2009 BMW Z4 sDrive35i Review & Road Test
Frugal, fast and feisty. There's no other Z4.
Options (As Fitted):
By Paul Maric
Second gear, 6000rpm heading toward the 7000rpm redline with the roof off, the noise is simply epic. A flick of the steering wheel paddleshift near-instantly activates third gear, emitting a Golf GTI like pop on the up-shift.
If you hadn’t picked it already, this is BMW’s all new Z4 and without a shadow of a doubt, it’s ferocious, menacing and borderline crazy at the limits. The noises, the smells and the attention it seeks leave you gagging for more.
Let’s go back to the beginning though, where the Z4 was simply a figment of the imagination of two BMW designers, Juliane Blasi, exterior designer, and Nadya Arnaout, interior designer.
The first thing you will notice is that they are both females, that’s got to say something about car design!
From whatever angle you catch a glimpse of the BMW Z4; it’s bound to stun you.
The phallic front end features lines that flow to the rear of the passenger segment, at which point they continue with a break to the end of the car.
It’s these crazy and unorthodox traits that make the Z4 such a stunning piece of machinery to gawk at. Mind the aerial at the rear though which stands out like dog’s, err, breath.
Then there’s the attention it seeks anywhere and everywhere it goes.
The Z4 is the type of car that looks amazing with the roof on or off. With the roof off, the brushed aluminium rollover bars are exposed, as is the impressive Ivory White interior - especially with the $2000 Character Package fitted to the test vehicle. Yes, you can buy character when you purchase a BMW!
With the roof on, driver and passenger are cocooned in an aluminium two-stage folding hardtop. The airy cabin offers ample headroom for occupants of all sizes, even taller ones like me!
The driving position, as you would expect, is superb. The driver is hunkered down close to the ground and is positioned slightly south of the centre.
Visibility is good out of all sides, even with the roof on, but if you’re like me and enjoy having the driver’s seat as low as it will go, you will find seeing the bottom screen of the cluster a bit difficult as it’s shrouded by the top of the steering wheel.
In addition to the screen being invisible, the front end is a bit hard to judge due to its length and the peak the bonnet has close to the windscreen.
The bonnet comes up from the front of the car, reaches a peak near the windscreen and comes back down again. The peak is there to ensure the inline six-cylinder fits in the engine bay.
The driver and passenger doors open slightly upward, much like the Aston Martin V8 Vantage and DB9, to ensure no gutter rash occurs due to clumsy passengers – and girlfriends!
A revised version of iDrive helps clumsy drivers cope with the technology behind the Z4. A host of features, such as satellite navigation, CD player, vehicle options and settings make it the backbone to the vehicle’s communications system.
Storage space is at an absolute premium in the cabin. The glove-box is tiny and the only cup holder is located beneath the centre armrest. Side pockets and a clever multi-tiered tray do make the storage of odds and ends a bit easier though.
Boot space is impressive for such a small convertible, and with the roof on, you have the option of expanding boot space by lifting the boot’s cargo barrier.
With the roof off, the cargo barrier needs to be lowered to allow storage room for the roof. The downside to this arrangement is that cargo is inaccessible once it has been stored and the roof is off.
One of the vehicle’s real letdowns was the stereo. Labeled as the ‘Hi-Fi 11-speaker’ sound system, it totally lacks bass and produces unacceptable rattles before it reaches even the slightest levels of low frequency.
On the other hand though, the intuitive iDrive gives tech junkies like yours truly something to play with. The interface allows you to program features into the numbered buttons. Simply touching these with your finger brings up the selection on screen, then allows 0.0you to confirm it by pressing the button.
For example, you could program an AM station on preset 1 and an FM station on preset 2.
Fitted to our test vehicle was high beam assist, using technology which can sense oncoming vehicles and will dip the lights accordingly. The problem is that it often leaves it too late, or the oncoming vehicle has lights that aren’t very bright and as a result the high beams stay on too long, annoying the oncoming driver.
While the interior, the design and the rest of the usual stuff is all well and good, this car needs to be an engaging drive, the Z4 is just that – and more.
Under the SDrive35i’s bonnet is BMW’s award winning 3.0-litre, twin-turbocharged, inline, six-cylinder, producing 225kW at 5800rpm and 400Nm of torque at a measly 1300rpm.
Fitted as a $3500 option to our test vehicle, BMW’s seven-speed, double clutch gearbox is the latest creation from the German manufacturer. It works much the same way Volkswagen’s DSG gearboxes work, except BMW’s gearbox can handle much more torque.
First, third, fifth and seventh all have their own clutch, while second, fourth and sixth are serviced by an alternate clutch. As the driver prepares to switch between gears, the next gear is preselected and ready to go, allowing for near instant gear shifts.
In a car like the BMW Z4 SDrive35i, which uses twin-turbochargers, it makes the perfect solution to the age old issue of turbo lag due to slow gear shifts. Of course, you’ll still have the zealots who refuse to dump a manual gearbox in favour of the double clutch arrangement, but they’re the same people who think men can get away with wearing pink shirts!
Moving off from a standing start is effortless. It doesn’t stutter anything like the dual clutch setup in Volkswagens or Audis, which is testament to the amount of effort BMW has put into its gearbox.
