The Z4 roadster is an engaging cross between a contemporary sports car and an old-school low-slung roadster. The Mazda Miata may have started the (since subsided) roadster craze, but the Z4 took it to greater levels of sophistication, and did so more subtly than its closest competitor, the Mercedes-Benz SLK.
With the current generation Z4 dating back to the 2009 model year, BMW invigorates the line for 2011 with a new higher-performance twin-turbocharged model at the top of the range.
The racy rear-drive Z4 otherwise retains its classic roadster proportions, with an expansive hood, short rear deck and wheels pushed out to all four corners; it’s a fairly muscular look, no doubt intended to help broaden the comely car’s appeal among macho-male buyers. The car is offered exclusively with a power retractable aluminum hardtop that not only combines the best of coupe and convertible models, it effectively precludes the need for the previous generation’s uniquely styled coupe iteration.
Note that Z4 models carry the “sDrive” nomenclature, which BMW originally said was to distinguish them as being rear-drive models (as opposed to its all-wheel-drive cars and crossovers, which are called “xDrive”), though that designation has yet to be used company wide.
The current Z4 offers a choice of no less than three separate 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder engines. The version in the base sDrive30i model generates 255-horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque, which is more than sufficient to quickly bring this lightweight vehicle up to 60 mph from a standing start in around six seconds. A turbocharged rendition in the sDrive35i brings a quicker 300 horses and 300 pound-feet to the pavement. Meanwhile the new top sDrive335is includes a twin-turbocharged version of this power plant that delivers an even faster 335 horse-power and 332 pound-feet of torque that’s good for a sprint to 60 mph in around 4.7 seconds. The sDrive35is also gets a few exterior styling tweaks, specific wheels and a specially designed exhaust system that produces a deep rumble for added aural effect.
Slated for a model-year 2012 introduction is a new direct-injected turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine offering, which would be included in a new sDrive28i model. It will eventually, though not necessarily initially, replace the naturally aspirated six-cylinder power plant in the line. With an estimated 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque it should be as quick as, and perhaps even faster than the base 255-horsepower six, given its lighter weight. A better front-to-rear weight ratio should benefit this version’s handling abilities as well. BMW expects the turbo-four to realize a 20 percent boost in fuel economy as well.
A short-throw six-speed manual gearbox is standard; this buttery-smooth-shifting transmission is recommended to wring the most muscle out of the base power plant. Alternately, a six-speed automatic is offered on the base model and a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission included with the sDrive35i and 35is versions; both transmissions can be shifted manually when de- sired, with the deal-clutch version the more-entertaining of the two in that regard with lightning-fast gear changes.
With a nearly perfect front-to-rear weight distribution, a low center of gravity and sophisticated lightweight aluminum suspension, the Z4 handles like a slot car through the corners, though the electric power steering arguably trades off a bit of road feel for the sake of efficiency. Punch the throttle at the right moment and it feels as if the car is on a turntable.
BMW’s Dynamic Stability Control system is standard across the line. It uses throttle and brake control to help minimize wheel spin and prevent a loss of control during extreme handling maneuvers. This system further incorporates an expanded range of braking functions that include Brake Standby (which reacts when the driver suddenly lifts his or her foot off of the accelerator, anticipating hard braking, and snugs the brake pads against the rotors) and Start-Off Assistant (which automatically engages the brakes on an incline to prevent the car from rolling back when the driver lifts his or her foot off of the brake pedal to depress the accelerator).
A standard Dynamic Drive Control system allows a driver to adjust powertrain and suspension settings and stability control intervention on the fly according to “normal,” “sport” and “sport-plus” modes. The latter further disables the stability control for the sake of accomplished drivers and to facilitate tire squealing launches. Standard on the sDrive35is and optional elsewhere in the line is BMW’s Adaptive M Suspension with Electronic Damping Control, which reduces the car’s ride height by 0.4 inches and automatically adjusts according to changing road conditions to help maintain a smooth ride while preserving the car’s adept handling abilities.
Inside, the Z4 is pretty much all business, with a dashboard design that flows inward from the door panels and a choice of satin silver matte, brushed aluminum or either of two wood-trim styles. Seats are supportive and can be trimmed in myriad leather treatments. The cabin remains a tight fit, however, especially for those of a certain girth, while getting in and out can be challenging for the not so supple, at least with the top up.
Fortunately the two-piece aluminum top lowers in about 20 seconds at the push of a button. When in position, the retractable roof affords larger side and rear windows than did the previous cloth top for the sake of better outward visibility, and performs much better in terms of insulating the interior from both road noise and the elements.
Don’t expect much in the way of cargo-carrying abilities, particularly with the roof lowered (as if anyone buys a racy roadster for purely purposeful reasons), though the smallish trunk is at least capable of toting a medium-sized suitcase to the airport or – with the aid of an optional through-loading system to the passenger compartment – a bag of golf clubs out to the links.
The Z4 comes with an adequate array of equipment, with a few high-tech features on the options list. The available voice-activated GPS navigation system includes real-time traffic information, HD radio reception and the latest update of BMW’s iDrive multimedia control system. The good news here is that various revisions made to iDrive in recent years have made it reasonably user-friendly to operate. For sheer comfort, heated seats and steering wheel are available, though even equipped with snow tires the Z4 isn’t exactly a winter-capable car.
The new Z4 should deliver plenty of smiles, at least for those who can afford what amounts to a vehicular toy. While it could be argued that a Mazda MX-5 Miata can deliver similar driving pleasure for thousands of dollars less, that model is a bit less aggressive, overall, offers fewer features and – perhaps most importantly to many buyers – comes without the BMW brand cachet.
BMW Z4 Quick Facts
Engine: 3.0-liter I6, 3.0-liter I6 Turbo, 3.0-liter Twin-Turbo
Horsepower: 255 @ 6,600 rpm, 300 @ 5,800 rpm, 335 @ 5,900 rpm
Torque: 220 @ 2,600 rpm, 300 @ 1,400 rpm, 332 @ 1,500 rpm
City/Highway: MPG 17/24-19/28
Transmission: 6-Spd Manual, 6-Spd Automatic, 7-Spd Auto Manual
Wheelbase: 98.3 in
Overall Length: 166.9 in
Width: 70.5 in
Height: 50.8 in
Curb Weight: 3,241 lbs
MSRP: $47,450 - $62,500
Did You Know?
The Z4 is the latest in a line of small rear-drive roadsters that includes the BMW Z1, BMW 507, BMW Z8 and its immediate predecessor, the BMW Z3. While the previous-generation Z4 was built in BMW’s Greer, South Carolina assembly plant, production shifted with the current version’s 2009 debut to Regensburg, Germany to make way for domestic production of crossover SUVs, including the BMW X3.