A love letter to my Z4.
I thought about you for a long time before we met...
When the opportunity to buy a new car came around I had a number of criteria in mind. There was already a family car to do all the mundane practical stuff so this new car could be more about fun. As long as it could get me a short distance to work every day, other things like the number of seats or fuel consumption really did not matter. It had to feel special, be exciting and love a twisty mountain road - all for under $25k.
I had previously owned a Toyota 86 which fitted the brief perfectly, but life is about finding new experiences. I have also previously owned a third generation Mazda MX-5 (NC) and loved having a convertible. So naturally I looked at the current MX-5 ND. But as hard as I tried to make it work, it was just too small and uncomfortable. The passenger seat was especially terrible and neither my wife nor I could sit there for very long.
Both my sons are well over 6 feet tall and they could not fit in the new MX-5 at all. A car that cannot be shared with loved ones is useless to me. My other car is the current model Golf R, so that pretty much killed the idea of any sort of hot hatch in comparison, especially at my budget. P-plate legality would also be good to allow my younger son to enjoy a drive. And one last non-negotiable was that the car absolutely had to be a manual.
Your beauty cannot be doubted...
Many years ago I hired a BMW Z4 for a few days and loved it. It felt solid and purposeful, almost like a mini Bavarian old-school muscle car. To my eye the first series Z4 (E85) had always been a great looking car and has aged very well. Bangle’s designs at BMW may have drawn a lot of criticism (the 7 Series especially) but the first Z4 has to go down as an absolute classic. 20 years after it was first designed, the body lines are still pure and unique. The rear end and Z line on the flanks are a work of genius.
The front, although bold, is not the car’s best angle but I still think any allusion to a clown shoe is most unkind. Just compare this car to the new Z4. The latter looks like it was drawn by a 10 year old who did not know when to stop adding bits. To my eye, like a lot of new cars, the new Z4 is way overstyled and unrestrained with a cornucopia of unnecessary plastic addendums. I’d love to hear what Thanos Pappos thinks.
The first Z4 was a car that seemed to fill all my criteria. I especially liked what I read about the updated 2.5-litre cars, with less weight over the front axle making for a better handling car. The decision was made. The hunt was on.
I thought I would never find you...
...and 12 months later I was still looking.
Unfortunately when looking for a specific older car you are at the mercy of the market. I scoured the ads daily but was continually frustrated. I knew that any car in good condition and at a reasonable price would be quickly snapped up.
But finally I did...
One Sunday evening, just as I was giving up, I came across what was seemingly the perfect car. It was the updated 2.5 in a fetching Storm Grey with very low kilometres and for sale at a luxury dealership for less than $20k. One owner, full service history and the pictures looked great. Except wait, hang on, what’s that...it was an automatic! Noooo...! I thought about it for a while and, after consulting my automotive brains trust (mates and wife), decided I had waited long enough. I would have to cope with an auto.
From my experiences over the last 12 months I knew this car would not last long on the market and I had to act quickly. Unfortunately I would not be able to physically go and see the car until the end of the week. I was on the phone first thing in the morning and I did something I thought I would never do; I bought a car, sight unseen.
It was not love at first sight...
When I saw the car for the first time a few days later, I have to admit I was not that impressed. The car was still in as traded condition and looked decidedly unloved. The interior was filthy and had a rich heady aroma of old car smell. The leather seats were starting to look worn (after only 56000km!?) and the inside lining of the retractable top was torn. Comically the BMW badge fell off the boot lid as the salesman was getting the car out, but I was not laughing! Had I just made a huge mistake? Should I back away slowly then turn and run?
To the car’s credit, the claimed full service history did check out with a stack of receipts, the body was straight with no sign of rust or damage and I could find no faults driving it. The dealer promised to address my concerns, and when I returned to pick it up a few days later the finish on the leather seats had been nicely restored, the roof lining was repaired and the BMW badge was back where it belonged on the freshly polished body. A few hours of detailing the interior to my standards, the old car smell was completely banished and the car finally felt like mine.
Sometimes love smoulders rather than erupts into flame...
I’ve had a few cars over the years. Sometimes a car just feels right as soon as you drive it (looking at you Toyota 86). The Z4 was different and it has taken me a few months to fully appreciate it. My first thought while driving it in day-to-day traffic was that the Z4 was not as nimble as I would have liked. I prefer a car that is light and darty on the road; a car that gets up on its toes and changes direction quickly. My Z4 came with the M Sports wheel package, comprising 18-inch 225/40 fronts and 255/35 rears. That’s a lot of rubber for small car and it felt like there was too much grip and none of the playfulness of a Toyota 86 or MX-5 that I craved.
