It’s hard not to feel BMW drew the short straw when it entered into a joint-development project with Toyota for their dizygotic twins – the BMW Z4 and the Toyota Supra.
The third-generation (G29) Z4 was first unveiled to the public at Pebble Beach in 2018, heralding the return of the BMW roadster for the first time since 2016 when Munich shelved the second-generation model. The key difference here, though, is this new-gen Z4 reverts back to a soft-top in place of the retractable hardtop featured on the E89-generation Z4.
Roadsters have long been part of the BMW DNA, as early as the 1930s with the iconic and marvellous 328 with its 2.0-litre inline six-cylinder engine. The post-war BMW 507, heart-achingly beautiful and powered by a 3.2-litre V8, was intended primarily for the booming US market. Although, with just 252 examples produced between 1956–’60, it’s hard not to call it anything but a commercial flop, not helped by cost blowouts that saw the projected US$5000 sticker price balloon out to around US$10,500 (around US$100,000 in today’s money).
There’s no V8 under the long bonnet of this Z4, though, the entry-level 2020 BMW Z4 sDrive20i. It’s one of just three Z4s in the range sitting alongside the sDrive30i and the more potent M40i in the line-up. It’s also cheaper in adjusted terms, with a tip-in point of $84,900 plus on-road costs. And there’s plenty of equipment to make you feel like you’re getting bang for your buck.
Highlights include dual-zone climate control, a head-up display, electrically adjustable leather sports seats, keyless entry and push-button start, a 10.25-inch infotainment screen running BMW’s latest OS 7.0 software, a 10.25-inch digital driver display, satellite navigation, DAB+ radio, wireless phone charging and wireless Apple CarPlay.
There’s also the standard M Sport package that adds lowered suspension, exterior M Sport aero enhancements, M Sport seats and a leather steering wheel festooned with the tri-colour M.
Our tester, though, as is often the way, came bedazzled with around $10K worth of options including adaptive suspension for $1100, M-branded seatbelts ($560), metallic paint at $2000 and 19-inch alloy wheels ($900). Suddenly, that sub-$90K buy-in doesn’t seem so enticing when you’re staring down the barrel of a six-figure convertible, which will get you the next Z4 in the range, the more powerful (by 45kW and 80Nm) and better-equipped sDrive30i that asks for $104,900 as a starting point.
That pricier Z4 shares the same drivetrain as the one we have on test – a 2.0-litre (1998cc) turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine mated to BMW’s eight-speed sports automatic transmission sending drive exclusively to the rear wheels (hooray). In 20i guise that four-pot is good for 145kW (at a revving 6500rpm) and 320Nm at a more usable 1450–4200rpm. The sprint to triple figures is claimed to take 6.6 seconds – slightly slower than an armada of hot hatches on the market. Different animal, of course, presented here merely to give some context.
It’s not sluggish by any means, but neither is it electrifying. Around town that little four-pot tends to drone away, a little hesitant. That drone is amplified out on the highway, and not helped either by wind noise and tyre roar, certainly with the roof up. Pop the soft-top, and the Z4 perversely becomes a little quieter.
The eight-speed auto does a fine job of selecting gears for you, with smooth and quite razor-sharp transitions. Or, you can use the paddle-shifters to control your own ratio choices.
That’s something you’ll want when enjoying a spirited drive. While ‘around town’ might not be the Z4’s sweet spot, the roadster summons up a little life on winding country roads. It’s by no means an exhilarating performance, but there’s enough in it to have some fun.
Just don’t push it to the ragged edge, as that’s where the Z4’s shortcoming become quickly apparent, with a tendency to understeer. This is not a car to take to its limits. Instead, dial it back and enjoy the agility of the chassis, which at 80 per cent effort offers a nicely balanced car.
Acceleration out of corners isn’t manic either, the inline-four working hard for not much gain when under hard throttle. The steering, too, although nicely weighted, doesn’t offer much in the way of feedback. Constant micro-adjustments are required to keep the Z4 going precisely where you want – or need – it to.
