far better reliability record than its more powerful, but more-stressed S54 cousin. Besides, you aren’t really an enthusiast until you’ve spent you car’s purchase price on maintenance, right?

In any case, the M Coupe in question feels extremely well taken-care-of. Slide and fold yourself into the low-slung driver’s seat, and the rich smell of real leather fills the nostrils. Though the frameless doors judder slightly when closed, the only real indication of heavy use anywhere is the well-loved steering wheel, worn down with the exertion of eleven years of spirited driving. Interior styling is refreshingly old-school, with a delicate dash, and a big chrome-ringed clock, Volt-meter and oil temperature gauge. The firm seats grab your sides with Germanic strength, and reinforce the message sent by the tiny audio head unit and general lack of toys, buttons, knobs and switches: this car was made to be driven.

Well then: with a twist of the old-fashioned key, the 3.2 liter engine fires to life with a sonorous whoofle. The short-throw shifter demands a firm hand, as it slots heavily into gear with only a hint of vagueness and some satisfying crunch. At low speeds, the heavy shifter is matched by equally heavy steering, giving the car an old-school, analogue feel. As you gaze down the softly-bulging hood, you realize that old-school-ness is truly the defining characteristic of this car. It demands strong arms, strong hands, and the willingness to grab it by the nape of the neck and forcefully extract its true potential.

Luckily, the creamy series-six engine subscribes to a kinder, gentler class of the old school. And why not? This is, after all, a BMW. Smooth and eminently tractable at low speeds, the S52 has allowed this car’s clutch to age with grace, and it allows the driver to focus on wrestling with the wheel at parking lot speeds. On the go, it’s a bit boomy at low speeds, but it revs with remarkable strength, its noise sharpening into a fierce, raspy howl. Unlike so many modern engines, which appear to have been tuned for a maximum number at one discrete point on the rev counter, the S52 is shockingly elastic, making good power across the range, and never feeling like it’s only building up to the real fun.

And with only five gears on offer, it’s a good thing the smooth-spinning engine has such long legs. In cut-and-parry driving, the close ratios and satisfying shifts make the manual box a fine partner. At “Autobahn speeds,” however,  there’s far less to work with. The M Coupe will doddle along at 50 MPH in fifth gear, and triple-digit speeds are just a flex of the right foot away, but as the engine screams towards the rev limiter, it’s clear that Mr M won’t be setting any top-speed records. Don’t get it wrong: I like driving over 130 MPH as much as the next lunatic, but in the real world that’s about all you ever get a chance at anyway.

Besides, there’s plenty of fun to be had in that speed envelope. Lean into the M Coupe’s heavy tiller, and it corners sharp and flat, with loads of feedback from the front end. The grip is better than you might think (although it’s as ggod as the ride suggests), but the real fun starts when you overcome it with healthy applications of throttle. I haven’t owned the M Coupe long enough to come close to fully exploring its throttle-steering potential, but it should come as no surprise that the rear of this car is exceptionally steerable. And thanks to its “mere” 240 HP, pushing the limit of rear-end grip takes real subtlety rather than simple pedal mashing. And speaking of pedal mashing, it’s far easier to explore the M’s handling knowing that insistently strong (if somewhat numb) brakes are but a quick mash away.

In short, the 240 HP M Coupe is a minor automotive miracle: the extremely rare, stunningly unique, immensely capable, and (yes) supremely practical sports coupe. That controversial rear hatch may not be long enough to fit your shotguns (the traditional payload of the shooting brake), but it beats the alternatives hollow. Overnight bags for two? Check. A crate of apples from the fruit stand on the side of your favorite driving road? Grab a couple. But the most significant attribute of the hatch is that it exists at all. It made a preening, twee roadster into a purposeful yet practical coupe. Most of all, it grants the M Coupe the power to be forgotten and rediscovered. And what more can an enthusiast ask for?

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70 Comments on “Capsule Review: 1999 BMW Z3 M Coupe...”

  • avatar

    Thought about buying this or the M Roadster a few years ago. Insurance is surprisingly affordable.

