BMW Strong-Strut Tower Brace

Pros: Price, quality, strength, breathtaking finish
Cons: Careless installation could “ding” your hood
Cost: $315 and up from Strong Strut

Not surprisingly, my M Roadster displays a subtle cacophony of assorted squeaks and rattles which seem to be standard equipment on even the stoutest of convertibles. MZ3 Netmeister Robert Leidy’s review of the Dinan Strut Brace suggested that a tower brace could provide help. Meantime, I had been seeing quite a few posts on the Z3 message board discussing the new Strong-Strut tower brace. Strong-Strut’s own web page made their strut seem particularly attractive so, as I’m always eager to try out the latest wrinkle, I ordered a Strong-Strut for my car.

The Strong-Strut arrived in a long triangular USPS Priority Mail box. Weighing in at 12 1/2 pounds, the all steel structure is clearly up to restraining errant movements of the strut towers. More, the Strong-Strut is absolutely beautiful to see. The flawless powder coat and deep chrome will look wonderful under my hood. I chose black powder coated tower rings with a chrome strut, but Strong-Strut offers a wide choice of attractive sounding finishes with prices ranging from $315 for an all black powder coated assembly to $365 for all chrome finish. Other, more expensive, special finishes are also available and Strong-Strut is even prepared to provide custom finishes to the buyer’s specs. How about candy-apple purple rings with a gold plated strut?

Strong-Strut provides six pages of instructions, most of which are concerned with insuring adequate under hood clearance. The penalty for failing to carefully follow these instructions would be two dings in your hood when you slam it closed on the Strong-Strut. Happily, the procedure is clearly explained, and Strong-Strut even includes two cubes of modeling clay to check under hood clearance. Once proper clearance is insured, the installation is a matter of ten minutes or so, using common hand tools. Take your time as you bolt it in and admire the lovely weld beads and precision stainless steel hardware. Note, too, how the tower rings are contoured to exactly mate with the complex curvature of the top of the strut tower.

Not only does the Strong-Strut look great under my hood, it works! I don’t track or autocross my car so I can’t comment on its handling benefits, but I noticed immediately on my road test that a persistent rattle from the dash area was gone. Problem is that some rattles from the back are now more obvious, but Strong-Strut is working on a rear brace and I’ve told them to put me first on their waiting list. I had thoroughly surveyed the list of available strut braces before I bought my Strong-Strut and I’m convinced that it provides an unbeatable combination of price,strength, quality, and under hood good looks. So, whether you’re looking for useful strengthening of the front end, or just eye candy, the Strong-Strut is hard to beat.

Conforti/Shark Air Intake System

Pros: Factory appearance,improved performance,great sound
Cons: Slightly tricky installation
Cost: $449 plus shipping from Eurosport High Performance

Shark Intake

Publishing product reviews on the MZ3.Net is beginning to take on a life of its own! After I posted a complimentary article on Jim Conforti’s OBDII Performance Reprogram I received an e-mail from Josh MacMurray, head man at Eurosport High Performance in Salt Lake City. Eurosport is one of Conforti’s two national distributors, and Josh invited me to review Jim’s new Shark Air Intake System. I don’t need much prompting to try out the latest wrinkle on my M Roadster, and since I had already reviewed the ECIS Evolution Air Intake System I was anxious to see if the Shark Intake lives up to the great comments which have been appearing on the BMW bulletin boards. Eurosport arranged to ship me the appropriate system for my M Roadster, and the system arrived several days later carefully packed in styrofoam pellets with individual components of the system sealed in foil or plastic envelopes. Very neat!

