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2009 BMW Z4 Roadster: Review

This 2009 review is representative of model years 2009 to 2015.
By Marc Lachapelle of MSN Autos
Rating: 9.3

Bottom Line:

With striking design inside and out, a trick, retractable hardtop, a solid chassis and gobs of twin-turbo power, the new BMW Z4 is gunning for the top spot in the middleweight roadster class.
Pros:
  • Brilliant retractable top
  • Exceptional 3.0-liter turbo engine
  • Superb handling
Cons:
  • Suspension harshness (19-in. wheels)
  • Limited interior storage space
  • Convoluted trim names

BMW is known for sharp-handling sedans and coupes, but the German carmaker also has a long tradition of sports cars and roadsters in the classic long hood/short deck design. The latest is the Z4, introduced in 2003 as a soft-top convertible and available as a coupe since 2006.

For 2009 BMW fully redesigned the Z4, giving it a new power-retractable aluminum hardtop and incorporating the virtues of the previous coupe and roadster versions. A touch wider and lower than its predecessor, the new Z4 is built on a new platform that shares not a single piece with the outgoing model. It offers the choice of two existing inline 6-cylinder engines, including a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter 300-horsepower unit. It comes with an array of upgraded electronic systems that improve performance, handling and comfort to unprecedented levels.

Model Lineup
Although the new Z4 still resembles its predecessor to a degree, it is an entirely new design inside and out. The body is 0.4 inch wider and 0.3 inch lower, and sits on a wheelbase that has grown only 0.1 inch. It is a full 5.8 inches longer, however. A good portion of this newfound length is used to store the new retractable top without sacrificing much trunk space.

The new car's most familiar view is its top-down profile. The striking front fascia has larger versions of BMW's signature "kidneys" and the rear section — the most changed — gets more rounded looks that evoke the automaker's current 6-Series convertible.

Two versions of the new Z4 are offered, defined by their powertrains. The sDrive30i gets a naturally aspirated engine, while the sDrive35i gets a twin-turbocharged version. Both are 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder designs. The new Z4s share a brilliant 2-piece aluminum retractable hardtop that turns the car into a roadster/coupe, replacing the roadster and coupe of the previous generation.

The roof can be opened or closed in about 20 seconds by holding a button on the console, or the remote key fob, when equipped with the optional Comfort Access feature. Comfort Access also allows access to the trunk when the top is stored. The Z4's power hardtop is an impressive piece of engineering and likely the quietest to date. It moves almost silently, without any of the usual whirring.

Standard on all versions is Driving Dynamics Control (DDC), a system that lets the driver pick one of three driving modes at the flip of a button. The standard Dynamic Stability Control system offers different thresholds as defined by the DDC, but also modulates the rear brakes to act as a virtual limited-slip differential.

An optional Sport package combines performance tires on 19-inch alloy wheels and the Adaptive M suspension, with ZF shock absorbers that can change damping force on compression and rebound instantly. The Z4 is also the first in its segment to be equipped with an electrical parking brake.

Under the Hood
The engines in both the sDrive30i and sDrive35i are inline 6-cylinder designs found under the hood of other BMW models and optimized for the Z4. The former gets a naturally aspirated 3.0-liter unit that delivers 255 horsepower at 6600 rpm and 220 lb-ft of torque at only 2600 rpm. BMW says it will run from zero to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds with the standard 6-speed manual gearbox and in six seconds flat with the optional 6-speed automatic gearbox.

The sDrive35i is powered by a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter engine that produces 300 horses at 5800 rpm and churns out 300 lb-ft of torque from 1400 to 5000 rpm. It should sprint from zero to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds with the standard 6-speed manual, and a touch quicker at 5.0 seconds with the optional 7-speed dual-automated-clutch sequential gearbox.

