Road Test: 2010 BMW Z4
This 2009 review is representative of model years 2009 to 2015.
By Peter Egan of Road & Track
Seduction, BMW tells us, is the name of the game in the modern roadster market. Demographic evidence and customer confessions suggest that hardly anyone actually needs a wind-in-the-hair car with a small trunk and just two seats, so people have a lot of time to stroke their chins, consult the position of the planets and think about the purchase. We aren't talking corn harvesters or fire trucks here. Buyers have to fall in love.
"The roadster market has always been volatile," BMW's Klaus Borgman told us at the launch of the new Z4 near Alicante, Spain. "Roadsters are an emotional purchase," he said, "so sales depend on what's offered at the time. It's the concept that decides."
And this year BMW has decided to broaden the concept by restyling the Z4 and offering a little more space and luxury, along with an all-season retractable hardtop — thereby replacing the previous Z4 Coupe and Roadster with a single, do-everything model.
Right. No more ragtop; no more "I wonder if I should have bought a convertible" coupe-buyer's remorse. It didn't escape BMW's attention that many Mercedes SLK buyers mentioned the M-B's cool, folding hardtop as a pivotal factor in their buying decision. But there's more going on with the new Z4, of course, than just the top.
There's the engine, for instance.
Actually, there are three different engines available for the new Roadster, but Americans will be getting only the two most potent packages, a "base" 255-bhp Z4 sDrive30i version of the 3.0-liter aluminum inline-6, and the exhilarating 300-bhp twin-turbo Z4 sDrive35i. (In Europe, there's a 2.5-liter 23i we won't see here.)
At the Spanish introduction, BMW provided the world press with the more powerful 35i version only, all in a shimmering light gold they call Orion Silver, and our test car here is a red version of same. So we've yet to drive the naturally aspirated car, but you might say our hearts remain unbroken.
The twin-turbo engine is — as we've already experienced in other BMWs — quite a piece of work. It revs to its 7000-rpm redline with a glassy-smooth snarl when you put your foot in it, yet the extremely wide torque band (300 lb.-ft. of torque on tap all the way from 1400 to 5000 rpm) also allows you to trundle in relaxed fashion — or rocket out of the corners at will. It's an all-purpose, does-everything-well engine.
Connecting all that power to the rear axle in our test car is the optional 7-speed (yes, five more than your dad's Dynaflow) mechanical gearbox whose up- and-downshifting is done with very rapid scientific precision by an electrohydraulic system that operates the twin clutches and shifts gears. You can leave the box in full automatic — where it works as effortlessly as that Dynaflow, but with considerably more alacrity — or you can select gears manually with either steering wheel paddles or the shift lever. Downshifts — especially in the Sport-Plus control mode — produce a quick and lovely whoop-and-burble from the exhaust. No human was ever this smooth.
Upshifts, too, are seamless and almost instantaneous in Sport-Plus mode. The car puts the power down in a nearly uninterrupted flow, allowing it to go from 0 to 60 mph in a pleasingly manic 4.8-second surge, with a quarter-mile time of 13.3 sec. at 106.7 — numbers roughly equal to those of the light and nimble Lotus Exige S.
In Spain, however, I briefly had a chance to drive the standard 6-speed manual, and actually preferred this version, as it simply makes the car feel more immediately responsive and less mechanically remote, for my traditional tastes. Nice clutch and shift action, too.
But some of my ambivalence about the 7-speed semi-automatic may come from the console-mounted shift lever, which has a top button to engage Park, and a side button to unlock the lever for Reverse or Drive. All of this works well enough when you get used to it, but still requires a look at the shift lever to make sure you've done the right thing when maneuvering in tight parking spots. Another case of technology one or two steps removed from intuition.
Sort of like the key. You have to insert the fob-shaped "key" into a slot in the dash, then push a stop/start button above it — a pointless two-stage operation every time you get in or out of the car. As our Engineering Editor Dennis Simanaitis has pointed out, it's only a matter of time before someone invents a handy key that you can both insert and turn in one motion...
