Has anyone got fond memories of the last BMW Z4? Actually, has anyone got any clear recollection of the thing?
It had a couple of decent engines and the already tired novelty of a retractable hard top, but the E89 is likely to become one of BMW’s least-remembered design codes. Getting cynical, the most striking thing about it was probably just how far it was from being a Porsche Boxster.
With sports cars in decline and BMW charging hard into filling all gaps in the crossover market, many reckoned the last Z4 wouldn’t be replaced. But then Toyota got involved, looking to create its own halo-shining model but struggling to justify the likely spend. A deal was struck: BMW has developed the architecture that the new Z4 and new Supra will share in return for access to Toyota’s hybrid know-how. Both cars will be assembled alongside each other by long-established contract spannerhouse Magna Steyr in Austria. The big difference is up top, with the Z4 a roadster and the Supra set to be coupe-only.
We’re still nearly a year ahead of the start of European sales, but BMW has invited a small group of journos to its Miramas proving ground in France to drive prototype versions of the Z4 in what will be its punchiest M40i guise.
Seat time was limited to a few laps of the handling track and then an hour-long road loop on some carefully chosen local tarmac, and a fair amount can obviously change before the car reaches production, but even on limited acquaintance I can report that the new Z4 is a vastly better car than the last one.
Although we only got to drive (and photograph) hard-beaten development mules wearing dazzle disguise, BMW was happy to also show us the finished car on condition we didn’t sneak any pictures of it. Between the prototypes and the Z4 Concept from last year the whole story is pretty much told, with the finished car getting a substantial clamshell bonnet (made from aluminium) as well as redesigned lights with their twin headlamp elements now stacked rather than presented in the traditional BMW side-by-side configuration.
The grille has mesh rather than the normal bars, but the only real surprise is the size of the front overhang, which looks just as ungainly on the finished cars as it does on the prototypes. Apparently it’s down to the need to meet pedestrian impact standards without significantly increasing height, but the telling stat is the fact that although this Z4 is 82mm longer than the last one and its 2470mm wheelbase is 26mm shorter.
Two engines will be available from launch, a four-cylinder 30i and the six-cylinder M40i which, as its name suggests, is packing what’s pretty much exactly the same 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged powerplant as the M240i. This brawnier engine produces 250kW in EU-spec – running with a petrol particulate filter to meet the latest emissions standards – but BMW says it will make 285kW in its less restricted guise. We’ll have to wait to see which of these versions makes it to Oz. Both have a solid 500Nm of torque, though.
The M40i gets adaptive dampers and an electronically-controlled limited-slip differential as standard, and all versions will have an eight-speed auto as the only transmission choice.
BMW sends me out to try and learn the tight handling track at Miramas in an M2, which mounts an amusing battle with its rear tyres for much of the lap. It’s a brave call: is a Z4 going to have any discernible flavour after such a spicy starter?
Things start gently. I’ve got an engineer sitting in the passenger seat who tells me to set off in the Z4’s softer Comfort mode, so the softest settings for the dampers, powertrain and steering. It feels as I’d expect: composed and comfortable, but without any sense of a caged beast trying to get out, riding crests and even chunks of kerb well and resisting body roll under moderate loadings, initial front-end responses feel crisp, but there’s noticeable understeer in the slower corners.
The only area where the Z4 scores a definitive early victory is noise, with a purposeful rasp that sounds much better than the sometimes flatulent exhaust of the Porsche 718.
But then I’m ordered to switch into the more aggressive Sport mode, and the Z4 quickly starts to make a load more sense. The transformation is a sizeable one: throttle response sharpens to a surgical edge and the electrically-assisted steering gains weight without losing its feel, but the clever bits are the dampers and that trick e-LSD, with the firmed-up ride making the Z4 feel much more purposeful and the diff starting to intervene hard.
On the way into tighter corners it stays open, with the car using torque biasing through the brakes to help get itself turned. But, once on the throttle, the diff locks aggressively to help deliver traction and then to bring the back of the car into play.
The result is exciting, the Z4 hunkering down to an edge-of-oversteer stance that makes it feel like it’s about to break into a lurid powerslide. It isn’t, nanny is still keeping everything under tight control, but there’s a sense of connection that’s often lacking once filtered through the numbing influence modern stability control. Plus which, it is still possible to turn everything off and engage in proper hooliganism should the mood take, although the Z4’s short wheelbase makes sustained power oversteer a challenge.
Not that many Z4 buyers are going to choose it on the basis of regular track work or drift days, which is why the lower intensity drive on some of Provence’s local roads delivers fewer thrills but more insight.
The engine and gearbox work extremely well together, the motor happy to rev all the way to its 7000rpm limiter if called upon to do so, but equally willing to pull in the bottom quarter of the rev range. The transmission delivers swift, intelligent changes when left in ‘Drive’.
Under manual control the ‘box feels properly quick, too – few buyers will regret the lack of a twin-clutch – although it would be nice if the steering wheel paddles had more weight and resistance to them. While I’m complaining, the wheel itself feels a bit too wide for a sports car, and like many modern BMWs has a rim that feels too thick.
Suspension settings are where the Z4 impresses most. Although we don’t have exact figures, the engineering team say the new car is around 20 per cent more torsionally rigid than the last one, and is the most structurally solid open-roofed road car that BMW has ever produced. It feels it; even corrugated surfaces and taking big bumps at deliberately inappropriate speeds didn’t create any sensation of scuttle shake. The adaptive dampers aren’t too harsh in Sport, but nor do they get too loose in Comfort.
Refinement with the fabric roof up is impressive as well; why did retractable hard-tops ever seem to be a good idea?
While most of the cabin in the test car was covered by stick-on disguise panels, even as I drove it, there was plenty of kit in evidence including standard digital instruments, BMW’s latest full-sized central infotainment screen and a large head-up display projecting information onto the windscreen.
The fabric roof motors up and down in around 10 seconds, and can be operated at speeds of up to 50km/h. We don’t have an official claim for luggage capacity, but the boot is noticeably larger than the hamster coffin which is the Jaguar F-Type roadster.
It’s too soon to say what the finished Z4 will be like, but first impressions are overwhelmingly positive, and not just in direct comparison to the high meh factor of the previous car.
As BMW enthusiastically mines every niche it can find, and seems determined to have one of its X-branded SUVs or crossovers for every integer from 1 to 9, it is also a welcome reminder that the company does still know how to make proper sportscars.
Here’s hoping this won’t be the last of those.
Engine: 2998cc, straight six, twin-turbocharged
Transmission: eight-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Power: 285kW @ 5500rpm (250kW as tested)
Torque: 500Nm @ 1520rpm
0-100km/h: 4.4sec (provisional)
Top speed: 250km/h (limited)
Weight: 1500kg (DIN, without driver)
NOTE: BMW wouldn't provide any interior images, or allow any photos to be taken. You can, however, get a glimpse of the semi-exposed dash in our spy photographs article right here.
A NOTE ON SCORING: As a near-production prototype, BMW went to lengths to explain the Z4 we drove is not quite what buyers will experience next year. Our scoring is based only on what we've driven, of course, so our drive of the final production model may result in notably different scoring.