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Slow global sales of the last-generation ‘E89’ Z4 – the one with the ungainly retractable hard-top – meant it was set to die without a replacement. But then Toyota, after years of goading by rabid fans to bring back the Supra, approached BMW with an enticing offer: to split the development costs of a new sports car while producing separate versions for each brand – the Z4, a roadster, and the Supra, a coupe.
Munich did the core engineering for both cars, and although the Supra will have a roof and different exterior styling, the pair share all structural hardpoints, suspension components and powertrains, and will be built on the same line by Magna Steyr in Austria.
Specifically, we’ve driven the range-topper, the same M40i guise as the pre-prod’ we got to experience back in June. That means the company’s already familiar 3.0-litre turbo straight six with drive reaching the rear axle through a standard eight-speed auto ’box. This will have a new particulate filter system – yes, that’s a thing for petrol engines now – but will still make the same 250kW as in the M240i. In some markets, including the US, it will run without the gasmask and produce a walloping 285kW.
Beneath the M40i there will be two four-cylinder versions offering purer thrills, but missing a fair bit of the almost-M car’s standard spec. The Z4 30i will use the 2.0-litre turbo donk in 190kW guise, while the Z4 20i stripper will have a less punchy version of the same engine, meaning 145kW.
Freed from the dazzle disguise of the prototype, it’s clear that the new Z4 is a sharp-looking thing. But to get it at its best, you need to pick your angle carefully.
From the front, the pushed-out headlights and elongated radiator – it’s more a mixed grille than a pair of kidneys – have plenty of visual presence and make the car look wide and low. It’s muscular at the back, too, and the rear wing element is nicely integrated into the top of the tailgate.
The problem comes from side-on, where there’s something definitely wrong about this Z4’s proportions. It’s longer than the last car, but sits on a shorter wheelbase, giving it a jowl-heavy front overhang. It also suffers from one of the most ungainly fuel-filler caps ever fitted to a sports car – a vast square flap behind the right-hand door that looks like it would be better proportioned to a panel van.
The cabin is short on thrills, but gets all the basics right with a nice, naturally low seating position and plentiful adjustment, with scope for even taller occupants to sit with heads well below the windscreen rail. The more altitudinous will definitely be able to get more comfortable in the Z4 with its roof in place than a Boxster. The fabric hood makes vastly more sense than the cumbersome hard-top of the last car, being able to motor itself up or down in just 10 seconds, and can do so while the car travels at up to 50km/h.
Other bits of the cockpit are unsurprisingly familiar, especially the clear 10.25-inch touchscreen that sits at the centre of the dashboard. The M40i gets a digital instrument pack as standard, although we’re told it's likely the cheaper models will stick with conventional instruments and a smaller TFT display screen.
Before heading onto some of Portugal’s tighter roads, there’s a chance to have another go in a prototype Z4 on the Estoril circuit; one of the same batch of cars I drove at Miramas, and wearing the same dishevelled dazzle disguise.
Despite a faster track, lessons were similar to the first time out – the Z4’s brawny engine and fast-acting electronically controlled LSD make it feel rear-endy without becoming snappy, and the M40i resisted understeer well in Estoril’s many tighter turns. It certainly seemed to enjoy life on-track more than the M850i that I also drove there, although the roadster would doubtless be slower around a lap than the big GT.
But it’s road use that proves the Z4 is actually pretty special, specifically the N379 that runs between Setubal and Casais da Serra around 30km south of Lisbon itself. This is a proper tarmac roller coaster – tight and with frequent sight of huge drops towards the Atlantic Ocean a couple of hundred metres below, with bends that range from hairpins to the sort that rally co-drivers would call as 'absolute', plus straights long enough to encourage some serious speed.
In short, the sort of road where you need to have absolute trust in a car to press on, especially given the pleasant alternative of cruising and enjoying the view.
The M40i monstered it; the engine and gearbox giving effortless urge, with the chassis delivering huge grip and – more importantly – huge confidence. The motor is the main point of distinction to the Porsche 718 Boxster, and although the GTS version of that car produces fractionally more urge, it will never sound as good as the BMW’s snarling six.
The Z4’s standard eight-speed auto ’box lacks the ultimate snap of the Porsche’s PDK, or indeed the twin-clutch of the previous Z4 35i, but it gets impressively close. In manual mode, you’d need to be attuned to motorsport-grade shifting to feel short-changed with the speed and precision of ordered swaps. And in drive, the BMW has the happy knack of being in the right speed pretty much all of the time, depending on which of its various dynamic modes the car is in.
As tends to be the case, there are definitely too many of these.
Like other performance BMWs, the M40i has no fewer than three different Sport modes – regular, Plus and Individual – along with Comfort, Eco Pro and Adaptive, with the further ability to put the stability control into its more permissive Sport mode or de-energise it entirely. Although these allow the Z4’s character to be altered substantially, none of them – with the exception of the pointless Eco mode – head too far in any direction. So, Sport is still pretty comfortable and there’s still plenty of get-up-and-go in Comfort.
The Z4’s steering feels crisper and more connected than some of BMW’s syrupy recent racks – the 5 Series is a prime example – with the different dynamic modes altering weighting, but not to a deal-breaking degree. Front-end responses are keen but the car never feels darty, and in Sport mode the electronically controlled LSD is given a more aggressive character that lends the M40i an exciting, rear-driven feel, even when the back axle still has plenty of grip to call on.
Ride and refinement both impress as well, the active dampers combining a pliant base tune with the ability to maintain discipline on rougher surfaces. With the roof down there’s little buffeting until around 120km/h, and with the fabric hood in place it’s snug and quiet. What’s completely missing is scuttle shake: BMW says this Z4 is the most torsionally rigid open-topped road car it has ever made.
We’ll have to wait for Australian specs to know exactly what the car comes with as standard, but BMW says all versions of the Z4 will have collision warning with AEB as well as lane-departure warning as standard.
Other systems being offered as options in Europe include radar cruise, an active lane-change warning (with steering intervention) and rear collision prevention with cross-traffic alert. Expect all to be offered and some to be standard here.
Sales of all three variants will begin in Australia towards the end of Q1 2019. Official pricing will come later, but the steer is that the range will sit between around $80K for the basic 20i and $140K for the full-fat M40i.
The Z4 is going to be dropped into a piranha tank of a segment. The M40i will have to make a case for itself against the sublime talent of the Porsche Boxster. On first impressions it stands a good chance, but only if potential buyers will give it a go. At the bottom, the 20i will have to be seriously good when you consider it will be getting on for twice as much as the recently upgraded Mazda MX-5 2.0-litre.
Then there’s the Supra. Don’t imagine the Z4’s fabric roof means it will necessarily be cast as the less athletic sibling. On the basis of this first drive, the Toyota is going to have to be pretty special to beat it. (Ed: Paul reckons it is, read his prototype drive review here.)
Engine: 2998cc, straight six, turbocharged
Transmission: 8-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Power: 250kW @ 5000–6500rpm
Torque: 500Nm @ 1600–4500rpm
0–100km/h: 4.6sec (provisional)
Top speed: 250km/h (limited)
Weight: 1610kg (EU DIN)
Consumption: 7.4L/100km (WLTP)
Price: $140,000 (est)