The intake system consists of a molded plastic shield, an intake pipe with O-ring and clamps, an ITG Maxogen foam intake filter with a spray can of retention oil, plus all of the clamps, seals and fasteners required to complete the installation. The included instruction sheet is a model of clarity and features photos of critical steps in the removal of the stock air box and the installation of the Shark system. My first installation attempt ended almost before it began when I got too muscular with one of the intake pipe clamps and broke it off of the pipe. I e-mailed Eurosport and they responded immediately, overnighting a replacement intake pipe assembly. Comforting to know they’re ready to help out even the most ham handed! Josh MacMurray tells me that they have experienced about a three percent breakage rate for this part, a rate which they consider much too high, and have redesigned the clamp attachment point. The redesigned intake pipe should be available by the time this article is posted.

Given the new pipe, I completed the installation. Casual mechanics should have no problem with this 30-45 minute procedure as long as they pay attention to step 10 of the instructions which says in part; “Install the shield. Sounds simple, but it will require a little patience and wiggle technique.” Indeed!! If I hadn’t been forewarned, I might well have thought they sent me the wrong shield. But by applying “a little patience and wiggle technique” the shield did slip into place as promised. Once in place, the shield is fastened to existing mounting points, no drilling or fabrication required. I got a little nervous when the install was complete and I discovered that I had a few small parts left over, but a quick review of the instructions revealed that Conforti includes parts necessary for all versions of the six cylinder Z3, which vary in detail model to model.

Jim C has obviously gone to a lot of trouble to design a system which maintains a factory appearance under the hood. The black plastic intake pipe attaches to the mass air sensor with factory-like spring clamps and the black shield, with its seal, looks very much like the electronics bay next to the firewall on the right side of the engine compartment. The hose clamp which secures the ITG filter to the intake pipe appears to be identical to the BMW clamp which secures the rubber air duct to the back of the mass air sensor, and the ITG filter itself has a really businesslike look with black foam filter and aluminum trumpet. Very attractive! Not to enter into any ITG vs. K&N controversies, but a non-automotive friend of mine thought my own K&N looked like a pink lampshade. I’ve been reading posts on the BMW bulletin boards from lots of K&N owners who are switching to ITG just to improve under hood cosmetics. Additionally, the ITG is claimed to provide superior filtration ability, especially of harmful particles in the 10 to 20 micron range, and exceptional dust load up tolerance; the ability to absorb large amounts of dust without reducing air flow capacity

Road test time! On a brisk run on local farm roads my butt dyno senses a definite performance improvement, particularly at higher RPMs, accompanied by a subtle shriek approaching redline. Though I don’t have access to a dyno, several dyno runs on late model M3s equipped with the Shark Intake have appeared on the net. Eurosport provides a dyno sheet in Adobe Acrobat format, but to save time here’s the Eurosport Dyno Run as a .jpg file. Boston Performance Group, Inc. has also posted a comprehensive E36 Intake Shootout on their web site, including dyno runs, and both sources validate my butt dyno impressions (Editors Note: Web link removed, web page was no longer valid). If you’re buying the Shark Intake, seriously consider getting Jim C’s OBDII Performance Reprogram at the same time. The Conforti reprogram is great value and is optimized for use with the Shark Intake. The combination is my candidate for leading bang-for-the-buck performance enhancement for your Z3.

Pro-Road Racer Pedal Set

Pros: Great looks, much improved heel-toe
Cons: Some required hardware not supplied
Cost: $159.95, plus options, from BMP Design

A popular after market accessory among Bimmer owners is a racy looking pedal set. Most offer a cosmetic advantage only, but a pedal set I saw in BMP Design’s catalog, called the Pro-Road Racer Pedals, offers real practical benefits to drivers who pride themselves on their expert high-performance driving techniques. Unlike most sets I’ve seen, BMP’s Pro-Road Racer Pedals offer an optional heel-toe extension they call the Fast Track. In addition there is a matching dead pedal, also an option. The Pro-Road Racer set costs a not insignificant $159.95, while the Fast Track heel-toe extension is $69.95 and the dead pedal is $75.95. All are CNC machined billet aluminum, the heel-toe extension black anodized while the other pedals are in brushed finish.

