Price: $86,200 to $129,900
BMW Z4 sDrive30i, straight-six 3.0-litre petrol: $98,100 (Manufacturer’s List Price)
It’s quick, this Z4 Beemer. I mean it’s really quick for a non-turbo 3.0-litre roadster and the handling is BMW M3-style sharp.
The definition of a roadster is still listed as “a small open-topped car with a single seat in the front and an additional outside folding seat (rumble seat) in the back”.
Thankfully, the automotive industry has moved on and these days, roadsters are also coupes, due to the recent advent of sophisticated folding hardtops.
BMW has been building roadsters for years, and most of its creations have fallen directly into the ‘most beautiful’ category. It didn’t come any better than the powerful straight-six BMW 315 back in 1934, which you would have to agree, is still a sensational looking motor car, from any angle.
Then came the superb BMW 328; followed by a modern masterpiece that is the spellbinding BMW 507, which might well have been the inspiration for the cutting edge Z8 supercar (0-96km/h in 4.2 secs) and all BMW roadsters since.
Well, almost. I can’t say the original 1996 Z3 pushed all the right buttons, at least not for me. Perhaps it was the slightly effeminate styling that I didn’t warm to. The reprieve came when the M Roadster was released in 1998 with the 3.2-litre S50 motor from the E36 M3 with quad exhausts, and that made it all the more respectable.
The BMW Z4 is what the Z3 should have looked like in the first place. Far more assertive styling than the initial ‘Z’ car, this was the modern day roadster from BMW that also drew inspiration from the styling of the 507.
Our test car is the second generation E85 Z4, which was originally released in 2009, and adopted a slightly more powerful stance than the previous model.
Initially I wasn’t sold on the styling, perhaps not quite as pretty in form as those special drop tops of the past, but after living with the car for a week, it’s grown on me – a lot.
As far as proper old school-style roadsters go, the Z4 is the real deal. Front engine, rear-wheel drive, and an on-the-floor driving position are the hallmarks of the classic drop tops.
I know this sounds out of place, but I can’t help make the comparison with an E-Type Jaguar; this is exactly how it feels behind the wheel of the iconic Jag. The stretched bonnet on the Z4 isn’t quite as exaggerated, but the view from the driver’s seat is practically the same.
It might have that touch of retro about it, but the Z4 is cutting edge modern in every other way, and a proper enthusiast car with power induced rear wheel slip, if you want it.
Don’t think you need to go all the way up to the twin-turbo version for real heart stopping performance either, this straight-six naturally aspirated 3.0-litre has got heaps of ‘go’ on tap.
The six-speed manual can knock over the 0-100km/h sprint in a rapid 5.8 seconds, and the optional six-speed sports auto on board this test car isn’t much slower at 6.1 seconds. Give the Z4 a boot full (something you tend to do quite often) when conditions are good, and progress is mighty rapid. It feels quicker than 6.1, but it’s the in-gear acceleration that will endear the Z4 to you. Keep the throttle pinned, and there’s all 310Nm alive from 2600rpm, and if you have enough road, you’re on your way to 250 km/h.
It’s hard to fault these six-cylinder powerplants from BMW. They always seem to punch well above their weight in the ‘grunt’ department with just the right mix of power and torque.
At a fraction over 1500kg (less with the manual box), the Z4 is relatively light for a roadster in this premium class, and 190kW and 310Nm, provides a measured balance between outright sports car performance, fuel efficiency, and emissions output.
Off-the-line acceleration is strong even in auto mode, but I tended to light up the ‘Sport’ and ‘Sport+’ buttons more often than not, especially whenever some clear road presented itself and the paddle shifters became the preferred choice. Gearshifts are more spontaneous with very little torque slip, and the throttle blip on downshifts when braking hard is something that you never tire of.
With the recent advent of folding roofs replacing old school manual soft tops, it’s easy to forget you’re driving a roadster in a car like the Z4, as the NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) management is so good that you need to remind yourself that open-air motoring is just a touch of a button away.
