Editor’s note: This review was written in August 2009 about the 2009 BMW Z4. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2010, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
News reports suggest affluent car shoppers are putting off new purchases, keeping their current wheels and treading water as they wait for the economy to pick back up. If you’re in this group, BMW’s redesigned Z4 isn’t your most responsible option, but if times were good you’d snap it up in a heartbeat. It’s an agile, sharp-looking roadster with decent cabin space and surprisingly livable ride quality for day-to-day use. So be an optimist: The new Z4’s timing may be less than ideal, but it’s too good a specimen not to consider.
I tested a Z4 sDrive35i. There’s also a less powerful Z4 sDrive30i; you can compare both to the 2008 Z4 here. This year’s Z4 gets a standard power-retractable hardtop, much like BMW’s 3 Series convertible. That means there’s no fixed-hardtop coupe, as the outgoing Z4 lineup included, nor is there a high-performance Z4 M, also offered previously.
The previous Z4, conceived during the worst of BMW’s avant-garde styling years, always looked a bit off. It was the sort of car you’d park nose-in so others might admire the rear and never see the front. There’s no need to hide anymore. The low-slung Z4 looks well-proportioned and aggressive, with a long hood, a short tail and a cabin planted rear of the car’s center. The grille is larger and more upright, and the headlights have a furrowed, menacing appearance. It’s an angrier look, but I’ll take it over the previous Z4’s headlights, which lent the car a vapid expression.
The sDrive35i adds titanium-colored inserts in the grille and lower air dam; the sDrive30i retains black inserts throughout. BMW says the power top takes about 20 seconds to raise and lower; I hit that time lowering it, but putting it up took 22 seconds. The whole operation requires the car to be at a complete halt; some powered tops function when the car is in motion, at least up to a certain speed.
The Z4 sDrive35i is perhaps the best application yet for BMW’s twin-turbo six-cylinder. Power is abundant, starting out strong — and lacking any noticeable turbo lag — and sticking around all the way to a speeding ticket. Sports cars from the Nissan 370Z to the Porsche Boxster S feel less immediately powerful, peaking only as the tach swings past 3,000 rpm or so. BMW says 60 mph comes in 5.1 seconds for the Z4 sDrive35i. That’s a figure both competitors narrowly beat, but in the everyday sense the Z4’s balance of power all over the tach makes up for the deficit.
Other Bimmers offer the same twin-turbo engine as the Z4 — and accelerate as blazingly fast — but the Z4’s stick is a welcome change from the rubbery, longish shifters BMW installs elsewhere. It feels closer to the manual in the Infiniti G37, which I believe is the gold standard for stick-shift precision. Flick it from one gear to the next, stab the gas for a quick rev-match, then accelerate onward — it’s a delightful thing, and that’s not a compliment I’ve paid a BMW manual in a long time.
A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic with steering-wheel paddle shifters runs $1,525 on the sDrive35i; the sDrive30i offers a traditional six-speed automatic. The Z4’s dual-clutch transmission debuted in the M3 a couple years back, and it was BMW’s first such transmission. Thanks to lickety-split shift times, the dual-clutch automatic gets the Z4 to 60 mph a hair faster than the stick shift. (This is the norm for dual-clutch automatics, a reality that I, a stick-shift purist, have only grudgingly accepted.)
All-disc antilock brakes bring the Z4 to a quick halt, though I noticed that the first few inches of pedal travel exact minimal braking. Other editors found that helped fine-tune deceleration, but I prefer the Boxster’s brake pedal, which felt more linear.
If the 300-horsepower sDrive35i’s $51,650 asking price is too steep, the normally aspirated, 255-hp sDrive30i starts at $45,750. It hits 60 mph in 5.6 seconds with the manual and 6.0 seconds with the automatic — likely a noticeable enough difference from the twin-turbo engine for you to feel in everyday driving, especially when comparing the automatics. Here’s how the drivetrains compare:
| Drivetrains Compared
| Base price
| 3.0-liter inline-six
| 3.0-liter, twin-turbocharged inline-six
| Horsepower (@ rpm)
| 255 @ 6,600
| 300 @ 5,800
| Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
| 220 @ 2,600
| 300 @ 1,400
| Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic
| Six-speed manual; seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
| Zero to 60 mph, sec.
| 5.6 (manual); 6.0 (auto)
| 5.1 (manual); 5.0 (auto)
| EPA mileage (city/hwy., mpg)
| 19/28 (manual); 19/29 (auto)
| 18/25 (manual); 17/24 (auto)
| Required fuel
BMW’s Dynamic Drive Control, which affects the steering feel, accelerator sensitivity and stability system thresholds, is standard. My test car came with a $2,300 Sport Package with an adaptive suspension, whose settings DDC also governs. DDC can be moved through Normal, Sport and Sport Plus modes via a rocker switch next to the gearshift — an eminently useful setup, I might add, because you don’t have to futz with an onboard computer or set independent driving and suspension settings, as some other cars with selectable driving settings require.