Then again, the real effect of this gearbox isn’t felt until you are pushing the car at its limits and moving through gears at pace, we’ll touch on that a little more later.
BMW certainly hasn’t held back with the engine note. Although the Z4 uses the same twin-turbo six-cylinder engine that’s fitted to many other BMW vehicles, the Z4 is substantially feistier than its siblings. Pops and burps are not uncommon at low speeds, likewise there’s a menacing induction howl when you really get stuck into it.
The activation of the first and subsequently second turbocharger is totally seamless. The engine is so responsive that you wouldn’t know it was turbocharged unless you had a peek under the bonnet. Caress the throttle in any gear and the engine responds with haste, ready for your next movement.
The acceleration from a standing start can only be described as relentless. As soon as you near the redline, a quick tug of either steering wheel mounted gear lever will bring on the following gear with a loud pop during the gearshift. It then just continues to pull until you either run out of road or guts.
While the Z4 is rear-wheel-drive and uses a 255/235 rear/front tyre combination, grip is never an issue. The chassis is so perfectly balanced that seldom do you have to consider what the rear end will do.
The test route included an uphill mountain stretch which really tested the BMW’s ability to corner under throttle. There was also some light drizzle thrown in for, err, fun.
Steering response is unquestionable, as is steering feel. If the tyres grab even a skerrick of moss on the road, the driver will know about it.
While the steering is heavy, it’s light enough to keep hold of it through tight and wide bends. The superb steering ratio also means that there’s never a situation when you don’t have enough lock.
The Z4 uses Electric Power Steering (EPS) which allows the vehicle to vary steering weight and in turn reduce fuel consumption as the system doesn’t require an engine driven motor to operate and only operates in instances where steering assistance is required.
Pedalling on the throttle at the exit of a corner simply buries the Z4’s bum further into the ground. The limits seem simply endless and certainly weren’t reached on this rather dreary winter’s day.
The Z4 uses what BMW terms as Dynamic Drive Control (DDC) which allows the driver to select between three different driving modes – Comfort, Sport and Sport+.
While the Comfort mode is great for city driving and highway cruising, the Sport mode on the other hand gives the Z4 a totally new driving feel.
Sport mode increases steering response and also dramatically sharpens throttle response, meaning the already responsive engine becomes even more responsive at the press of a button.
The Sport+ mode on the other hand is identical to the Sport mode, but places the vehicle’s Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) into a limited traction mode. The limited traction mode allows the vehicle to step out slightly before the car intervenes.
Although the Sport+ mode adds a bit of excitement, it doesn’t work well enough with the driver in my opinion. It steps in too early and holds the vehicle from going back to full torque for longer than necessary.
While the rest of the package was nothing short of perfect during the mountain run, the Z4’s brakes left a bit to be desired on the run back down the mountain.
The double clutch gearbox doesn’t offer enough engine braking during downhill stretches, which meant that the brakes were working overtime to slow the Bavarian missile.
After a short period, the pedal started feeling a bit spongy and lacked the initial bite on offer going up the hill. An upgraded set of rotors would be on my wish list if I owned a Z4 and was interested in taking the car to the track.
Although the 1525kg kerb weight of the Z4 could come into play with braking potential, it certainly doesn’t affect the vehicle’s ability to be thrown around like a go-kart.
The driving experience is second to none when compared to other vehicles in this price range. The way it remains composed – even during the tightest of corners – is very impressive to say the least.
Roof-less driving – as fun as it looks – was a bit of a problem in the Z4. Although my passengers were generally fine, my head would be struck by wind most of the time, because of my height.
Smaller passengers were fine, but it seems the taller you are, the most wind you’re going to receive. Sure, it’s a minor quibble, but something that could become frustrating over time if you were of a tall stature.
The roof operates relatively quickly, but as with all convertibles it requires the driver to hold the roof button until the roof has completed its travel. It’s a bit frustrating because you need to curl your hand around the gear lever in order to get to the button. BMW claims the roof completes the entire operation in 20-seconds, not bad for a hard top.
Although the roof lacks the speed of an equivalent soft-top, a hard top is the sleekest and least cheap looking option in my opinion.
Living with the Z4 day to day would be a comfortable option for those looking for a weekly commuter. Although the suspension is stiffer than that of a 3 Series convertible, the Z4’s brilliant visibility and ample rear storage space means it wouldn’t be an uneasy task.
And, if you’re like me and you enjoy driving – the Z4 will simply amplify your love for some of Australia’s best roads.
This is without doubt the most exciting car I’ve driven this year – hands down. While I won’t normally say this, BMW has produced a car that entices all the senses. It’s also a car that looks absolutely stunning with both the roof on and off and to top it off, it goes like a bat out of hell.
The asking price of $116,900 is also perfectly valid. The closest performance rival is the Porsche Boxster S Roadster, which is a rather wholesome $140,400. If you’re happy to stick with a hard top though, the closest rival is the Cayman S, priced at $155,300.
If you’re in the market for a seriously fast convertible, look no further than the Z4.
You’ve got Juliane and Nadya to thank for the beautiful design, BMW engineers to thank for the sublime ride and handling and me to thank for recommending the car.
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