Here are a few automotive rules to live by:
Downshift before the turn.
Don't text message or e-mail friends, colleagues or any prince from Nigeria behind the wheel.
Own a roadster before you die.
Perhaps, it's because I'm in my midlife years -- at 41, I'm certainly hacking through the back nine -- that I've developed such an affinity for drop-top two seaters. Or, maybe, it was just that I was sitting behind the steering wheel of the 2009 BMW Z4 roadster.
Every time I fired up the 3-liter direct injection twin-turbocharged I-6 (I get goosebumps just saying that) and listened to its high-pitched humming, I knew the two-piece convertible hardtop roof would be folding up. Twenty seconds later, I'm cranking music, smiling and offering my best Tom Petty impression: "It's Good to be King" for all the world to hear.
Al fresco cruising changes your entire outlook. No more drudgery during the commute. You relish it. You wished you lived farther away from the office. At work, you look out the window and pray for sunshine. Baseball caps clutter around your key bowl, all anxiously awaiting the next ride.
Rain? It could wilt the beautiful leather seats, but I was ready to keep the top down, and just drive faster -- the theory being that I could create a pocket of air over me and my passenger that would push all of the rain drops behind us.
BMW made over the Z4 inside and out, adding lots of new gadgets and replacing the soft top with an aluminum and glass masterpiece that electronically folds into the trunk in a mechanical ballet. While the previous generation Z4 came as a coupe and a convertible, the new model serves both roles. Hit the blue light drop-top button, and this is a two-for-one special.
But don't expect any discounts: The Z4 35i starts at $51,650, and my fully loaded test model topped $64,000. (There is a base model Z4, though "base model" and "BMW" seem slightly incongruent. The Z4 30i comes with a straight six sansdirect injection and turbochargers, and Europeans also have a diesel option that BMW doesn't plan on shipping to the U.S.)
The ride was good. The power excellent and the sky always open.
Like most BMWs, the Z4 glides across the road with a taut, ready-to-pounce feel. It's as if you're alpine skiing, ready to carve hard through a turn with precision you normally don't feel behind the wheel. Pushing 300 horses and nearly 300 pound-feet of torque to the rear axle, there's a fun surge to the Z4. It pulses at the slightest tap of the accelerator. There is no lag in the turbos, as each spools up nearly instantly and injects air and fuel into three cylinders.
The Z4 loves when you wind through the six-speed manual transmission.
The short throws on the gear box are clean and quick. Vroom, click, vroom, click, vroom, click. "Honest officer, I was only in third gear."
Pressing third gear hard breaks the ridiculously slow speed limits on Interstate 75 that once felt normal. See how you change once you hop in a fast car?
BMW also offers a double clutch seven-speed sport transmission, which I have not tested. This automatic tranny can be set in one of three modes, each getting more aggressive with the time it shifts and how quickly it moves. BMW provides paddle shifters, but will still let you shift the automatic through the gear shifter.
The sophisticated suspension uses Dynamic Driving Control to maintain a firm but comfortable ride and the electric power steering provides excellent feedback. By changing the settings on DDC, you can find ways to blast through twisty mountain roads on Sunday and then smoothly commute to work Monday. Too many sports cars pass on comfort to enhance performance, but the Z4 balances both perfectly.
The exterior is not nearly as balanced.
This Z4 looks nice with the top down, and kind of strange with the top up. The long hood curves nicely, and the powerful front end hints to the car's capabilities through tightly squinting headlights.
The profile proportions stretch the Z4 and give it a cartoon-like presence. The side creases look as if Zorro stood a little too close while demonstrating moves to friends or foes, slashing in multiple directions. The wheels push to the car's corners and make it look out of proportion, especially when the top is up.
It's the inconsistency between its exterior and performance heart that disappoints. I love driving the Z4, I just don't love looking at it.
Behind the wheel, though, it's easy to forgive. BMW says it tried to bring the exterior inside the car, and I for one am glad they failed. I like the interior.
The white ivory leather seats in my test Z4 were as comfortable as beautiful. They hold you in place nicely.
All of the driver's controls are canted to the left and it makes it easy to see, even the navigation screen, which didn't have glare from the sun -- a common problem in convertibles. The heated seats were welcome on the chilly morning, and the automatic air conditioning made for comfortable afternoons. Really, the only thing I found myself wanting in the Z4's interior was a sunscreen dispenser.
Now a word on the iDrive, BMW's one-stop control center. While it may have earned a much maligned reputation through the years, BMW seems to have finally gotten it right. Mounted on the center console, the spinning knob is easy to use and fairly intuitive. Moving from screen to screen is easy and the forward/backward commands are simple. Spin and click. Anyone who still claims it's too difficult is not trying.
And another key component to the convertible is its stereo. BMW doesn't skimp at all there. The $2,000 optional premium sound package includes 14 speakers and 650 watts of power. Convertible rides can be noisy, and this stereo lets you cancel out all of the trucks and overpasses you deal with on a daily basis. The music can blast so clear and so loud that you can see the rear view mirror vibrate to the bass. It's an interesting way to watch the world behind you.
While it's not perfect, the Z4 should bring a smile to most drivers' faces. Maybe it's the fresh air or just extra jolt of vitamin D we've all been missing because our world became overrun with SUVs and sedans. Mankind needs more sunshine in its life.
Roadsters simplify things. You only get to bring one person, and they better not have much stuff. (The Z4 provides 6.3 cubic feet of trunk space with the top down and 10.9 cubic feet with the top up.)
Paring things back is not bad, it's enlightening. And feeling the wind rush through your hair re-energizes you.
Go on, have a little fun. You only get to punch your ticket once on the turnpike of life. At least a few of those miles should pass in a roadster.
firstname.lastname@example.org (313) 223-3217
2009 BMW Z4
Price: 30i: $46,575; 35i: $52,475
Engine: 30i: 3-liter I-6; 35i: 3-liter I-6 with twin turbos
Transmission: Six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic
Power: 30i: 255 horsepower, 220 pound-feet torque; 35i: 306 horsepower, 295 pound-feet torque
EPA gas mileage: 30i: 19 mpg city / 28 mpg highway; 35i: 18 mpg city / 25 mpg highway
Exterior: Fair. Profile is very busy and out of proportion. The low front end and rear make it feel off balance.
Interior: Good. Well laid out and comfortable. Can feel cramped for some passengers and roomy for others.
Performance: Excellent. Ride and handling is excellent. The 300-horsepower engine performs like a champ.
Safety: Good. Electronic stability control, front, knee and side airbags.
Pros: Has great performance on the road.
Cons: Busy exterior distracting. High price puts it out of reach for many.
**** Excellent *** Good ** Fair * Poor