The market for two-seat drop-top fun machines is a fickle one. It's a segment driven by fashion, and one that’s not universally popular (or suitable) around the world.
If nothing else, BMW deserves a raucous high-five for bringing the current Z4 to life, even if the cooperation with Toyota for the reborn Supra was instrumental to this.
It does seem a little odd, though, that just five minutes after the launch of the 250kW Z4 M40i (okay, more like 12 months in real terms), BMW tweaked its flagship roadster’s tune and liberated an extra 35kW from the turbocharged B58 3.0-litre straight-six under the bonnet. The price has also been tweaked to $127,900, or $3000 more than before, though that's less to do with the extra power and more to do with BMW's mid-year price rise across number model lines.
The change is perhaps less mysterious when you consider the M340i xDrive sedan delivers the same 285kW/500Nm outputs for $19K less, (or $29K less if you opt for the slightly less opulent M340i Pure) but adds in all-wheel drive, not to mention a functional rear seat and an extra pair of doors. To keep the value of the Z4 from looking ludicrous, more power is a sensible choice, and something no owner is ever likely to say no to.
The only problem with giving the Z4 M40i a power boost is that it didn’t need one. Not even a small one. Sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true.
After a week behind the wheel of the updated 2020 BMW Z4 M40i, there was no point where I thought the extra 35kW over last year’s model had really paid off. It did often cross my mind that the car, as a whole, could do with more time at finishing school.
All of the niggly little things that grated about the Z4 still do. The instrument screen looks undersized for its yawing housing, the tacho runs backwards, the seatbelt saws into your neck, and the high-sided body means you have no idea where the extremities of the car are.
The brakes grab and squeal at low speeds, the cabin is buffeted by wind with the top down at speed, the console cupholder design is frustratingly anti-cup or bottle, particularly for passengers, but really that’s a handful of minor gripes.
Even with a compact footprint overall, the cabin feels somewhat spacious. It’s not tight or cramped in any particular dimension, though it’s not oversized. Storage space in the cabin is limited (the video cassette-sized door pockets are a real laugh), but you’ll be able to successfully stow keys, wallet and phone, at least.
The roof can be stowed or deployed in around 10 seconds, and can be folded on the go. The operation is slick and smooth, and the cabin is decently calm with the top up. Boot space doesn’t change with roof position either at a decent (for a compact roadster) 281L, though there’s not much depth to pack into.
The standard equipment list is well padded. Common amongst all Z4s are LED headlights with auto high-beam, wireless phone charging, dual-zone climate control, leather-trimmed electric seats, colour head-up display, 10.25-inch displays for the infotainment and instruments, speed limit info, rear-view camera, cruise control with speed limiter, lane-departure warning and more.
As with so many small-selling sports cars, this one goes unrated by ANCAP, though a five-star Euro NCAP from 2019 (for four-cylinder left-hand-drive models) gives a reasonable guide as to its safety credentials. Autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, full-height side airbags plus front and driver’s knee airbags cover the protection side of things.
As the flagship of the Z4 range, the M40i adds hands-free walk-away locking, distance-keeping cruise control with stop-and-go functionality, M Sport brakes, ambient interior lighting, 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio, adaptive headlights, adaptive suspension, and 19-inch alloy wheels.
There’s nothing conspicuously absent, though given the appalling outward visibility, it’s hard not to wish for a 360-degree camera at times. Come winter, the availability of neck-level heating would be nice, but it’s not a deal-breaker.
More conspicuous by their absence are rivals. Audi no longer offers a TT convertible, but offers fairly ferocious 294kW/480Nm performance from the five-cylinder TT RS coupe for $135K. Philosophically closer, Porsche’s 718 Boxster portrays the right mix of image and dynamics and starts from $121,490 with an automatic in base 220kW/380Nm four-cylinder turbo guise.
Otherwise, the cupboard is rather bare for high-powered roadsters, although you could pay a bit more for a Jaguar F-Type ($145,100 for the four-cylinder model, but over $190K for the V6) or pay much less for a Lotus Elise; though it may be a bit too hard-edged for many, at least it’ll always be rare and unusual.
