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Expert Reviews 1 of 2
By Kelsey Mays
October 3, 2008
Like Stacy's mom, BMW's Z4 has still got it going on. Munich's two-seat runabout remains a compelling choice for driving enthusiasts in a way some of its quicker, fresher competitors do not. Throw in decent reliability and gas mileage, and it's easy to see why it's been a Cars.com Best Bet for two years running. A replacement is on its way soon, but if you can tolerate the current generation's styling — sorry, I really can't — it's worth a look.
My review focuses on the Z4 coupe. Little has changed for 2008, so it still comes in one trim, the 255-horsepower 3.0si. The roadster comes as an entry-level 215-hp 3.0i or a beefier 3.0si, and both body styles offer a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. An extra $9,700 over the price of the 3.0si will put you in the scintillating Z4 M, also available as a coupe or roadster; it's covered separately in Cars.com's Research section. Click here to compare all Z4 variants. Still Unique The coupe looks sharp from certain angles, and it's different enough from the roadster to draw attention. We shot a video of the car in a park south of our downtown Chicago offices, and a Nissan 350Z owner riding by on his bike stopped to admire the car's slung-back stance. I tried to argue otherwise: I find the well-packaged rear pleasing enough, but the long nose and awkward cut lines look like a cubist rendition of the earlier Z3. Bicycle Man would have none of it.
The Z4 has been around since late 2002, a product of BMW chief designer Chris Bangle's so-called "visual energy" approach. For 2006, the automaker tempered the Z4's look to what you see today, with a wider grille and reshaped fog lights. The coupe arrived the same year, but it's still relatively rare: In its first 13 months on the market, the roadster outsold it at a ratio of 7 to 1.
The roadster comes standard with a manual top. A power-operated top is optional. Seventeen-inch alloy wheels are standard on all models; 18-inchers come with the optional Sport Package. City drivers should note the Z4's alley-friendly turning circle of 32.2 feet, which beats competitors like the 350Z, Audi TT, Porsche Boxster/Cayman and Mercedes-Benz SLK by anywhere from 2.4 to 4.2 feet. How It Moves BMW's normally aspirated inline-six still packs plenty of heat, if not the brute force of the turbocharged version that's replaced it elsewhere in BMW's lineup. Dubbed N52, the 3.0-liter engines use the automaker's intricate valve-lift acrobatics to deliver 215 hp in the Z4 3.0i and, thanks to a three-stage intake manifold, 255 hp in the 3.0si. The latter engine offers ample torque — 220 pounds-feet at 2,750 rpm — for usable power as low as 1,800 rpm, which means you can muscle past slow-moving traffic in sixth gear from 50 mph up.
Not that you won't want to downshift. The six-cylinder feels smoother than in the last X3 crossover I tested, whose overactive automatic gave the engine a peaky, uneven character. Here, my six-speed manual Z4 coupe weighed in at a slim 3,108 pounds — less than a 350Z or SLK, though more than the flyweight Cayman and two-wheel-drive TT — and power builds much more fluidly. Reaching the tach's upper boundaries is easy enough, and a swell of acceleration comes expectedly on the way there.
The manual shifter flicks into gear with well-oiled, if somewhat rubbery, movements. The setup is worthy of a sports car, to be sure, but it lacks the machined precision of the 350Z's short-throw shifter. Rush-hour commuters should note there's a heavy clutch with a narrow engagement point, which can make stop-and-go traffic a real bear.
Where BMW excels is accelerator response: Toe the gas pedal, and the tach needle springs to attention with little delay. Let off, and it goes limp just as fast. The setup allows quick rev-matches during gear changes and, if you're into it, expert heel-and-toe downshifting. Few competitors have the same swift response — the TT's throttle, in particular, lags a bit.
Put the pedal down, and BMW says 60 mph comes in 5.6 seconds in the 3.0si manual. That's about midpack: The base Cayman and '09 SLK300 are marginally slower, according to their respective automakers, while the six-cylinder TT with its dual-clutch gearbox is a bit quicker. Nissan doesn't publish acceleration figures for the 350Z, but most independent tests put the 306-hp car in the low 5-second range.
Gas mileage, at 18/28 mpg city/highway with the manual transmission and either engine, leads all but the Cayman when you look at six-cylinder performance. The automatic adds 1 mpg in the city. Like many of its peers, the Z4 sips premium fuel. Turning & Stopping Opt for the Sport Package and you'll get BMW's Dynamic Driving Control, which adds a Sport button next to the shifter. My car came thus equipped. Pressing it quickens accelerator response, though I'm lukewarm on the results: Rev-matching is no easier than it already was, and the gas pedal gets too touchy for smooth around-town driving.
