Brute force. Testosterone laden visceral feel. Über man-ness. These are qualities the new Z4 does not have an abundance of. Even with the optional M Suspension set to the hardest setting, the 2009 Z4 35i feels softer than a bone stock 2008 Z4. Hardly the stuff of BMW legend you might say.
And generally you’d be right. But not all is measured in G-readings and bone jarring ride when it comes to successful cars, let alone roadsters.
But before we get into the nuts and bolts of this Z4 we need to go back a few years to understand what brought about this new car. In the early-90′s BMW developed the Z3 has a response to such small roadsters as the MX5 (Miata in the US). When it was released in 1996, it played on the premium side of the scale while still on the lower end of the BMW spectrum at $28k. At first only available with 4 cylinders, the original Z3 was conceived as a back to basics roadster with measured performance, respectable efficiency and solid handling (provided there were no bumpy corners). While it sold relatively well, BMW wasn’t entirely satisfied with the marketing position by 2000. The answer? The Z4. The first Z4 was launched in 2002 as a new model meant to play in a higher class with the Boxsters and the SLKs of the world. It was larger, harder edge and much more flamboyantly designed. In a word is was masculine as compared to its predecessor.
Yet there were new problems. While the Z4 (especially the M variants) played well with enthusiasts, it’s combination of challenging styling and hard edge ride simply didn’t move enough cars off the lots. Even the addition of a gorgeous coupe in 2006 didn’t stop the downward sales slide.
So BMW made the decision to move this next Z4 even further up the premium ladder. A larger more well appointed car coupled with a more comfortable ride and (relatively) spacious interior were the main changes that had to be made. Oh and the price. That would have to rise to reflect this new market position. The new Z4 starts at $52,475. Yes that’s slightly more than either the 2008 Z4 M Coupe or Convertible – the highest price Z4 previously.
It’s all of this that is in my head as I’m driving (top down) through some of the Indiana’s finest back roads. And it’s then that I realize that none of the aforementioned problems matter. None of the groaning some auto-writers have been making really makes sense out in these roads on this gorgeous Indiana day. Because I can’t imagine a better combination of comfort, styling and performance in a $60,000 roadster. The New Z4 may be the product of pandering to a more mass market ideal, but the result is an almost perfect combination of what seemingly most want.
I say almost perfect because this is no M Coupe. This is a roadster GT and not a sports car in the very classic sense. The biggest issue? The measured nature of it’s handling. It doesn’t need to get more hard edge to be a better sports car. It simply needs more feel. The steering suffers from a lack of nuanced feedback seems to have afflicted quite a few recent BMWs. However the Z4 feels like the worst offender yet.
Going hard into cambered 90 degree corner (with fields of corn seemingly in every direction) I feel the car at first understeer slightly at the limit and then (with the helpful prod of the throttle via my right foot) oversteer gently after the apex. While it feels quite neutral for a non M BMW, there’s not as much of the feedback that you’d expect to find in a 135i let alone an M3. Worse yet in Sport + mode (available with the optional M suspension on the Sport Package) the steering feels overly artificial in its weighting and not linear in its progression. In “Sport” mode things are a little better but then again you don’t get the throttle mapping Sport + brings let along the track mode DSC. Ironically “Normal” mode give you the best feel but then again it’s overboosted and not an ideal set-up when driving the Z4 in anger.
I can’t think of any current BMW that deserves the full-on M treatment more than the Z4. If all they did was fix the steering and give the car the precision of the M3 around corners it would have to be considered one of the more complete BMWs of all time. Unfortunately the official line at BMW is that there are no plans for an M derived Z4. One would expect the level of engineering needed to get the M3′s V8 under the hood along with a new steering rack and suspension might be more develop cost than BMW can currently stomach. Only time will tell.
So the Z4 is not the Porsche Boxster rival that the previous car tried to be. However what it does do is everything else almost perfectly. In fact I’d call it BMW’s best roadster to date until you hit that 9/10ths moment on the track or that perfect deserted country road. And that’s (gulp) ok. Because the Z4 is such a great car in every other aspect you forgive it that momentary lapse and move on to the next corner better understanding what it is and isn’t. Yes it can absolutely corner. But it does not possess the purity of feel you find in the MX5 or Boxster. Instead is offers everything else you could possible want in a two seat drop-top.
With that out of the way let’s talk about what this car does well. First and foremost the new Z4 looks gorgeous, aggressive and modern in all the ways you’d hope it would be. The first mass produced car design inside and out by women, it’s taut without making a brash statement the previous Z4 shouted. From 20 feet away the classic roadster proportions are almost jaw dropping at first because of that long hood. It’s a statement that plays well with the historical nature of the roadster shape and works exceedingly well with this design. In fact I’d go so far as to call the exterior of the new Z4 the best executed of any BMW roadster since the 507.