All those wonderful mechanical noises of the Z4 paddle-shifting through the gears are amplified ten-fold with the roof lowered, an operation that takes all of 19 seconds, as the car morphs from stylish coupe to performance roadster.
Not only does the Z4 go hard when shoved, there’s tremendous grip for a front engine car with these proportions. It doesn’t seem to matter how hard you care to push in a corner, the rear wheels refuse to break traction unless you purposely invite slip.
Front engine sports cars tend to understeer when pushed hard in corners, but that’s not the case with the Z4, as if you look closely the engine is set to an almost front/mid position in the car which helps to balance this chassis.
It’s not just the prodigious grip that wins me over either, it’s the way the Z4 responds to driver input that I find irresistible, particularly among twisty roads. The steering is wonderfully direct and fast-acting for an electric power steering unit, which are notoriously difficult to tune properly, and the whole car feels razor sharp through corners. Point to point this is a proper fast car.
Of course, it’s not all about speed with the Z4, it’s as much about dropping the roof down on a balmy Sunday afternoon for a relaxed drive up or down the coast. For that, you’ll want to select the ‘Normal’ drive mode where it’s all about smooth gearshifts and minimal engine revs.
If you’re worried about your hair getting messed up on the freeway with the roof down, don’t be – that’s been tried and tested by yours truly. Even at 110km/h you won’t need one of those silly baseball caps on your head, as there’s little if any turbulence inside the Z4’s cabin.
It doesn’t seem to matter which BMW I am testing, the suspension gurus in Germany manage to get the ride/handling balance right. It’s the same deal with the Z4, no body roll when hard into corners, great stability on poor roads, and an utterly compliant ride that’s neither too firm, nor too harsh.
You can option larger 18- or 19-inch ‘Light alloys’, but I can’t fault the standard fit 17’s with a split tyre width set up for that perfect ride and handling balance, that I mentioned earlier.
It’s also hardly worth mentioning braking ability when reviewing a BMW, because they seem to ‘get it’ sorted better than any other carmaker in its space. Surefooted and progressive pedal feel are what you can expect of BMW brakes, and that’s exactly what you get with the Z4. There’s no brake fade either, but again, that’s just par for the course for this marque.
As a $98,000 car, you have every right to expect a certain level of luxury kit on board, and the Z4 doesn’t disappoint in this regard, despite the extensive BMW options list.
For starters, the leather sports seats are ludicrously comfortable, while offering race car-like bolster support; I mean, your torso doesn’t budge a centimetre, even when you’re driving like you stole it. They’re also treated with SunReflective technology for reduced heat absorption, along with the steering wheel trim.
Bi-Xenon headlamps are part of the standard features package as is the 8.8-inch colour screen with the Professional Navigation System, Bluetooth mobile and USB audio input, 11-speaker hi-fi system, auto climate control, anti-dazzle rear view mirror, auto headlight on and rain sensing wipers, park distance control (front and rear), heated glass rear window and a stack load of others.
You may or may not have heard of iDrive, the central controller fitted to many BMW models, which controls the media and communications features in this Z4. The bottom line is that it’s a cinch to use and very intuitive compared with earlier editions.
Safety on board the Z4 is well catered for too, with a full suite of airbags and every active and passive safety feature that is currently available has been loaded into this car. That’s ABS, Cornering Brake Control (CBC), cruise control with brake function, DSC with extended functions, Dynamic Traction Control (DTC), Rollover Safety System and Run Flat indicator (for the run flat tyres).
While Audi tends to go for the ‘bling’ approach when it comes to interiors, and as nice as they are, I prefer the minimalist styling of BMW, which allows for more focus on the driving. That said, inside the Z4 is 100 percent premium, with soft touch material everywhere, along with the perfect mix of metallic switchgear and wood trim, at least in this spec.
Practicality isn’t exactly a true roadster’s forte, but the Z4 makes a reasonable go of it. There’s plenty of room in the boot for several soft bags provided the roof is up, but you’ll need to travel light in the roof down mode, with just 180 litres of available luggage space.
As far as a modern rendition of a proper old school roadster goes, BMW’s Z4 is the real deal. I only wish the E-Type handled this well.