Because of the substantial power and performance gains brought by the sDrive35i's turbo engine, there will be no "M" versions of the new car to replace the Z4 M models of the previous generation, according to Friedbert Holz, communications manager for the Z4 and 3-Series at BMW AG.

Inner Space
Its retractable hardtop in place, the new Z4 truly is a coupe, and a sleek one. The top's narrow pillars improve visibility greatly over the former model's soft top. There is also a bit more headroom and some extra space for shoulders and elbows inside. The door openings are also an inch wider to make it easier to slide in with the top in place.

The driving position is just right and the optional sport seats pleasantly tight, with adjustable seatback side bolsters that come in handy in quick, twisty-road action. The seat's cushion should provide more lateral support in hard cornering, though. The instrument panel is a refreshing change over the previous model, with a more flowing design and a pair of big, classic gauges for the driver. The climate control's four dials look fiddly at first but work decently.

The Z4 is first to get the newest version of BMW's much-maligned iDrive control interface as part of an optional navigation package that includes an 80-gigabyte hard disk, 15 GB of which is put aside for music files. The new iDrive works well enough, its large knob now surrounded with seven buttons for quicker access to menus and functions. A great part of the credit goes to the crisp 8.8-inch video screen, which remains clear and legible even when viewed through sunglasses with the top down on a sunny day.

The fit, finish and overall quality of the cars we drove at the launch were impressive. All had the "extended leather" option, which adds quality hides to the upper section of the instrument panel and complements the Ivory White leather package that includes sport seats and dark wood trim — classy, but available on sDrive35i versions only. All leather is sun-reflective, a BMW innovation that drastically reduces skin-scorching heat buildup.

On the Road
Our test model was a fully optioned version of the top-line sDrive35i. Its slick 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox is a treat but sometimes shifts up or kicks down a gear or two in a corner when driving hard. We briefly drove a car equipped with the 6-speed manual and found it entirely convincing, with a quick and tight lever and well-placed pedals.

The Z4 is impressively quiet with the top in place. Flip it down and you immediately revel in the engine's addictive growl. With all four windows up and the optional wind-blocking net in place between the individual safety hoops behind the seats, there is just enough wind to ruffle hair slightly and make the ride pleasant. There is even a "convertible" setting on the optional climate-control system.

Each mode provided by the Z4's standard Driving Dynamics Control system combines different settings for the drivetrain, the stability system, the electromechanical power steering and the variable-damping shocks that come with the Sport package. In Normal mode the Z4 feels like a classic roadster, with slightly weighty steering and cushioned responses. Things tighten up a bit in Sport mode; thus the DSC system's icon flashes at the slightest prod of the accelerator, even when simply rounding a street corner.

The sDrive35i truly comes alive with the DDC button on "Sport +." The hilly, sinuous and ever-changing back roads of southern Spain were a perfect test of the top Z4's handling mettle. In this mode, shifts are more positive and the steering is firmer, and the DSC allows a measure of slip (10 percent). But even when charging hard with both the traction and stability control systems turned off, the Z4 remains composed. Foot-down exits from tight hairpins produce moderate, easily controlled power slides, no matter how hard you try to break it loose.

Right for You?
Base price for the sDrive30i is $46,575, and the sDrive35i starts at $52,575. The fully optioned cars we drove ran just north of $60,000. With its increased muscle and sharp handling, the new 2009 Z4 sDrive35i can give the midengine Porsche Boxster an honest run for its money on a twisty road. And with its smooth design, quality build and superb retractable hardtop, it has the rival Mercedes-Benz SLK covered in comfort, refinement and civility. The new Z4 successfully blends the best features of roadster and coupe to lift BMW 2-seaters to a whole new level.

A professional auto journalist for more than 25 years and the founding editor of Sympatico / MSN Autos, MarcLachapelle is a two-time winner of the Canadian Journalist of the Year award from the Automobile JournalistsAssociation of Canada, an accomplished photographer and licensed racer.

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BB02 - 9/21/2014 1:27:21 AM