For those not familiar with heel and toeing, a brief explanation. The technique is employed when entering a corner to simultaneously brake and downshift in order to put the car in the optimum gear to accelerate through and out of the corner. Smooth downshifts require raising the revs as the shift is made. With one foot on the brake and one on the clutch, a third foot would be useful to “blip” the accelerator! If you don’t have a third foot then the best you can do is to use the right foot to operate both brake and accelerator. At one time racing cars placed their accelerators between the brake and clutch and it was practical to brake with the toe while pressing the accelerator with the heel, thus the term. Now, a true heel-toe motion would require a clumsy, uncomfortable twist of the ankle. A more workable technique on modern cars is to brake with the left side of the right foot while blipping the accelerator with the right side. Assuming that you can physically span the gap between the brake and accelerator here’s how it goes. Place the left side of the right foot on the brake pedal with the right side poised over the accelerator. Depress the clutch pedal with the left foot and blip the accelerator with the right side of the right foot as you downshift, then release the clutch.

Most cars I’ve driven are almost impossible to heel and toe because the brake and accelerator pedals are too far apart and/or because the relative heights of the two pedals doesn’t permit the necessary gymnastics. Apparently BMW engineers have heel and toeing in mind when they determine pedal placement because I’ve never driven a Bimmer which wasn’t fairly easy to heel-toe. As a matter of fact I learned to heel-toe over 30 years ago on my 2002. Still, it would be helpful if the brake and accelerator on my M Roadster were closer together and if the accelerator were just fractionally closer to the same height as the brake pedal. BMP’s Fast Track heel-toe extension does both jobs.

Installation of the pedal set is straightforward. The BMP pedals are attached using provided machine screws and nuts after removing the rubber brake and clutch pedal covers and drilling the factory pedals. The clutch and accelerator are plastic and easily drilled, while the brake pedal is steel and takes a little more effort. The dead pedal is attached to the car’s plastic dead pedal cover using power-drive screws…no drilling required. It turns out that the machine screws provided with the Fast Track heel-toe extension are not long enough to pass through the Fast Track, aluminum accelerator pedal, and plastic accelerator so a quick trip to the hardware store was required. Note that the Fast Track can be installed without the aluminum pedal, if desired, and then the machine screws would be the right length.

Once installed, the new pedals really do the trick. The aluminum brake and clutch pedals are about the same thickness as the stock rubber pedal covers. At the same time, the combined extra thickness of the accelerator pedal cover and the heel-toe extension raise the height of the accelerator to just the right level for easy heel-toeing without a clumsy twist of the ankle, and the increased width of the Fast Track places the pedal right under the right side of my sole. To my eye, the new pedals add a racy new look to the foot well, though I wouldn’t spend too much time looking down there while driving. Meantime, I’ve been reacquainting myself with the heel-toe technique, honing my lost skills by doing heel-toe downshifting even at low speeds. At first I was pretty clumsy, but after a few weeks practice it’s become second nature. Even if you aren’t planning any racing activities, it’s one of the skills which add greatly to the sports car experience. Let the fun begin!

Conforti OBDII Performance Reprogram

Pros: Smoother, quicker, new hard-edged sound
Cons: So-so documentation, four days downtime
Cost: $399 from Turner Motorsport

There may be little that the participants in the web’s BMW bulletin boards agree on, but one product which seems to receive almost unanimous approval is Jim Conforti’s line of Landshark chips and OBDII programs, so I decided to give Jim’s reprogram a try on my M Roadster. Jim’s Bonneville Motor Werkes doesn’t deal directly with the public, but he has appointed several national retailers to handle his products. Because of their excellent web page, I decided to order from Turner Motorsport. Though I could have ordered on line, I chose to call their 800 number so I could ask some questions about the process. The idea of sending my expensive DME off to be tinkered with filled me with dread! The customer representative I spoke to was very helpful and I was happy with the answers I received, so I placed my order. Two days later I received my shipping kit; DME removal instructions, an upgrade checklist, a shipping label and a static-free bag. Note that the DME is shipped direct to Jim in Utah not to Turner Motorsport in Massachusetts. When I placed my order, I was told to insure my shipment for the replacement value of the DME, $1200, but the shipping documents made no mention of this. Also, Turner’s web site says that shipments must arrive in Utah on Tuesday so that Jim can reprogram Tuesday night and return ship on Wednesday. This restriction was not mentioned either. Considering that your car won’t run until you get the DME back, I think that both these considerations should be clearly stated in the documents which accompany the shipping kit.

