The word “roadster” tends to get slapped onto nearly every sports car/supercar with a roof that comes down these days, presumably because the word “convertible” is somehow unappealing to marketing people. But the really traditional definition of a roadster doesn’t require it to be an especially powerful car, and even the most tradition of roadsters today (I’m obviously talking about the Miata here) don’t pack gigantic power numbers. When it was first introduced, the BMW Z3 didn’t really have much power either, especially not in base form. But that was fine, roadsters rely on being very small and light in order to be exciting, and the Z3 was.

Some people will always want more power though, and for them, BMW built the M Roadster, a version of the Z3 with the engine out of an M3. BMW did also build a hardtop version of the car, but this was… controversial, and ended up with some unflattering nicknames. It still had its fans, but the M Roadster was the much more universally beloved of the two. But more importantly, it was still a purist’s version of a roadster, just one that suddenly had a ton more power.

Continue reading to learn more about the BMW M Roadster.

Exterior

1998 - 2002 BMW M Roadster High Resolution Exterior
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The M Roadster is wider than the base model Z3, but this is not unique to the M. BMW was already making a six-cylinder version of the car with a wider body, so this was simply used for the M. There were still a few changes though, the front and rear fascia were given a more aggressive look, and the fog lights were replaced with brake cooling ducts. M badges were added, obviously, and the car received M side mirrors. BMW didn’t go too overboard with the changes though, and some not well versed in the Z3 might not even be able to tell that they were looking at a special version of the car.

Interior

1998 - 2002 BMW M Roadster High Resolution Interior
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The differences between the M and regular Z3 were more noticeable on the interior. The M had a different steering wheel, an entirely different gauge cluster with different colors and more gauges. Nearly every option offered for the Z3 came as standard on the M, so there wasn’t much of an option list, always an odd thing to see on a BMW. The Nappa leather interior was offered in several special colors only available on the M, and there were obviously M logos sprinkled liberally throughout. Things like heated power seats, the power top, air conditioning and cruise control might seem to run contrary to the spirit of a roadster as nothing more than a pure driving experience. But with as expensive as the car was, BMW was probably right to expect its customers to want a well equipped interior.

Drivetrain

1998 - 2002 BMW M Roadster High Resolution Drivetrain
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Even though the original M Roadster was only built from 1998 to 2002, there were three different engines used for it, although all of them are inline-6 engines. From 1998 to 2000, the car used the engine from the E36 M3. This car, unfortunately, came with two different engines for the European and the North American markets. Europeans got the S50B32 engine that produced 317 horsepower, but North America got the lowly S52B32 and its measly 240 horsepower. But when the E46 M3 came along in 2001, the M Roadster got a whole new engine, and this time it was the same engine for both the European and North American markets. That engine was the S54B32, and it made 330 horsepower. Of course, by this point, most of the people who wanted and M Roadster in North America already had one, and North American-spec cars with the S54 engine are fairly rare. All versions were available only with a manual transmission.

Prices

1998 - 2002 BMW M Roadster High Resolution Exterior
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The Z3 was a hugely successful car when it first launched. BMW dealers couldn’t keep them on the lots. But the M was a rather more specialized product, and moreover, its $43,000 price tag was a sizable bump over the stock version. A total of 15,000 units of the car were produced, with more than two thirds going to North America. The overwhelming majority of these were the 1998-2000 models, so the 2001-2002 models are worth more not only because they’re faster, but also because they’re more rare. So while the average price for an M overall is today about $17,000, a 2001-2002 will cost you closer to $25,000, and I’ve seen low-mileage examples listed for as much as $35,000.

Competition

Porsche Boxster S

1997 - 2004 Porsche Boxster (986)
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It might not be traditional for roadsters to be mid-engine, but the Boxster is very much everything else a roadster is supposed to be, so it’s easy to let the engine placement thing slide. At the time the M came out, the Boxster S had slightly more power, but it was also heavier and even more expensive. Still, it was and still is a supremely entertaining car to drive, and the fact that it’s a Porsche certainly doesn’t hurt.

Read our full review on the Porsche Boxster here.

Mercedes-Benz SLK32 AMG

1998 - 2002 BMW M Roadster
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Bigger and heavier than the M, the SLK is more small sports car than pure roadster. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a fun car, its performance numbers were more or less identical to those of the M, and the superchanged V-6 delivered a beautifully wide torque curve. And since it was more spacious and came with an automatic transmission, the AMG had quite a bit more mass market appeal.

Conclusion

1998 - 2002 BMW M Roadster High Resolution Exterior
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No, you do not need 330 horsepower in a roadster in order for it to be fun, a third of that is just fine if its a well made car. But nobody actually needs a roadster in the first place anyway, and since the whole thing is made just to be fun anyway “why not?” is a perfectly good excuse for such a thing to exist. More power is more fun, and lots of power in the smallest car possible is a proven strategy for greatness.

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    • * Heavy for a roadster
    • * Early US-spec cars were low on power
    • * Very expensive compared to the regular Z3
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