    When I reviewed it I said that it possessed the soul missing from more up-to-date BMWs.

    Oversteer is very easily induced with the throttle…you’ll see.

    Did not recall this car having a ditch molding, hence the stump.

  • avatar

    A used car review, this is why I love TTAC. Congrats.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I recall Car and Driver reffering to the shape as resembling a “bread truck.”  Good job on stumping us with this “Bavarian Bread Truck.”

  • avatar

    Congratulations on a truly unique and awesome car!

  • avatar


  • avatar
    Facebook User

    i nearly bought this car three separate times, always finding an meaningless reason to avoid making the purchase. Thanks for starting round 4…

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    Great choice. The B&B didn’t see the bread van coming, did they? 8^)

  • avatar

    Excellent choice. I want one now.

  • avatar

    Congratulations.  I remember when the car was new, the articles in The Roundel said this was the car to get if you wanted to race a BMW.  And claimed that was the reason for the shape (room for a better rear suspension, etc.).  I believe I had the same motor in my E36 M3.  Sweet!
    One of the relics from the last of the worthwhile BMW’s, the ones that still tried to be “The Ultimate Driving Machine”.  Today they’ve settled for “Lexus With Handling”.

    • 0 avatar

      there is no “room for better suspension”, it’s the same as on a 1982 3-series with some reinforcements and minor changes in hub/wheel offset.
      it’s a very stiff and compact (tho not particularly light) package, but not one which has been raced with particular success much of anywhere.  there were some non-M Z3 coupes run in Grand Am Cup back in the day.  there have also been a few BMW CCA club racers, but the far cheaper and more favorably classed E36 M3 has and continues to dominate most club race fields.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s the same rear suspension as the E30 and the 318ti (which I nearly bought, and can be Frankensteined into a reasonably facsimile of this car).  Cost and size, supposedly, were the issues.
      My recollection was that the Z-axle improved ride and handling (especially hard cornering), but is more finicky to modify. I think it imbued this car with less finesse under duress than the E36 and E46 that were sold behind it. I heard it called a “modern Cobra”. I can’t say fore sure because the 318ti didn’t have nearly the power to make this an issue.

      That said, this is a nice car. Good choice, Ed!

  • avatar

    had nearly that exact car, tho with grey/black interior.  really rather a great car.
    presume you’re familiar with the subframe mount tearing issues and this car either doesn’t have or has been repaired well ?
    the E30 rear suspension isn’t known for being forgiving when pushed beyond it’s limits, so I would get yourself some seat time at a safe track or auto-x or similar before you think about pushing it very hard on the street.  hell, if you exceed the limits on this car on the street you’re being an ass anyway, they’re far higher than is safe for almost all conditions and drivers, Baruth included.  I’ve never understood the fascination with limit handling of street cars on the street, it’s just an accident waiting to happen.  lift-throttle oversteer or the odd low-speed throttle induced slide, sure, but real limit handling is not something for the street.
    the S52 cars are relatively cheap at this point AFAIK, but really do provide a unique experience, hopefully yous was well bought.
    btw, get rid of the heinous floor mats asap.

  • avatar

    Friend of mine has one of these. Never drives it – I think it has about 15k miles on it. I always thought it was 1000x cooler than the Z3 and it always turns heads. His is this same color, too. Nice purchase, congrats and enjoy!

    …and to faygo’s point – they do bite. My buddy put his in a guard rail a few years back. May have been the suspension, or road conditions, or the mushrooms. Hard to say.

  • avatar

    I was wondering how a 15-year-old Audi Avant (my guess) was a budget-buster; this makes much more sense. And no, I’d have never thought of it for pretty much the same reasons: my mild dislike of the regular Z3 overshadowed this supremely cool car in my mind.

  • avatar

    I love the clown shoe. One of my favorites. Congrats on your good taste sir!

