We talk a lot about niche cars. Four-door coupes, swoopy shooting brakes, sloping-roofed crossovers – they all exist to plug a very small gap in the market. But those niches pale in comparison to the niche filled by the 2020 BMW Z4 sDrive20i manual. Not only is it a premium two-seat convertible, it has a manual transmission.
This isn't a mass-market warrior, it's quite possibly one of the most niche vehicles available in Australia. And it's going to make a small group of people very happy.
By now the formula underpinning the BMW Z4 is well known. Now into its third generation, the latest Z4 was developed alongside the hotly anticipated Toyota Supra. It's built by Magna Steyr in Austria alongside low-volume legends like the Mercedes-Benz G-Class.
Power in the 20i comes from a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine outputting 145kW and 320Nm, put to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. An eight-speed automatic is standard, but the stick shift is still available as a special-order option.
Those outputs don't sound world-beating, but it's an absolute joy being able to exploit every little bit of them with an old-fashioned manual. That isn't a knock on the eight-speed ZF automatic offered across the BMW line-up. It's a slick-shifting transmission – smooth and subtle in the city and surprisingly snappy on the move, but there are few things more satisfying than taking control yourself.
And the transmission in the Z4 is good, even if it's not quite Honda Civic Type R great. There's a surprising amount of weight to the clutch, and the shift itself is relatively notchy with an aggressive self-centering movement. With that said, it's also accurate across the gate, meaning you can really slam from second to third without fear of inadvertently snagging first (and an expensive repair bill).
It rewards firm, decisive movements over dainty flicks of the wrist, although the throw will likely get smoother and the action slicker with time. Our tester only had 2500km on the clock, so some tightness is to be expected.
The pedals are tightly spaced without feeling cramped, which makes rev-matching a doddle. But leave your clown shoes at home – my size-13 boots barely fit, although swapping to a set of sneakers fixed the problem.
Can't heel-and-toe? Time to learn! But also, BMW has been kind enough to bundle (switchable) automatic rev-matching into Sport Mode.
The 'base' billing handed to the sDrive20i suggests it could be slightly underdone, but the 2.0-litre engine has more than enough punch. With 320Nm on tap between 1450 and 4200rpm it pulls happily from just off idle, and has a pleasingly meaty mid-range.
Lazy drivers can lean on second and third gear at city speeds, safe in the knowledge the Z4 will pick up. Peak power comes in at 6200rpm, but there isn't much incentive to go chasing it – there's no massive top-end rush, although the engine does sound raspy and purposeful with the roof dropped.
Claimed economy is 7.2L/100km, while we saw 8.0L/100km in a week slightly skewed to highway driving.
Without outputs (or the price tag) to tackle the Porsche Boxster, the sDrive20i can be judged through a slightly different lens to its bigger brothers. Essentially, the key question for a lower-powered, lower-priced Z4 is this: does it make you smile?
The answer is a resounding yes. Rear-wheel drive, two-seat manual cars are in short supply, which means the novelty factor is high to start with. But the 20i backs it up with a relatively lively chassis and accurate steering, even if the latter doesn't chatter away at you.
Despite its short wheelbase, the Z4 has bags of grip on dry roads. And despite the 20i's engine being 105kW and 180Nm down on the range-topping M40i, a generous helping of throttle (okay, full throttle) in first or second gear is all it takes to bring the rear into play. Lurid, smokey slides are out of the equation, but the 20i feels playful under power.
We've previously been critical of the way big-wheeled Z4 variants ride. Although it isn't a featherbed, the 20i doesn't feel brittle or harsh like its bigger brothers – we'd suggest thanks largely to its 18-inch alloy wheels, the smallest available on a Z4. It was more than comfortable to handle a three-hour road trip along some pretty average country highways without complaint, which is no mean feat.
The ride isn't the only element of the 20i that's eminently liveable. There's space for long-legged adults inside, along with just enough storage to handle phones, garage door openers, coffee cups, and the sunglasses/cap combination necessary for all Australian convertible owners.
Buffeting is minimal with the roof and windows dropped up to 60km/h, and you could pretty happily drive at 100km/h with the roof down and windows raised, conversing (slightly more loudly) with your passenger the whole way.
Unfortunately, there's no adaptive cruise control as standard, it's an $800 option. Also optional is keyless entry ($1100 or $1800 in a pack), both of which feel as if they should really be standard in a premium convertible worth $84,990 before on-road costs.
BMW has furnished the cabin with the same OS7.0 infotainment system as its latest 3 Series, which means you have the option of controlling the radio, navigation, and media with a rotary controller on the transmission tunnel, using the touchscreen, or with conversational 'Hey BMW' voice commands.
To my eyes, it's the best infotainment in the business. Not so good is the digital instrument cluster, which trades the readability of BMW's classic dials for a style-focused design that's busier (and uglier, to these eyes) than before. Oh, and the rev counter goes the wrong way.
As you'd expect, ergonomics are a Z4 strong suit. The right-hand seat drops right down to the floor, and the wheel telescopes right into the driver's chest, while there's plenty of room for gangly elbows.
There's space for my six-seven frame despite the car's compact proportions, even with the roof raised. Speaking of which, the folding soft-top is one of the slickest around, opening in 10 seconds at speeds up to 50km/h.
The switch from a hardtop in the previous generation Z4 to the current folding soft-top brings plenty of benefits. Boot space is a respectable 281L, and more than enough to hold all the junk required for a couples weekend away, and doesn't diminish with the roof dropped.
BMW's warranty is a disappointing three years compared to the five offered by mainstream brands. Five years of servicing costs $1650 under the BMW Service Inclusive Basic package. That includes engine oil and filters, spark plugs and brake fluid, but doesn't account for the brake pads and discs, clutch, or wiper blades – though these can be included with the more expensive Service Inclusive Plus service plan.
The Z4 sDrive20i isn't a logical or rational purchase. It isn't the fastest or most handsome Z4, nor the best equipped. It's getting perilously close to base Supra money, too, although Toyota's take on the Z4 chassis is hard to come by in Australia.
With a manual transmission, though, you could easily argue the sDrive20i manual is the most convincing Z4 as a fun-first toy. Drop the top, crank up the stereo, and get your left leg ready. We're going for a weekend drive.