The removal instructions provided were, frankly, not very impressive; a simple line drawing and three brief steps of instruction. Fortunately, the job is relatively easy and I was able to remove the DME in minutes. The only hangup was a two prong plug just behind the DME, not mentioned in the instruction sheet, which needed to be unplugged before I could get enough slack in the wiring harness to fully remove the DME from it’s enclosure. The process is as follows:

Locate DME enclosure just in front of the passenger side fire wall Loosen cover by unscrewing three cross point screws.

Remove cover, then unplug small two prong connector behind DME Carefully lift wiring harness high enough to lift DME

Remove DME completely from enclosure Extend metal lock tab and remove connector

Once the connector is removed from the side of the DME, place the DME in the provided static free bag and prepare for shipment. The DME should be accompanied by your copy of the sales receipt and the completed upgrade checklist. The DME is well protected by it’s metal enclosure so only minimal padding is required for safe shipment. I sent my overnight shipment out on Monday and, as promised, received it back on Thursday. Installation is just the opposite of the removal, and the car fired up at the first turn if the key. Whew!! My first brief drive, down to the corner and back, immediately impressed me with the new hard-edged authority of the engine sound. After rechecking that the wiring harness was properly installed, I replaced and tightened the cover on the DME enclosure, then took the car out for a longer run.

Once the engine was thoroughly warmed up, I let it fly on a local back road. Response was immediate, almost as if the accelerator pedal was wired direct to the tach. Crisp, clean response with no flat spots or hesitations right up to the new 7000 rpm limit. In deference to my life and my license I didn’t check the top speed limiter, but I’m sure the M-ster will now come close to pegging its 160 mph speedometer. Popping smooth shifts is child’s play because the revs drop off more readily when the accelerator is released and, if you indulge, heel and toeing is much easier because the engine revs up so much more freely with the clutch disengaged. And all the while this electric wail from engine! I can’t swear it’s really quicker, but who cares? It feels positively supercharged. The car is so much more fun to drive that it’s hard to understand why BMW doesn’t tune it this way to begin with. After all of my fears, the process turned out to be quite painless and the result is worth far more than the cost. The only downside I can see is the incomplete documentation…and, of course, you can’t drive your bimmer for four days. Do it!!

UPDATE: April 15, 2000

Just two days after this article was first published on the MZ3.Net, I received an e-mail from a reader, Tom Leath, to let me know that Turner Motorsport is now performing the reprogramming at their facility and are promising that your DME will be returned on the same day it is received. The result is a three day turnaround rather than the four days I mentioned in my original article. Tom later let me know that he had sent his DME to Turner and that it was returned in three days, as promised. More recently, Turner has announced the May release of Jim Conforti’s “Shark Injector,” a handheld reprogramming device which will permit late model Bimmer owners to reprogram their own cars without removing the DME, and may be used again later to reload the performance reprogram if your dealer should return your DME to the factory program. Amazingly, this device will cost the same as the reprogram, $399. This thing sounds like the real deal! Check the Turner Motorsport web page for information and ordering instructions.

Titanium 130R Shift Knob

Pros: Increased shift feel, great looks
Cons: Cold/hot to the touch depending on the season
Cost: $139 from Titanium Cavallino

Titanium 130R

Short shift kits have become a popular upgrade for Z3 owners, but the good kits can be quite expensive. The popular UUC short shift kit, reviewed elsewhere on the ///MZ3.net, is $300 and the imported AC Schnitzer shifter—try that five times real fast—is an eye watering $1000+. Richard Carlson’s ///MZ3.net article on short shifters, ‘The Short End of the Stick’, offers a clear overview of the concepts and techniques involved in designing an effective short shift kit, and touches briefly on a low-cost approach to improved shift feel—a shorter shift knob. Richard experimented with an inexpensive round plastic ball, which he admits didn’t enhance the appearance of the cockpit, but which did result in snappier shifts.