  • avatar

    Great car! As an ex Civic hatchback owner and someone who wished the Volvo C30 was a touch more powerful and less expensive, I must admit I’m a sucker for cars with this kind of general packaging. Shooting Brake/Bread Truck/Hot Hatch/Lift Back… call it what you want but its a very practical setup for a daily driver.
    To me this BWM version is a little too long in the front and lacks the useable (but small) fold down rear seats so it losses some points. However being a true RWD sports car more then makes up for it. If there was such a thing as an Infiniti G35 Shooting Brake I’d be in heaven, as is the G Coupe has so little trunk space its a shame, a lift back version would rule the world.

  • avatar

    When I saw my first picture of a blue Z3 M coupe in a magazine I thought it looked like a hearse for a Smurf but they do look absolutely awesome in flesh. Congratulations on owning an awesome car!

  • avatar

    Amazing car! Please keep us updated on your long-term ownership experience.

  • avatar

    So, a few days ago we heard that in 1966 BMW had such a great rear suspension.  Forward to 1999 and the rear suspension is lacking.  (Many writers over the years have pointed out how easy it is to induce oversteer in the Z3.)  What happened, did BMW fire all the suspension engineers?

    • 0 avatar

      the E30 suspension is cheap, proven and if not installed in cars with tons of torque (note the bit about tearing rear subframe/diff mounts on M3Zs) works quite well.  keep in mind that the Z3 had to be built to a low price point in it’s original incarnation with smaller 4 cyl engines as BMW entered the roadster market.  it’s not as sophisticated as the later Z-axle in the E36, but it works fine.  it’s not Corvair or “fun” 911-like in it’s snappiness or anything, just harder to recover/less forgiving than later BMWs.

    • 0 avatar

      Ahh, the old ‘built to price’ rearing its ugly head.  Thanks for the details!

    • 0 avatar

      Because it was made for USA, where evryone believes that sports cars have to have hard suspension.
      It handles quite poorly compared with other BMWs too, but what’s that matter on a freeway ?

      I still reckon it looks like an Austin Allegro estate.

  • avatar

    Great choice. Have seriously considered buying one of these more than once but the insurance for an M Coupe where I come from is murder.

  • avatar

    The Volvo C30 has rear seats, but it says shooting brake to me.

  • avatar

    Excellent choice!
    The C30 is a shooting brake, sure, but it’s no sports car.

  • avatar

    This is what you bought for “a few” paychecks? Either you get paid every quarter, or I’m in the wrong business.

  • avatar

    No wonder it was so difficult to decode that C pillar photograph!
    My jealousy is boundless.  The practical two seat sports car is the rarest of animals.  I hope this BMW is with you for a long time (this car snarls “Future Classic”).

  • avatar

    Fantastic choice. I love the big fender flares – aerodynamic concerns mean they are rarely seen on factory cars. Congrats on getting something out of the mainstream.
    The list of factory, sporting shooting brakes is pretty small – the Reliant Scimitar GTE probably pioneered the concept (I had one for a short time) followed by the Volvo P1800ES and the Lanica Beta HPE following. The BMW 2002 Touring could sort of lumped in as well as the Nissan Pulsar Sportbak.


  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Reactions are interesting things . . . I have owned, for 7 years, the Z3 roadster (’01 model; 3.0).  The engine gives away 15 hp to yours, but VVT shoves the car along with alacrity in any gear at any engine speed above 1800 rpm.  I always thought this coupe was not as good looking as the Z3 roadster; but felt the opposite about the Z4.  Didn’t care for the look of the Z4 roadster, but loved the coupe.
    Can’t remember when in this period, BMW started staggering the wheels, but mine has staggered wheels and, when pushed, understeers.  The interior of the two cars are nearly the same, except that I would kill for the M seats (the stock ones in the roadster are torture), and I’m missing the two additional gauges.
    I was unaware that the roadster was in “Goldeneye.”  I bought this car because I wanted a roadster, and it was cheaper than a Boxster of the same age and mileage.  I am too tall to fit comfortably in an S2000 or a Miata.  Call me a whatever if you will . . .
    FWIW, at 56K miles, my car has only had the water pump replaced (under the CPO warranty).  The window lifts are sounding a little weak, but that’s it.  Having just had the car comprehensively serviced, I’m still driving on the original brake pads that came with the car when I bought it in ’03.  And my mechanic advised me that I might want to replace the battery, since it was original with the car.  When’s the last time you got 9 years out of a battery?  I took him up on the deal.
    Like yours, my car is a simple car and reminds me of the simple cars of my 20s . . . which is why I bought it.
    I regret that the latest iteration of the Z4 is much more of a boulevardier in the Mercedes mold and there’s nothing else out there that appeals to me.
    That said, the Z3 will probably last until I have no business driving a car of this nature anyway.

