The BMW Z4 may be a low-volume car but it’s one of the German brand’s less controversial niche models.
As BMW continues to expand its range of coupe-style SUVs (X4, X6) and liftbacks (GTs), the Z4 continues a revered lineage of roadsters wearing the double-kidney grille.
The latest-generation BMW Z4, released in 2009, has now been given its second update.
After turbocharged four-cylinder engines replaced the non-turbo six-cylinders in late 2011, for 2013 the emphasis is less on the mechanical side and more on the value.
However, one notable switch in the drivetrain department reveals how Australians continue to have an aversion to manual gearboxes even when it comes to sports cars.
With only about 10 per cent of buyers opting for the standard six-speed manual on the four-cylinder turbo versions of the BMW Z4, the company has decided to make the eight-speed ZF automatic standard on the sDrive20i and sDrive28i.
While the sDrive20i increases by $2400 to $79,900, the previously $3500 auto contributes to an increase in value of $9000, says BMW.
There are slight reductions for the sDrive28i ($89,900) and sDrive35is ($119,545), which also increase value by a claimed $7000 and $3000, respectively.
The debate about manuals versus autos in sports cars will no doubt rage on, though there’s no questioning the effectiveness of the eight-speed auto in the four-cylinder models.
The self-shifter brings smart-thinking and smooth gearchanges, features a Sport mode for more dynamic driving, and standard paddleshift levers allow the driver to make the call on gear selection.
It teams well with the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engines, which are flexible whether you opt for the 135kW sDrive20 or 180kW sDrive28i.
Both engines get off the mark nicely, too, with no turbo lag to speak of.
The BMW Z4 sDrive20i is capable of generating decent pace, though there’s no doubting the extra strength of the sDrive’s uprated four – especially when accelerating through the gears.
From standstill to 100km/h, there’s a 1.4 second difference between the two – the 20i’s 6.9 seconds trailing the 5.5 figure of the 28i.
There’s less separating the duo on winding roads.
The 28i comes with bigger, 18-inch wheels, though the 17s of the 20i are the same width and still grip hard in corners.
Even if you choose the range-topping BMW Z4 sDrive35is with its twin-turbo six-cylinder, you still won’t catch a well-driven Porsche Boxster/Cayman (depending on whether you have the Z4’s roof up or down!) through tight and twisty bitumen.
The Porsche can carry more speed into corners and then provide greater adjustability mid-corner.
There’s still satisfaction to be found driving the BMW Z4; the key is patience and keeping an eye on that long nose.
You need to get the front end pointed into the corner, and only once you’ve got the right line can you have the confidence to get back on the throttle to exploit the excellent grip.
The four-cylinder BMW Z4 models are more inherently balanced than the heavier-nosed six-cylinder, though, with the 35is slower to transfer its weight into corners or when swapping direction through S-bends.
If the road isn’t bone dry, it’s also difficult to make the most of the 250kW available, with the traction control and stability control systems both being kept busy.
All Z4s steer well when lock is being applied through corners, though a zone of uncertainty at the straight-ahead position is not what you expect from BMW steering.
None of the Z4s rides with much compliance, not helped by stiff-sidewalled run-flat tyres, though both the 20i and 28i test cars we drove were fitted with optional M (read firmer) suspension while the 35is comes standard with adaptive M suspension.
The four-cylinders can be sharp over bumps, while the six-cylinder 35is has a pattery ride with the adaptive suspension in Comfort. It does bring some welcome flex over undulating roads compared with Sport mode, though Porsche’s rival – sorry to mention it again – offers the better balance between suppleness and control.
The BMW Z4 sDrive35is is the clear pick over the more affordable models when it comes to engine and exhaust notes, though.
Where the four-cylinder engines are somewhat muted, at least until you get to about 6000rpm, the 35is sounds good at all speeds – the exhaust crackling on the over-run at lower speeds and snarling as speeds climb quickly (0-100km/h completed in 4.8 seconds).
More fuel is inevitably used – 9.0L/100km officially compared with an identical 6.8L/100km for the 20i and 28i.
Crucially for an open-seater, though, the sDrive35is includes a wind deflector as standard. It’s a must-tick option for the four-cylinders if you don’t want to experience more buffeting than you’d find in the likes of the Boxster or even the (more expensive) Jaguar F-Type.
Going from sheltered to exposed in the BMW Z4 takes 20 seconds via a slick, electric operation of the folding hardtop roof that brings sophistication to the German roadster.
The cabin is impressively quiet with the roof up, though tyre noise can intrude regardless of variant if the Z4 is running on rougher-surfaced roads.
Buyers can now opt to have the roof in black or silver to contrast with the main body and create the roadster profile even when in ‘coupe’ form.
The BMW Z4 cabin continues to be a nice place to reside. Seats come in increasingly expensive grades of leather as you rise through the line-up, and the seating position is suitably low with a real sensation of almost sitting over the rear axle.
There’s a quality feel and look from top to bottom in the cabin, and the overall design has plenty of differentiation to the interiors of BMW’s passenger cars and SUVs.
The four round large heating and ventilation controls remain a smart touch, the 8.8-inch colour infotainment display looks classy and high-tech, and the iDrive menu operating system – as we’ve said in other BMW reviews – is now actually intuitive.
BMW has also added a new interior trim package to the choices that allow buyers to have some form of customisation.
Boot space gets squeezy if the metal roof is folded into the boot (see below), but expands from 180 to a decent 310 litres if the Z4 is in ‘coupe’ mode. A Mercedes-Benz SLK’s boot is slightly bigger (225-335L) and a Boxster is arguably more practical with its 280-litre combined front and rear luggage compartments unaffected by the roof being up or down.
The BMW Z4 has certainly matured from the days of the Z3, though its character has changed to the point where it’s more of a compact grand tourer than a focused, thrill-seeking sports car.
The latest in the long line of BMW roadsters, however, still offers plenty of appeal with its sportily classy and roomy two-seater cabin, flexible engines with excellent autos, still-decent dynamics, good value (especially in 28i form), and a folding metal roof that gives you both coupe and convertible worlds.