In DDC’s Normal mode, the Z4 is surprisingly docile: The steering wheel turns with an unexpectedly light touch, and the suspension soaks up bumps nicely. In comparison, the Boxster’s steering takes on a heavier feel, and ride quality is far less forgiving. Mercedes’ SLK350 has an even cushier ride but suffers from numb, dispirited steering. In the BMW, it isn’t quite as easy to rotate the car on its axis and slide the tail sideways as it is in the Boxster, but if you’re not a racetrack enthusiast I suspect the ride-quality payoff will be worth the loss.
Switch DDC to Sport, and the Z4’s steering wheel feels heftier; it requires more muscle to crank at low speeds but delivers sharper precision and a planted, more secure highway feel. In fast corners, it’s easier to sense the rear coming out and to ease off the gas or counter-steer as needed. Normal mode, by comparison, has a bit too much steering slop to manage clean drifts.
The adaptive suspension gets firmer in Sport, though not intolerably so. Of greater import is body roll: In Normal mode, quick lane changes unleash plenty of body roll. In Sport, the car stays much flatter.
Sport Plus mode eases back the Z4’s standard electronic stability system so you can spin the tires and let the tail break free a bit more. In Normal or Sport, the stability system allowed enough wheelspin for me, and I didn’t notice any other great difference from the other settings — steering assist, suspension firmness — in Sport Plus. It’s certainly not as obvious as the transition from Normal to Sport, anyway. Sport Plus might come in handy on the racetrack; on the street, it serves less purpose.
Power the top up, and wind noise is impressively quiet — one of the benefits of a hard- rather than soft-top convertible.
If the previous Z4 had a major shortcoming beyond its controversial styling, it was cramped space. The new Z4 is appreciably roomier — the seats don’t constrict your sides, and there’s a fair amount of legroom when you move them back. I’m 5-foot-11, and even when I got the seat into an ideal position to work the clutch it was still a few inches forward of its rearmost position. With the automatic, you can probably sit farther back, and there’s room to spare for that.
Cabin quality in my test car was generally good, with optional leather-stitched dash panels and genuine aluminum inlays. Storage areas are larger than they were last year, with a large enough glove compartment to stow a removable cupholder that attaches to the side of the center console. Your passenger will bemoan the loss of knee room, but this cupholder is far superior to the previous flip-out dashboard one. Tell him the alternative would be to have coffee in his lap when that flimsy device failed.
I’m not sold on the assortment of climate controls — their appearance doesn’t really match the rest of the cabin’s styling — nor do I like the Z4’s dash-top bin, whose tinny cover smacks of cost-cutting. Opt for the navigation system, and its screen goes there instead. You’ll also get BMW’s knob-based iDrive system, whose latest generation is so vast an improvement over the original that it probably deserves a different name.
Cargo volume measures a useful 10.9 cubic feet with the top up; put the top down and it drops to 6.4 cubic feet. The Boxster, SLK and Audi TT have comparable space with the top up, but all three have less-obstructed confines with the top down; the Boxster’s and TT’s cargo areas are unaffected by their tops’ location.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has yet to test the Z4; IIHS doesn’t crash-test many roadsters — and no prior Z4 has been tested — so I wouldn’t hold my breath. Standard safety features include antilock brakes, an electronic stability system, conventional front and knee airbags, and side-impact airbags that extend high enough for head protection, according to BMW. Click here to see the full list of safety gear.
The Z4 sDrive30i, which starts at $45,750, includes the standard power-retracting hardtop, 17-inch alloy wheels, xenon headlights, vinyl upholstery and a CD stereo with an MP3 jack. Leather upholstery and dual-zone automatic climate control are among the options. Both are standard on the Z4 sDrive35i ($51,650); further options on both models include power seats, a premium stereo with an iPod/USB port, heated seats, a heated steering wheel and a navigation system. The six-speed automatic runs $1,325 on the sDrive30i; the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is $1,525 on the sDrive35i.
Load up a Z4 sDrive35i, and the price approaches $70,000.
BMW is a brand that emphasizes performance, often above all else, and the previous Z4 took that too far. Fast but flawed, it had too many compromises for broad appeal. Luxury roadsters, on the whole, will have limited success until the economy gains some steam, but the new Z4 gets a lot of things right. When luxury-car shoppers go back to buying weekend toys, BMW has something that ought to do the trick. And it might just suffice for weekdays, too.