Retractable hardtop controls, however, are simple, quick and easy. Push a button on the console and the hardtop — made of two lightweight aluminum shells that nest tightly together — folds quickly (20 sec.) beneath a lid behind the passenger compartment. Wind flow in the cockpit is quite serene with the top down, and there's very little wind noise with the top up, though rough roads will produce the occasional non-monolithic-coupe rattle or creak.
This slick-operating top does take up some trunk space, however, and you'll have to put the top halfway up to get full access to the remaining 4.6 cu. ft. of the modest 10.9 cu. ft. trunk. Luckily, there's a pass-through sock that extends forward onto the armrest for skis or golf clubs. A horizontal luggage partition keeps you from trying to lower the top when the trunk is too full, thereby protecting those eggs in your grocery bag, not to mention the top mechanism itself.
Seats are comfortable, with good upper body side support (adjustable), though the fit, overall, is rather snug, especially for a tall driver who likes some extra seatback recline.
A cockpit switch allows you to select from three modes of driving seriousness — Normal, Sport and Sport-Plus — which I think of as Laid Back, Alert and All Wound Up. The switch tailors shift points and speed, throttle response, steering boost and suspension damping to meet your moods. There's a discernible tightening of reflexes as you head toward Sport-Plus, but the Z4 doesn't become abusively stiff or punishing in any mode, and roll stiffness never reaches M-car levels. The most noticeable immediate change in Sport-Plus is the amazingly swift and crackling shift action.
Well, how much you like the Z4's steering may depend on how — and where — you drive. In a brisk cruising mode, it feels smooth, light and agile, but as you speed up and begin to push the car though fast sweepers or quick transitions, it begins to feel a bit artificial and rubbery. Even steady-state corners seem to require small corrections to hold a line, as if the car is not tracking smoothly. It's only a minor, nearly subliminal annoyance on the road, but much more noticeable in the cut-and-thrust of the slalom and skidpad. Despite BMW's solid tradition of rear-drive/front-engine steering precision, the Z4 can feel, when leaned on, almost like a front-wheel-drive car.
Handling on mountain roads (or the all-important entrance ramp GP) feels sure-footed and predictable, and the car's supple suspension and excellent ride quality keep the Bridgestone Potenzas connected on bumpy curves. Ultimately, with Dynamic Stability Control turned (mostly) off, the Z4 can be made to oversteer in the slalom and skidpad, but it stays gathered up and easy to drive at normal fast road speeds. It never feels quite as planted and race-car-like as, say, a Porsche Boxster S, but has more of a grand touring dynamic focus.
The interior of the car — in creamy white with charcoal black trim, in our case — was cleanly elegant and beautifully detailed, with trim lines shaped to promote a "cocooning" effect. BMW stressed the added storage room, with door cubbies and extra space behind the seats, though, for tall drivers, that last might be more useful for hauling a wood plank than a suitcase; it's still small.
Interestingly, both the interior and the exterior of the new Z4 were designed by women. Nadya Amaout did the inside, and Juliane Blasi was in charge of exterior design. An industry first, perhaps? We can't think of a precedent.
In any case, most (including me) liked the redesign and found it leaner, sharper and more purposeful than before. The creases down the center of the hood are repeated in the roofline and rear deck, and the side strakes extend from the headlights all the way back along the length of the car. To my eye, it looks less consciously sculpted and more natural, while still accentuating the classic front-engine/rear-drive roadster look, with the driver sitting back near the rear axle. It looks muscular, alert and ready to leap. Which it is.
Always — in a volatile market — a compelling concept.
How compelling, of course, will depend, for many, on price. Base prices will be $45,750 for the 255-bhp naturally aspirated version and $51,650 for the twin-turbo sDrive35i. Add more if you opt for upgrades such as the iDrive and nav package, or the 7-speed semi-automatic transmission.
My own instinct would be to keep this car as simple as possible. In sports cars, less is often more.