The ride on adaptive dampers is on the firm side, even in Comfort mode, exacerbated by the standard lowered ride height courtesy of the M Sport package. Those 19-inch alloys on low-profile Michelin Pilot Super Sport 255/35ZR19 front and 275/35ZR19 rear rubber don’t help the cause either, the Z4 thudding over even minor road blemishes with the subtlety of a hammer. And tyre roar is prevalent, especially at highway speeds.
That’s the compromise that comes with the ability to remove the roof, and enjoy the sun in your face and the wind in your hair. And that is the crux of this car – a roadster designed to be enjoyed on a comfortable and leisurely cruise on a warm day or balmy night, the roof down as all your stresses and worries disappear into the slipstream. In that regard, BMW has nailed it.
So, too, the cabin presentation, bar some minor quibbles. It’s quite compact inside, the seats slung nice and low. BMW’s focus on driver-centricity is evident with the infotainment screen titled towards the driver. The sculpted dash top provides a pleasing aesthetic, as does the mix of materials throughout, a blend of yielding surfaces, hard plastic and gloss-black accents.
There’s a shallow storage cubby ahead of the gear selector that also houses a wireless charging pad for smartphones. A single USB-A point is complemented by a USB-C outlet in the centre console bin. There’s also a 12V plug in the storage tray ahead of the gear selector.
Two cupholders lurk inside the centre console storage bin, while the narrow door pockets aren't particularly suitable for bottles – vials, maybe.
The heated seats feature electric adjustment with memory function, and while those M-branded seatbelts look the business, they’re not height-adjustable, having to run back below the belt-line. That meant, for my 173cm frame, the edge of the seatbelt was rubbing against my neck – a not entirely comfortable experience.
The Z4 runs BMW's latest OS 7.0 infotainment software, and while it looks terrific, with sharp graphics and a fresh, slick interface, there’s a complexity to the menu structure that is difficult to come to grips with. And features like wireless Apple CarPlay (there’s no Android Auto for BMW, yet) can take an age to connect the first time, with the function buried deep inside the bowels of OS 7.0.
Once connected the first time, the system is a peach, firing up CarPlay almost before you’ve lowered yourself into the seat and started the engine. It’s that quick.
A narrow ski port opens up to a 281L boot, which is quite shallow but can swallow a couple of overnight bags. The electric soft-top – with a slick 10-second automatic mechanism at speeds up to 50km/h – doesn’t impinge on boot space, stowing away into its own cavity. There are four tie-down points in the boot but no spare tyre, merely a puncture repair kit.
The Z4 in this guise is a bit skinny on safety tech, with lane-keeping assist joined by the mandatory acronyms (ABS, DSC and AEB amongst others), a head-up display (far more functional than BMW’s digital driver display), cruise control (not adaptive), and four airbags. It remains untested by ANCAP.
On the safety tech, we found the lane-keeping assist overly aggressive, jerking the steering quite harshly when it detected a wandering mind and wheel. There are smoother applications out there.
BMW claims the Z4 20i will survive on 6.5L/100km of premium 98RON unleaded on the combined cycle. Not even close. Our week with the car over a variety of situations – traffic, urban cruising, highway canters and some spirited country road driving – returned an indicated 10.5L/100km.
BMW is maintaining its standard three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty with three years’ roadside assistance even as some rivals are beginning to extend surety to five years. Servicing intervals are conditional-based, meaning the car will alert you when it’s time for a trip to the workshop. BMW’s Service Inclusive Basic covers the Z4 for five years or 80,000km of scheduled maintenance, whichever comes first, and can be pre-purchased for a very reasonable $1650.
Reasonable is the best word to sum up the Z4 sDrive20i. It does most things reasonably well, even if it can be a little underwhelming at times. Certainly, the interior presentation is top-notch, and the drive experience is, for the most part, reasonable.
Those craving a proper sporty experience, and the feeling of being connected to the road in a car that embraces and encourages the driver, should probably look at the Z4’s Supra twin. But, for those who want an open-top experience offering a blend of comfort, style, and enough sport smarts to be enjoyable without being manic, then this is quite possibly the roadster for them.