    • 0 avatar

      BMW has staggered wheels & tires since the ’96 M3, which also had quicker steering rack and less negative camber at factory specs.  you can go with wider front tires on an MZ3, tho not too much more than a 255.  many people go with wider rears as well, the 9″ rear wheel is way under-tired with only a 245, plus stretched that wide you risk curbing the near-irreparable finish on the wheels.


  • avatar

    So, basically it’s a lowered jeep, right? Even has the I-6.

  • avatar

    In my dreams, my new Subie Impreza looks – and handles – like this!

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    Ah, it is indeed a beautiful machine.  This was the last of the BMWs that I’d own – (Bangled after this series).

  • avatar

    Great car. Definitely on my list of wants.  As far as design, pure muscle/speed.  Those rear wheel flares are old school awesome.

  • avatar

    The Clown Shoe! Should have added this to my list of impulse buys.
    Good thing you’re not a Swede. 

    has the M coupe hooning / running from Ghost Rider. Yikes.

  • avatar
    Facebook User

    factory deep dish wheels ftw :)

  • avatar

    Congrats on the purchase, and welcome to the Coupe Cartel. You can’t sell it for less than $60k. ;).
    I own an 02 Laguna Seca Blue M Coupe. I plan to own it until the day I die.

  • avatar

    Fabulous car. Have always loved these.
    Never had much love for the roadsters but these cars are truly special. Booth Babe might even find it a datable car if you’re lucky.

  • avatar

    Cool choice, Eddie.  Congrats!  Let us know when you’ve had a chance to wring it’s neck.  3 pedals… gotta love it.  They didn’t even offer flappy paddles until later.
    BMW, where art thou?

  • avatar

    SERIOUSLY!! That is one UGLY biatch of a car. Can you say AMC PACER? All together now, bow and pray, “I will love anything German, even if its so ugly we wiped it from our collective consciousness.”….and repeat…

  • avatar

    I’ve looked at a few of these as well, but never pulled the trigger.  My favorite BMW of the last 15 years — the rear three-quarter view is just awesome…….
    Something about the clue just screamed “German”, but I would never of thought of the Z3 coupe.

  • avatar

    Okay, I was only seven when that car came out, and I’d never seen one, so I had no clue they existed until now. All I’m gonna say is, nice car! That thing looks awesome, keep us updated. Oh, and one thing…
    “Don’t get it wrong: I like driving over 130 MPH as much as the next lunatic, but in the real world that’s about all you ever get a chance at anyway.”
    Copying from another comment, And now, to hand the BMW Z3-M Coupe over to TTAC’s Tame Racing Driver…

  • avatar

    Make sure you have the cooling system checked out. If it is anything like my E46 (and I think it is) the expanbion tank is a very weak point. Someone also mentioned the battery. Wierd things happen when the battery in a BMW is on it’s last legs, so make sure it’s fresh Just love the hindquarters on your car, and it looks to be in excellent shape. Enjoy it to the max!

  • avatar

    Edward, do you have any idea how many hours I wasted last night trying to find the right picture of an Audi so I could figure out what you had??? Thanks a lot!!! You can cancel my subscription!
    Oh yeah….
    Keep up the good work Eddie, and enjoy the car :)

    I also like the custom plate, Edward Niedermeyer Genius.
    BTW, I see I have a cousin Stan in the car business, I wonder if he’d give me a job…

  • avatar

    I’m on my second. Current one is an ’01 S54 engined one. First one was a ’99 S52US engined one. The S54 is seriously a strong car. The ’99 was fast, the ’01 is amazing.

