Somehow it seems that the 2019 BMW Z4 is simultaneously the most focused Z4 BMW has built to date, whilst also being the most diluted.
It’s also a car that may never have happened. Slipping roadster sales meant the case for building an all-new Z4 was hard to justify. It’s only cooperation with Toyota, for its related Supra, that saw the Z4 ride again.
There’s no fully-fledged Z4 M, instead there’s this: The M-fettled Z4 M40i which wraps a turbocharged 3.0-litre straight six engine producing 250kW and 500Nm in a version of BMW’s modular CLAR rear drive architecture.
As a clean sheet design (underpinning architecture aside) the new Z4 turns its back on the stylistic groundwork laid by its predecessor – which each generation before it has also done, to be fair – resulting in a bold, angular, and slightly confronting new look. Exactly what a statement car like this should do.
While the Z4 range starts from $84,900 (before options and on-road costs) for the Z4 sDrive 20i, with a 145kW/320Nm 2.0-litre four cylinder turbo engine, stepping up to the range topping M40i means a $124,900 price of entry.
Inside the cabin BMW’s modular interior architecture, which can be found in everything from the new 3 Series sedan to the supersized X7 SUV, makes its way to the Z4, removing any chance the new model had of making a sporty impact inside.
Although major design elements, like the dash surfacing, centre console and door cards are unique to the Z4, details like the climate controls, instrument cluster and gear selector plus its array of surrounding buttons are all shared elements.
That means the magic of the previous generations unique four-dial climate controls, deep set two-bucket instrument cluster and hideaway infotainment screen is gone.
There’s no bespoke instrumentation and all other interfaces are entirely homogeneous. Even the digital instrument cluster graphics are carried over without so much as unique skin right down to the anti-clockwise direction of the tacho, great for a family resemblance, but far from special.
In terms of equipment the Z4 range is certainly no lightweight. LED headlights with auto high-beam, colour head-up display, 10.25-inch instrument and infotainment displays, 20GB internal hard drive, wireless phone charging, natural voice recognition, leather-look dash and door finishes, electric sports seats trimmed in leather, push-button start and a powered soft top are all standard inclusions.
At the top of the tree, the Z4 M40i also loads in features like keyless entry with walk-away locking, adaptive headlights, adaptive suspension, distance-keeping cruise control with stop and go functionality, M Sport brakes, ambient interior lighting, 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio, 19-inch alloy wheels, and an electronically controlled M Sport differential.
While it may not be as unique within the BMW range as it once was, the cabin of the Z4 is still a very nice place to be. Shapely seats ensure you’re firmly held in place for more exciting driving, while still offering enough freedom of movement to shuffle about in less committed scenarios.
The seating position is remarkably low too, usually a good trait in a sports car, but the high sides of the Z4 make it difficult to exploit the benefits of such a degree of adjustment.
BMW’s also tweaked the car’s dimensions in such a way as to remove the bum on rear axle feel of the previous car You sit slightly closer to the middle of the car now, diluting some of the steer-by-sphincter feel of the previous generation Z4 sDrive 35is.
The upside is a cabin that feels more spacious than might otherwise be expected from a compact roadster, no doubt striking a more comfortable compromise for owners who are likely to share driving duties between this car and a family SUV.
Not every part of the cabin impresses. The car shown here featured an array of creaks and groans from interior plastics and door glass channels as the body felt its way over road surface changes. The door glass, designed to drop as you open the doors, is too slow to react meaning you often place the full stress of clearing the rubbers through the window seals.
In what’s becoming a repeat issue amongst recent BMW cars that pass through the CarAdvice office, the iDrive OS7.0 infotainment system showed repeated Bluetooth issues. Randomly failing to stream calls or audio from a phone it identifies as connected with no way to get it to acknowledge the device, or shutting down the wireless CarPlay functionality.
From the outside far from perfect panel alignment raises a few questions about build quality. This particular car had a difficult to latch driver’s door, inconsistent panel gaps, and a fuel filler lid that sat up from the rear quarter panel
In a car with a $125k sticker it’s fair to expect you’d not encounter such quibbles. Perhaps BMW is leaning on a rewarding driving experience to get owners to think of the Z4 M40i more favourably.
Find the right stretch of road and the German brand’s thinking becomes more clear. There’s a fabulous fluency to the way engine power, transmission logic, and steering volubility combine.
Despite 500Nm tugging at the rear wheels and a relatively short wheelbase (around 38cm shorter than a 3 Series) the Z4 displays clamped down stability on dry tarmac. It’s easy to thread it through a series of sinewy switchbacks with a quick steering rack enabling responsive directional changes.
It’s also no chore to induce power oversteer if you’re so inclined with enough grunt to churn the rear treads. Launch cleanly and BMW suggests you’ll reach 100km/h in 4.5 seconds.
With M branding applied to just about every chassis component the intent is clear. Adaptive suspension runs from firm to firmer depending on the mode (Comfort mode tends to make the most sense, regardless how hard you push, on anything but a race track), the electronically actuated differential catches itself long before things get out of shape and the brakes haul down hard under pressure.
As a weekend escape machine the Z4 nails the brief. It takes just 10 seconds to lower the soft top (which replaced the previous generation’s folding hard top), there’s ample space in the 281 litre boot for a week’s luggage for two people (let alone a weekend’s worth) and if you drive it as intended it’s almost impossible to wipe the giddy smirk off your face.
The only aspect lacking appeal is the aural signature. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of drama coming from the twin tips at the rear of the car, nor the induction plumbing up front. It’s flat, monotone, and perhaps a little too soft depending on your tastes.
It’s not until the work week resumes that Z4 M40i starts to unravel. Alongside the infotainment gremlins getting the eight-speed automatic struggles to roll on cleanly in busy traffic situations, jolting into motion - its a torque converter design but behaves more like an older dual clutch. At the same time, the brakes struggle when cold, coming to a complete stop clumsily amid a wailing chorus of brake whine.
BMW, like many other prestige brands continues to offer a sub-par three year warranty (where most mainstream brands are up to five years now) but is more reasonable with servicing terms, offering a pre-purchase five year 80,000km package for $1565 including fluid, filter changes and spark plugs as part of the deal.
Fuel figures are rated an official 7.4 litres per 100km, but after two weekends of being wrung out, separated by a week of commuter duty, tested consumption settled at 9.9 L/100km – a decent return from a performance-packed six-cylinder engine.
The Z4 occupies a rare niche. The Mercedes-AMG SLC43 is at the end of its model run and shows its age, with no immediate replacement on the way, an Audi TT RS is truly impressive and sounds insane but might be a stretch for some buyers given the soft reputation of lesser TT models or the perceived inferiority of a transverse front engine layout.
That leaves the Porsche 718 Boxster GTS, although the move to four-cylinder power has spoiled that magic of that car a little, though it’s still highly unlikely to set a wheel wrong in the hands of a skilled driver. Not to mention, all of those cars start at a higher price point than the M40i.
As a performance machine BMW Z4 is accomplished, sharp, agile and responsive in all the right ways. In the open air, on the right mountain pass there’s very little fault to be found with the performance and dynamics of the M40i.
It’s not an all-out hardcore M car in the way an M4 coupe or M2 Competition is, which seems right. The Z4 M40i is more approachable, and ultimately more forgiving as a result.
Take it away from its natural setting and it’s less impressive, out of its depth around town and blighted by a series of minor qualms, the likes of which shouldn’t be found in any car at the $30k mark, let alone one that pushes past $120k.
While this generation just made it through BMW’s product planning approval process, here’s hoping it's enough to keep the Z4 alive.