The design theme created by the headlights is successfully mirrored in the new BMW trademark taillights (not the design of the plastic but the actual light) and the inside the car. And unlike the previous Z4 there are no bad angles or awkward cut lines to get in the way of its singular aggressive design statement. And then there’s that gorgeous but incredible long hood. While I learned to love the look, I will admit that limited steering feel and a hood that seems to stretch forever does little for initial confidence on busy city streets.
Inside the Z4 is almost more impressive. The cockpit is once again driver focused with a center a-symetrical console design and the slight shift of all the controls towards the wheel. Beyond the design I was quite impressed by the material quality and fit and finish of all the different seams and shut lines inside the car. So good is the new Z4′s interior that it almost makes the previous Z4 look like a low volume sports car created by some bored trust fund millionaire. Ironically the only thing that let the interior quality and design down was the obvious afterthought that is the center dash storage compartment than comes in place of the optional navigation system. Nevermind that the fit was bad, the idea of a seemingly random compartment in the middle of the dash makes little sense. It also would forever remind you that you either forgot to order the Nav or made the poor decision not to.
Speaking of the navigation system, the new Z4 of course comes with BMW’s exceptional 4th generation iDrive system we tested in the 750i and 335d recently. While the price is (as always) unnecessarily high, it remains a must have option in our book. Otherwise our test car came equipped with most packages (Sport, Premium, Cold Weather) and two nice to haves, satellite/HD radio and connivence opening. Other than iDrive, the other notable exception from the options list was iPod/iPhone integration. For resale value alone I’d consider this a big omission as well.
One big addition to the car came in the form of a traditional manual gearbox in place of the much more popular DCT option available on the Z4. Not having driven the DCT in the Z4 I can’t necessarily compare the two. However what I can say is that the manual brought some of the that connection back to the car that the steering took away. It gave the car a character that fit the roof down statement that was intended in its design. And it was incredible fun. Based on the same unit found in the 135i, the throws where short and the feedback precise. I can’t imagine flicking paddles would be anywhere near as engaging.
All told our Z4 35i tester came to an MSRP of $59,720. That is more expensive than any M flavor of Z4 previously (even with every conceivable option) and approaching M3 Convertible territory. In fact that is flat out more expensive than the current M3 coupe.
The Z4 35i comes equipped with the well known 3.0L twin turbo inline six that can be had in every vehicle BMW makes. With the Z4 35i weighing in at 3,450 lbs, the 300 hp is effective enough to motivate the car from 0-60 in 5.1 seconds. Along the way it also has one of the best engine notes of anything outside of a E46 M3. While some reviewers have called it borderline flatulent, I’d argue that it’s actually one of the best BMW six cylinder sounds I’ve ever heard outside of an M product.
One of the bigger changes for the Z4 (and one that clearly signals it’s conceptual shift) is the all new folding aluminum top. What is adds in weight and complexity it also adds in convenience. This is the quietest, most civilized convertible I’ve ever driven – even more so than the M3 convertible we tested last year. With the top up it’s both quiet and rattle free. Inside it looks like a purpose built coupe. Outside it’s one of the best looking convertible (with the top up) on the market. It’s truly the best of both worlds. But (you knew it was coming) there are two major issues with the new top. As with almost all hard-top convertibles, the new Z4′s trunk almost disappears with the top down. But more concerning is the weight that the hardtop adds to the car over a traditional soft-top.
BMW engineers have also worked their magic in terms of structural stiffness. The new Z4 is the first BMW convertible I’ve driven without any hint of cowl-shake. I pushed the car over the horrendous roads of Chicago as well as the twisty back roads of Indiana and never noticed anything you wouldn’t expect in a coupe. In all the Z4 managed to play the part of a coupe better than any convertible I’ve ever driven.
But the question remains, in this new market, with this new car, has BMW succeeded in creating a winner? We’d have to believe so. Let’s put price aside; this new Z4 is an exceptional roadster. It’s not the barn-stormer than many of us had hoped for, but for most of the public at large (and perhaps the average BMW buyer today) it’s the perfect combination of sport, style, technology and luxury they need. It only fails when you ask it to be the pure sports-car many enthusiasts want.
And if it wasn’t so perfect in every other way, I’d be worried BMW has lost the plot. However the more I think about it, they probably hit it squarely on the head.
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