    I’d forgotten how much fun the car is to drive. It centers around the driver. The view down the hood is almost identical to the view down a Jag XKE hood (another car I’d like to try again..) It is a raw viseral car. My E46/M3C seems positively plush compared to the coupe, but the coupe is usually the one to leave the driveway unless it’s SUCH a convertible day that I have to drive the M3.

    Good luck with it – it’s a great car, and destined to increase in value.  There is a good group of Z3 people at: – not just M’s, but good resource when you have any questions.

  • avatar

    Awesome car!!! So much personality.
    2 thoughts…
    (1) you spent your entire savings on it? *gulp*
    (2) I almost posted in the clue thread “at least it’s not a Bimmer!” (no Hofmeister kink).

  • avatar
    Sam P

    As a 330i owner, I concur. Get that cooling system checked out. Good BMW shops can generally be found at
    Also consider joining the BMWCCA. I know the Oregon chapter does some fun events like renting the Maryhill Loop Roads for some fast runs.

  • avatar

    FYI in Portland

  • avatar

    Love the car but what is meant by the phrase, “shooting brake”?

  • avatar

    Congratulations on your new car. But isn’t it kind of (I hate to say it) funny looking?

  • avatar

    I’ve always liked these cars. Enjoy the purchase.

  • avatar

    ace and gary sold their car

  • avatar

    I had completely forgotten about this car too. At least I got the year and the country of origin right.  Nice ride BTW.

  • avatar

    Now I’m wondering… How many BMW owner have shot anything, aside from their wives or wives’ lovers?

    Seriously… That’s a fantastic car. Gorgeous.

    Now go put some good rubber on it!

  • avatar

    Yum! A very fine car. Congratulations.

  • avatar

    This car pushes all the right buttons. And I have always loved its styling!

  • avatar

    ALWAYS loved those. Congratulations and enjoy it for those of us who need back seats.

  • avatar

    Sorry, just looking at the pictures again. So happy you bought this car!

  • avatar
    Johnny Canada

    As far as the plastic cooling system, don’t just “check it out”. Visual inspections are useless. If the system is over 75k miles replace everything, even the fan. You’ve been warned.  Oh, and join the Bimmerfest forum specific to your car.

  • avatar

    A friend of mine had one, inside, it was a great car, very nice, but I can’t get over the looks. Clown Shoe is perfect description for it.

  • avatar

    Love the Z3 Coupe.  I found my 2001 coupe (Dakar Yellow) in Kentucky after long internet search.  Always puts a smile on my face when I drive it especially after heavy acceleration  on a curvy road!  The “shudder” you mentioned when closing the door is actually the window moving ever so slightly up or down the instant you open or close the door.  It took me 6 months to figure it out.  The Z3, Z4 has the best reliability ratings from Consumer Reports over almost all other BMW’s too.  A really great and fun car!

  • avatar

    I love this car and really enjoyed your review. So much so in fact that I am going to look for one of these beauties to buy! Anyone want to sell me one :-)

  • avatar

    I just got one. 1999 Z3 Limited Coupe. Boston green. 85k miles. Nice.

  • avatar
    John in DC

    Way late to this party, but I just bought a Z3 3.0 coupe. Only 10 fewer HP than in this era of the M. The M has a slightly more sporty interior (more gauges and better seats) and a few different exterior details (mirrors, placement of rear license plate, detailing on the side vents, etc.). But I’m seriously loving the car, and this review seems to describe it perfectly–very analogue, very simple, very old-school. I feel lucky to have a RWD, 6-cylinder 2-seat car with a stick. Even the 3.0 engine is very powerful–so much so that I’m pretty sure an M would only get me in trouble with the law. These are great cars if you are the kind of driver who enjoys the challenge of focusing and anticipating at all times and can do without a rear seat.

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