Compare Stock vs 130R

Titanium Cavallino offers an attractive shift knob which they call the 130R knob. Styled along the lines of the classic Ferrari round knob, the 130R is beautifully presented in polished titanium, and is 9/16″ shorter than the stock BMW knob. If you’re wondering whether a 9/16″ shorter knob will make any difference, refer again to Richard Carlson’s article. He presents a table which indicates that a 3/4″ shorter shifter on an M Roadster would result in a 12% reduction in throw. I figure that the 130R will shorten throw by 8-10%. Additionally, the 130R weighs 9 ounces—5.5 ounces more than the stock knob. That extra heft should further improve the new short-shift feel.

Unlike many aftermarket knobs, the 130R is designed expressly for the BMW. This means that, rather than being installed using set screws, the 130R is fixed to the shift lever in the same way that BMW engineers have designed for the stock knob; a snap ring arrangement to hold the knob on the shaft and, to prevent turning, a pin inside the knob which engages a notch in the top of the shaft. Once properly installed the knob cannot rotate, and it would take 80 pounds of vertical pull to remove. If you worry about the knob coming off in your hand in the middle of a fast sweeper, this is the only way to go.

Installation is quite easy. Remove the stock knob by grasping it firmly with two hands and giving it a strong upward yank. Careful that your chin isn’t in the way! Knobs with internal lighting have a long enough wire that breaking the wire shouldn’t be a problem, but take care. If the knob is wired then lift the edges of the shift boot, locate the connector at the end of the wire, unplug it, then thread the wire and connector through the shaft hole in the boot. Installation of the new knob is just the reverse. Slide the knob down over the shaft, insuring that the internal pin is aligned with the notch in the top of the shaft, then press down until the snap ring engages. Done!

Road test time! So, what does it feel like? As expected, it doesn’t change the feel in any revolutionary way. The throw is tightened up, and the extra weight of the knob adds some inertia which helps the shifter across the gate. To my eye the looks are wonderful, but don’t leave the car outside with the top down or you may burn your hand. At the other end of the temperature spectrum, the knob is unpleasantly cold to the touch until it picks up warmth from your hand. I particularly like the standard BMW mounting method and, on balance, I consider this a worthwhile addition to my M Roadster—at least until Santa brings me a UUC shifter.

ECIS – Evolution Air Intake System

Pros: Measurable performance improvement and great sound
Cons: I can’t think of any
Cost: $225 plus shipping from East Coast Intake Systems

I monitor the M3 bulletin boards regularly for news and opinions on performance modifications which might apply to my M Roadster, and there I saw quite a bit of favorable comment on the ECIS cold air intake system. ECIS stands for East Coast Intake Systems, and their product is called the Evolution Air Intake System. Common unshielded open air intakes seek to increase air flow by providing a larger air filter, but often produce less power than the factory air box because of the twin problems of turbulent fan wash and underhood heat. ECIS insures that the larger filter receives only cool, non-turbulent air by constructing a shield which completely isolates the filter from the engine compartment, receiving air from the same source as the factory filter box. They offer both their complete Evolution Air Intake System; consisting of their custom heat shield, mandrel bent inlet tube, 6″ K&N cone filter, brackets, silicone connection hose, clamps and detailed instructions for $225; or the heat shield alone for $70. The heat shield can be used with a number of aftermarket open filter systems available from BMP Design, Bavarian Autosport, and Turner Motorsport, as well as other aftermarket suppliers.

