Poor Chris Bangle. The design chief for BMW had his hands full when he was charged with the unenviable task of reworking what had worked right for six years. And what wasn't right about the Z3 sports car? From its garish good looks to its hair-in-the-wind demeanor, young and old alike loved it. James Bond even plugged it. How do you improve on a good thing? How do you make the Bond car better? Bangle started over. And the complaining started up. (Who knew adding a number would be so difficult?) To the critics, the 2003 Z4 roadster was "too different," not "stylish enough," and hardly representative of BMW's "sexy corporate styling." Sexy corporate styling? Isn't that like saying "attractive polyester?" And, pardon us, but polyester should never ride in the Z4. From its shark-like front nose to its sweeping lines to its racer's heart and throat, the all-new Z4 is different. And Mr. Bangle, that's a good thing. It's not like the Z3 because, simply, it's better than the Z3. It's more fun to drive on the open road. It's like very few roadsters on the open road - attractive with the top up, stunning with the top down and a breeze to handle under any conditions. It's not perfect - with a sport-tuned suspension that is wound tight, even highway driving can send your spine for a ride. But even 007 had a few flaws. Available only as a roadster (the coupe has been dropped), the newcomer offers much to like. The chassis is more rigid this year, the wheelbase has been lengthened and the shell has been lightened. All that adds up to some impressive driving dynamics. Want to feel the road and taste the corners? The Z4 will serve it up. Equipped with a new electrical-assist steering system and a sport package ($1,500) that lowers the car's height and shortens the suspension pieces, the rear-drive roadster muscles into turns with a controlled chaos. Composed. Confident. Crazy. And, like all true sport rides, it is a driver's car. From the turn of the key and the snore of the exhaust, the Z has one ambition: Punch the pedal. Then punch it again. And pushing that pedal will get you somewhere in a hurry. Available with either a 2.5-liter six-cylinder engine (our tester) or the larger 3.0-liter version, the Z4 zips up to 60 mph in the blink of an eye (or about seven seconds). With less than 3,000 pounds beneath you, swift travel is hardly a concern. The 2.5-liter creates 184 horsepower but, more importantly, produces the kind of torque that will pull you out in front of the pack whether you're in second gear or fifth. Late for work? The Z4 has the solution. Bored in traffic? The Z4 will take care of you. It's the cure for the common commute. With a spin-control system on board, it will also keep you on the straight and narrow. The Z4 handled wet weather without a problem and slippery co nditions were stable. Ride quality requires an advance warning. In the true quality of a sports roadster, you can feel every bump and every bruise. That means traveling through a construction zone in southeast Michigan left me with a bad case of the jitters long after. Even with supportive seats, it's a firmness that only means you are riding in something tuned ultra-tight. I liked that; some might not. On the inside, there is style in simplicity. BMW has not loaded up the Z4 with a maze of gadgets, gizmos or DVD screens. Again, it's a driver's car. That means a small instrument cluster with two key gauges - speedometer and tachometer. The theme continues throughout. With a long, sweeping silver dash reminiscent of the 7-Series BMW, the Z4 keeps it clean. The AM/FM/CD stereo is positioned high, just above the climate control which is just above the five-speed transmission (a six-speed is available on the 3.0-liter). And that's about it. There are plenty of storage pockets along the sides and behind the driver's elbow in a unique rear bin, but that's where the fancy stuff ends. Just drive it. Now, the styling. Love it or hate it, at least BMW changed it. The designers restyled the old nose of the Z3, ditching the waterfall louvers and sculpting the front end into the sides. It's a classic look that screams sleek and speedy, from its wide back end to the pointy front. They even incorporated the BMW logo into the side turn signals. It's classy and it works. The ad campaign talks about it looking like a shark. I'll bite. A couple of gripes: The clutch pedal had a long, heavy path to travel and suffered from an unreasonable vibration out of first and second gear. And - a warning - there are a ton of blind spots on this car, especially with the top up. A good thing: The power top is unbelievably simple, powering its way down in a couple of seconds with the push of a button and stowing behind the seats. No latches. No tugs. No trunk space lost (even if it is already tiny - about two golf bags' worth). Safety has been addressed with two steel roll bars, run-flat tires and four air bags, including knee protection. And price? You knew this was coming. At $33,100 for the 2.5-liter version, this is a reasonable proposition for a car this daring. Buyer beware: When you start adding on the extras, you will come dangerously close to the starting price of the 3.0-liter ($40,250). Even in its simplest version, the Z4 is good. Different. Daring. And, definitely, thankfully, no corporate styling. 2003 BMW Z4 Rating: 3.5 High gear: Superb road manners, stylish interior and exterior, the industry's easiest soft top and plentiful safety features make the Z4 an A-plus. Low gear: Price becomes an issue with add-ons, and the number of blind spots make tight spaces tricky. Clutch feel on the tester seemed worn and suffered from unnerving vibration at low speeds. Vehicle type: Rear-wheel drive, front-engine, two-door, two-passenger roadster. Key standard equipment: Five-speed manual transmission; four-wheel anti-lock brakes with Dynamic Brake Control; Dynamic Stability Control with all-season tracking; speed-sensitive electric power steering; 16-inch alloy wheels with run-flat tires; dual air bags with active knee protection; dual side air bags; coded anti-theft protection; remote entry; climate-control; tilt steering wheel; anti-theft AM/FM stereo CD with 10 speakers; central locking; power windows and mirrors; heated glass rear window. Key competition: Audi TT, Lexus SC430, Honda S2000, Nissan 350Z Base engine (2.5): 184 horsepower, 2.5-liter DOHC 24-valve inline 6-cylinder Torque (2.5): 175 ft.-lbs. @ 3,500 rpm Wheelbase: 98.2 inches Length: 161.1 inches M PG rating: 20 city/28 highway Manufactured: Spartanburg, S.C. Warranty: Basic warranty is four years/50,000 miles; drivetrain is four years/50,000 miles; roadside assistance is four years/50,000 miles; and rust is six years/unlimited miles. Base price (2.5): $33,100 Price as tested (including options, destination and delivery): $40,746
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