The Z4 felt refined, sturdy and luxurious in traffic but not spritely. It wafted along imperiously and reminded me a lot of my father’s old Mercedes 380 SEC. In its own way this is not a bad thing but not what I was expecting in a small, two-seat sports car. It felt more Grand Tourer than Sports car. Would a manual transmission make a difference? Undoubtedly, but the 6-speed auto is actually really good. It changes quickly and positively and there are steering wheel paddles that are nicely responsive.
And then I saw you in a different light...
Two things happened that changed things completely. The first was that I went for a spirited drive in the mountains and found that once up around 80km/h on a twisty road the chassis comes alive. Maybe it’s a German thing but it seems that the faster you go the better the car feels. It is interesting that Japanese cars like the Toyota 86 and MX-5 are more responsive in the cut and thrust of daily traffic but a BMW really needs an open road and some speed to give its best.
The other thing that changed everything was that I dumped the run flats and replaced them with Michelin PS4s. Wow! Cue the beam of celestial light and angelic choral singing. What a revelation. It was like the first time I tried Japanese food, or listened to hardbop Jazz. Or come to think of it, the first time I drove a convertible. My world had been changed. Suddenly everything made sense. All the concrete had been removed from the driveline. The feel had suddenly changed from rock hard to firmly sporty. There was now a new-found compliance with feedback and control that was completely missing before. Now the set up worked.
Gone was the bone hard ride and nervous skittishness when hitting a bump mid-corner. The car now cornered beautifully flat, with control and there was the confidence to make adjustments on the throttle. My understanding is that this Z4 was the first BMW to be sold with run flat tyres, but this was a philosophical decision on the part of management. The car was never engineered to have run flats and was not developed to use them. Anybody out there with an early Z4 still on run flats please, for the love of everything you hold sacred, you have to change them. The result is beyond a religious experience!
Our relationship is back on solid ground...
Now six months in, and I am genuinely looking forward to driving my Z4 everyday. I have learnt to appreciate how solid this car feels on the road. The cabin is generously proportioned and the whole car feels luxurious and comfortable. Roof up or down, there are no squeaks or rattles despite the stiff suspension. If you do not know what scuttle shake is now then you are not going to learn by driving this car. The BMW straight 6 engine is a thing of beauty. It feels strong with a proper elegant burble on the overrun, not a childish fart like most modern cars. This engine has been described as silky smooth and turbine-like. In fact, the cliches roll off the tongue as easily and smoothly as this engine gains revs.
Another first for this car was BMW’s first electric steering, and while direct it is unfortunately fairly vague with poor feedback. Like everything else, this improved with the new tyres but is still a weak point.
12 years is a long time in automotive development and I’ve been lucky enough to have driven mostly new cars for the past 20 years. Coming from the Golf R there are a lot of mod cons that the Z4 does not have. Things like blind-spot monitoring and lane assist I do not miss at all. For me, the lack of stop-start is a bonus, although it took me ages to get out of the habit of automatically looking for the button to turn it off every time I started the engine.
The one piece of technology that I find truly essential is hands-free Bluetooth phone connection. There is a website that lists all the options every BMW had when it left the factory, and luckily when I looked up my car’s specifications online I found it was fitted with Bluetooth as a factory option. I’d be interested to know what piece of technology other people cannot live without.
I find that the heated seats and excellent climate control make the Z4 luxuriously comfortable, even in the dead of a Melbourne winter. Fuel consumption is a little high at around 12 litres per 100 kilometres, but that’s mostly driving in heavy traffic.
For an older European, I’m going to say reliability has been good. The engine started running very rough at idle one morning but then ran perfectly well 20 minutes later when it was being inspected by my mechanic - no fault was found. It has run perfectly since, so hopefully that gremlin will not return. Another time a dash warning light came on. After several choice expletives, I checked the owner’s manual and found out this was the “exhaust emission values” light. This could indicate anything from a cracked manifold to a leaking exhaust but usually just meant “carbon build up on the exhaust lamda sensor” what ever that means.
The advice in the forums was to try the old “Italian tune up.” So I took the car for a run up in the hills and revved it out a few times with fingers crossed. And hey presto the light went out and has not reappeared since.
My only other gripe is that the seats are a bit hard and flat and could be a bit more supportive during enthusiastic cornering.
I’m so glad that we met...
All in all my folly of buying an old BMW over the phone, sight unseen, seems to have payed out. I’m looking forward to enjoying the convertible experience in the warmer weather to come. I can hear the mountain roads calling me now.