More acceptable is the Sport mode's reduction in power-steering assist, which you'll notice immediately. The steering wheel requires more effort to turn, but it gains a bit of turn-in precision; rotate the wheel, and the nose darts swiftly to one side or the other. The car's underpinnings are a reliable partner for such maneuvers. The suspension utilizes struts up front and a multilink setup in back, and the setup is sport-tuned with the Sport Package. Body roll is minimal, and the Z4 holds its course well through a corner. I've driven the Cayman S, not the base Cayman, but Porsche's mid-engine competitor seems better balanced — it's easier to hang the tail mid-corner and reel it in as you're straightening out. The Z4 exhibits similarly predictable control, but its chassis feels less prepared for dips and rises in the road, especially if you're flinging the car through a corner at the same time. The 350Z and Mercedes-Benz SLK are even choppier in this regard. I haven't driven the TT enough to offer a conclusive handling evaluation, but its nose-heavy weight distribution suggests it may understeer a bit more than the others.
Road noise on the highway is high, but ride quality is tolerable. The suspension responds loudly to bumps, but it sorts them out so your spine doesn't have to. Another plus is the Z4's standard four-wheel-discantilock brakes, which deliver the confident stopping power I've come to expect from BMW. It can take some time to get accustomed to the pedal's grabby response, however. The Inside Cramped, sparsely adorned cabins are to be expected in this class. Considering such, the Z4 makes good use of its space. The dashboard employs low-gloss materials and genuine wood or aluminum, though some of the plastics around the window sills have a grainy, less premium finish. The seats and doors have a high grade of semi-gathered leather. Faux leather is standard on the Z4 3.0i, while an extended-leather option on the 3.0si adds cowhide to the windshield frame, sun visors and elsewhere.
The optional power seats in my test car had small but robust bolsters; further down the options list are sport seats with thicker bolsters. Either way, the chairs have surprising adjustment range and could easily accommodate 6-foot-plus drivers. Less generous are the storage and convenience provisions, which include a tiny glove box and a shelved compartment between the seats. The Z4's flip-out cupholders — one to either side of the dash — feel about as sturdy as the Detroit Lions' defensive line.
Cargo volume behind the seats measures 10.1 cubic feet in the coupe and 9.2 cubic feet in the roadster with the top raised. With it down, the figure drops to 8.5 cubic feet. Those numbers roughly match the SLK (9.8 cubic feet with the top up) and beat the 350Z (6.8 cubic feet in the coupe). Drivers who want more cargo versatility should consider the TT coupe and Cayman, whose cargo areas (13.1 and 14.5 cubic feet, respectively) lead the group. Safety & Reliability Being low-volume sellers, the Z4 coupe and its competitors have not been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard safety features include front chest and knee airbags, as well as side-impact airbags mounted in the doors. Head-protecting side curtain airbags aren't available. The 350Z, Cayman and Boxster offer them.
Also standard on the Z4 are antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control. A brake-drying function keeps the discs dry during wet weather. Adaptive brake lights, which illuminate brighter during hard braking to warn drivers behind the Z4, are also standard.
Reliability may not make or break the average sports-car purchase, but the Z4's is worth mentioning. In Consumer Reports surveys, the car has emerged with good overall scores in most of the years it's been on the market. The publication predicts reliability for a new '08 will be Better Than Average. The Cayman and 350Z are Much Better Than Average and Average, respectively, while the redesigned TT lacks sufficient data to be rated. The SLK is the stinker of the group, with awful reliability scores in the years the current generation has been rated. Features & Pricing Excluding the destination charge, the Z4 3.0i starts at $36,700. The 3.0si coupe runs $40,700, while the 3.0si roadster is $42,700. Those figures closely follow the TT's prices, and a well-equipped 350Z can be priced to match. The Porsche and Mercedes-Benz competitors start in the mid- to high 40s.
Standard features on the Z4 3.0i include 17-inch wheels, faux leather upholstery, manual A/C and a 10-speaker CD stereo with an auxiliary MP3 jack. The 3.0si adds automatic climate control, leather seats, a trip computer and upgraded THX-certified audio. Among the options are Sport and Premium packages, sport seats, upgraded leather, heated seats and a navigation system. An automatic transmission runs $1,325, while a power top on the roadster adds $750. Expect a loaded Z4 to top out around $55,000. Z4 in the Market The aging Z4 doesn't offer the latest infotainment or luxury features, but it connects the driver to the car in a way that perhaps only the Cayman can flat-out exceed. If you read to this point in the review, I suspect the car's styling has scored more hits than misses for you. I can't bring myself to agree, but I'll assert that the car performs well in many other not-so-subjective areas.
A BMW spokesman told me a Z4 replacement will arrive for 2009, so right now there are deals to be had — check Cars.com's rebate and financing offers for specifics. If you're still wealthy enough to drop 45 large on one of these weekend toys, you positively must share your investment strategies with the rest of us. Then give the Z4 a look.