At the time I first read about ECIS they offered only systems for the M3, but I e-mailed them and quickly received a return message from Sean Cain at ECIS informing me that the M Roadster system was in the design stage and due out soon. Then, 45 days later, I got another message from Kenny Bernatsky of ECIS to let me know that the M Roadster system was now complete, with details available on the ECIS web page. Their web page provides just about all the info you need; photos, dyno runs, testimonials, an FAQ, and ordering information. The web page does not support on-line product ordering, but they have a handy order form which you can fill out and print, then mail with your check. I sent my order in that day and several days later received an e-mail from Kenny citing a delivery date and Airborne Express tracking number. My shipment arrived as promised, neatly packed. My relations with ECIS couldn’t have been better. Sean and Kenny answer inquiries promptly and keep in touch, qualities often absent with other web merchants. As I was writing this, I got a Christmas card from them. How’s that for customer service?

When I unpacked my carton from ECIS, I found the ECIS custom shield, the K&N filter, still packed in its original box, the various bits and pieces to attach the filter to the air flow meter, and a colorfully illustrated set of installation instructions. I was impressed to find that the silicone connection hose was in place on the inlet tube, held on by the loosely tightened hose clamps. No possibility that this amateur mechanic won’t know where the parts fit. More impressive still, a bolt which is required to attach the inlet tube support to a bracket on the inner fender of the car was carefully taped to the end of the support. For sure, this bolt isn’t going to be thrown out in the trash! The shield itself is a really neat piece. Constructed from lightweight, slightly flexible material which I believe is sheet fiberglass. The fiberglass was obviously cut from a single sheet, then folded and riveted into its final shape. The outside is finished with insulation which matches the car’s underhood finish, and the inside is sprayed with undercoating. The top edge of the shield is weather stripped to seal against the underside of the closed hood, fully enclosing the filter. Three holes are provided in the shield at the points where the shield mates to the air flow meter, the air inlet flange, and the car’s rubber air box support grommet. No holes need be drilled in the car in order to install the ECIS system. I had expected to provide a step-by-step installation guide, but ECIS’s instruction sheet is so well presented, and the installation so easy that I’m going to dive right into my driving impressions and performance testing.

On my first drive, my admittedly inexperienced butt dyno couldn’t detect any obvious performance improvement, but the engine seems to run smoother and, though not loud, the intake makes a low, pleasant moan which sure makes the car sound more powerful. My wife—she of the exquisitely sensitive hearing—approved of the new sound. More driving convinced me that, though not dramatic, the car did accelerate more forcefully, especially as it approached redline. I decided then to go back and perform before and after objective tests to validate the performance improvement my butt told me I had achieved.

The almost trivial installation procedure made returning the stock air box to the car a matter of, perhaps, ten minutes. Not wanting to torture the clutch, skin the rear tires, or invite the unwanted attention of the sheriff, standing start tests wouldn’t do. I decided to perform acceleration tests in second gear, timing from 1000 rpm to 6500 rpm. This test had the advantage of testing almost the entire rpm range, without having to exceed the speed limit. I drove the car hard for about 100 miles to insure that the ECU had readapted to the stock air box, then took the car out to a straight, flat section of country road nearby. I let the car settle at 1000 rpm in second, then started my watch as I floorboarded the accelerator, stopping my watch as the tach reached 6500 rpm. I timed eight runs, four in each direction, discarded the fastest and slowest times, then averaged the remaining six times. My average time for this series of tests was 5.71 seconds. I then reinstalled the ECIS intake, another ten minute job, and again drove the car hard for 100 miles to readapt the ECU. Another trip to the country road, using the same timing techniques as before, yielded an average time of 5.55 seconds, an improvement of .16 seconds.

So is the ECIS Evolution Air Intake System a worthwhile performance modification? For my money, the sound alone is worth the price of admission. Dealing with Sean and Kenny made the purchase really pleasant and I’m particularly impressed with the clarity of the instructions they provide. The system itself is well designed, with high quality construction. That it provably provides a small but measurable performance improvement is icing on a very large cake.