To drive, the Z4 always feels like something of a tamed wild child. It offers a measure of composure for mildly trundling around town, but it really wants to be boisterous – straining at the leash to demonstrate its ability.
The low-speed brake squeal is a sign of this, as too the transmission, which even in Comfort mode tries to hold gears if you mildly bury the accelerator and kicks down abruptly to deliver maximum accelerative effect. I’m not really mad at that, though there are times when the Z4 ought to behave more like a cruiser but can’t.
As the roads open up and the suburbs drop behind, the Z4 starts to make more sense. Sort of.
The steering is clean and communicative, though during highway stints it can be a touch overactive. There’s a really nice balance of grip and excitability from the rear end. You can lay power down cleanly and sprint with vigour out of tight bends, but the rear end set-up and stability calibration will let you have a bit of fun easily enough if you’re game.
Setting everything to Sport or Sport Plus creates a bristling fun-seeker, and it's hard not to fall in love with the Z4 M40i’s attitude to winding roads. Owners of earlier Z4 cars might find this newest model a touch less involving, with heftier-feeling weight balance and a less lively seat-of-the-pants feel, despite numerous technical improvements made in the new generation.
That could be, just a little, where the Z4 starts to come undone. It isn’t just an effortlessly powerful cruiser, and at times it would be nice if it were. At the same time, it can be sharp and involving, though there’s something about the way everything works together that lacks harmony – it's no natural athlete.
The package would be all the better for a more predictable brake pedal in place of the grabby and artificial-feeling stoppers used. They’re certainly strong, but initial bite is too aggressive, and it's easy to pitch the little roadster heavily onto its nose on the way into a corner.
All of this backed by a soundtrack that sounds fantastic from outside the vehicle, but comes across as flat and lifeless for the occupants. Even the broad, flat bonnet seems uninvolving – there’s nothing to give a sense of swooping sports car as you look ahead. You may as well be in any anonymous rental car as you peer down the nose.
All the technical features line up: the 3.0-litre turbo six, the eight-speed ZF automatic transmission, the electronically actuated M Sport limited-slip differential, the 4.1-second 0–100km/h sprint potential (now 0.3sec faster). It’s performance hardware through and through.
Technical merit isn’t always passionate, though, and there’s something missing, be it drama, passion or involvement. The Z4 M40i kinda-sorta delivers a bit, but never spreads a wide-eyed grin across your face. A contrast made all the more obvious when you consider the excitability found within the closely related Toyota Supra, which now scores the same engine upgrade.
At least where excitement matters the least, BMW has nailed the brief. The Z4 can be serviced for five years or 80,000km for $1650 with a pre-paid BMW Service Inclusive package, making it no more expensive to maintain than an X1 or 3 Series. On the flipside, BMW persists with a three-year warranty below that of the industry standard.
Fuel-watchers can use the official consumption rating of 7.5L/100km as a guide. In a week that involved little in the way of commuting, but plenty of touring to get to some spirited roads for spirited runs, we landed a high 11.9L/100km.
Could it be that as the hedonistic roadster market evaporates, the Z4 M40i has reasoned itself out of existence? Certainly in terms of performance and ability – not to mention value and practicality – an M340i or X3 M40i does more.
No open-top devotee is going to be lured by a sedan or SUV, though, leaving the Z4 free to shine. However, the M40i’s problem isn’t competitors from other brands, but rather the more modest Z4 30i that dials back some of the hard edges, and gives a little extra time to sit back and drink in the scenery thanks to its less powerful four-cylinder engine.
More power is never a bad thing to have, but it's a gift that must be used wisely. In this case, it feels like BMW may have squandered the opportunity to strengthen the Z4 M40i where it needed it the most.
The M40i’s extra 35kW over earlier versions is lost in translation. Already a fast and powerful compact roadster, it's hard to see where the power went or why it was needed. But be that as it may, it would be foolish to say no to the power bump, so we welcome it with open arms and hope a future update delivers the finesse the Z4 needs.