Editor's note: This review was written in September 2010 about the 2011 BMW Z4 sDrive35is. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The new Z4 sDrive35is has as tongue-twisting a name as you'll find in the U.S. auto market.
Those who speak BMW can decipher what it means, but all you really need to know is that it fully lives up to the automaker's Ultimate Driving Machine slogan.
The top-dog version of the Z4 retractable-hardtop roadster is a pleasure to drive on the street or the track — just don't expect that experience to come cheap.
There are a number of versions of the Z4, all with excessively complicated names. The base model starts at $46,000 and is called the sDrive30i, and the lineup is capped by the $61,050 sDrive35is, which is new for 2011. To see a side-by-side comparison of all three trim levels, click here.
The first generation of the Z4, which replaced the Z3 as a 2003 model, was more unusual than handsome, but the design hit its stride with a 2009 redesign that softened some of the prior model's more controversial lines. The long hood and passenger compartment set nearly over the rear wheels remain, but a more traditional BMW front-end sets the tone for the entire car.
The top-of-the-line sDrive35is exterior is distinguished from other Z4s by its more aggressive front bumper styling, which calls to mind the high-performance M3, and a restyled rear bumper. Its standard 18-inch alloy wheels are an inch larger than the base ones you get on the other two trims, and there are also sDrive35is badges on the front quarter-panels.
Ride & Handling
You know the minute you get behind the wheel of the sDrive35is that it's been designed to deliver responsive performance. Although there are numerous electronic gadgets, they don't come between you and the car.
The position of the cockpit plays a part in this. As mentioned, the cabin is set near the rear wheels, and the driver looks over a long hood. The orientation enhances the sensation of rotation when carving through a corner; there's no waiting for the rest of the car to make it through the turn because you're practically sitting at the back of the roadster.
The sDrive35is' natural rotation and overall balance make it a fun track car. With its technical corners and long, fast straightaways, Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., is good at exposing the shortcomings of production cars in a track environment. The sDrive35is is one of the few production cars I've driven there that managed to hold its own. It continually urges the driver on — unlike some cars, whose response tells you it's time to back off. The low-slung Z4 sDrive35is proved to be a cornering champ, exhibiting little body roll and plenty of grip. While its responses may not be as immediate and direct as a Porsche Cayman's, they're not far behind.
The penalty for this sublime handling is ride quality that can be quite rough on patched asphalt roads. BMW has often impressed me with its ability to combine great handling and good ride comfort, but in the sDrive35is, ride comfort has definitely taken a backseat — or in the case of this two-seat roadster, it's been stuffed in the trunk. Sometimes an adaptive suspension can deliver the best of both worlds, but the feature doesn't do enough here.
A Thrilling Drivetrain
Complementing the handling is a wonderful twin-turbo inline-six-cylinder engine that teams with BMW's seven-speed double-clutch transmission. While I'd still like to have the choice of a traditional manual transmission — it's available only on the lower Z4 trim levels — this gearbox is so good you forget about stick shifts altogether.
The transmission always seems to be in the right gear, and it executes incredibly quick shifts that happen in a snap of your fingers. Matched with the 335-horsepower inline-six, the sDrive35is can go from zero to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, according to BMW. Whether you leave the transmission in Drive or move the gear selector to its Sport mode, which lets the engine rev higher before shifting gears, the sDrive35is has a high-strung quality about it. It's the automotive equivalent of a Super Ball bouncing around a small room.
The engine sounds great, too. The sDrive35is has a specially tuned exhaust system that results in a louder exhaust sound overall, but there's also a lot of crackling and popping noises emanating from the dual tailpipes that make this Z4 sound like it has an aftermarket exhaust.
The sDrive35is gets an EPA-estimated 17/24 mpg city/highway and takes premium gas.
With its 2009 redesign, the Z4 went from soft-top roadster and hardtop coupe body styles to a retractable-hardtop roadster, which theoretically offers the best of both worlds. It takes about 25 seconds from start to finish to lower or raise the fully powered roof, which is operated by switches in front of the console gear selector. The top stows in the upper portion of the trunk, above a movable partition that reserves enough luggage space for a few soft bags when the top is down.
In terms of chassis rigidity, the contrast between the Z4 and BMW's other retractable hardtop, the 3 Series convertible, is unmistakable. While the 3 Series droptop exhibits noticeable body shudder when traveling on bumpy roads with the top down, the Z4 is solid, without a hint of flex in the windshield frame and no squeaks. It goes to show the advantage that dedicated convertibles like the Z4 have over ones that are based on coupes.
Noise, however, can be a problem in the Z4. With the hardtop over your head and the windows up, there's a fair amount of road noise in the cabin at highway speeds — so much, in fact, that you may have to raise your voice when talking to the person sitting next to you. Cruising on the highway with the top down, road noise is replaced by wind noise and general wind buffeting.
Compared with the previous generation's austere cabin, the current Z4's interior is more welcoming. The two-seat cabin remains quite cozy, and that might be a problem for especially tall drivers. I'm 6-foot-1 and had to move the seat nearly all the way back to get comfortable, and I would have reclined the seat a little more had it not been for the rear bulkhead behind me.
What's a little unusual is that the sDrive35is doesn't come with standard power seats (they're optional), which many potential customers will likely expect considering the car's starting price — regardless of any weight savings the manual seats may offer.
The manual seats have a range of adjustments, including seat tilt and thigh support, but the always important height adjustment doesn't work completely when you're sitting down; you can lower the seat cushion, but you have to climb out of the car — or otherwise take your weight off the seat — to raise it. Like the cabin itself, the seats are snug — some might call them restrictive — but the lateral support they provide is appreciated when cornering. The side bolsters are adjustable.
The Z4's trunk measures 8 cubic feet with the top up and the movable partition out of the way. If you plan on traveling with the top down, bring soft luggage; the partition saves enough room for a few overnight bags below the lowered roof. That's especially valuable, as storage space in the cabin is practically nonexistent.
Standard safety features include antilock brakes, side-impact airbags, an electronic stability system and roll bars behind each of the seats. Check out the Standard Equipment & Specs page for a full list of safety features.
Z4 in the Market
The price of a Z4 has jumped considerably in the past few years, as it's gone from a soft-top to a retractable hardtop, and the sDrive35is represents the latest big bump in cost, coming in at nearly $10,000 more than the midlevel sDrive35i. As tested with a few options, our sDrive35is was $64,225. There's no question this version of the Z4 is a star performer on the street and the track, but that kind of money can buy a Porsche Boxster S, and that fact might give some buyers pause.
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