2006 BMW Z4 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Smooth and sensuous.
The BMW Z4, which replaced the Z3, has shaken if not rocked the sports car world, mostly with its dramatic styling. But a potential buyer can use his or her eyes, make his or her decision and move on to the objective qualities. Because sports car buyers are enthusiasts, those would be engine, transmission, ride, handling and brakes.
The Z4 excels in all of those areas. Interior comfort and convenience are also important qualities, and the Z4 scores high in comfort and nearly as well in convenience, considering the quality of its soft top with glass window and defroster; it's easy to operate manually (standard) and if that's too much trouble, one finger will raise and lower the available power top.
The Z4 Roadster can be had with two engines, both inline six-cylinders, offered in models called the 2.5i ($34,300) and 3.0i ($41,300). The 2.5i has a 2.5-liter engine that makes 184 horsepower and comes with a five-speed manual gearbox. The 3.0i is 3.0 liters, 225 horsepower, and uses a six-speed. The 2.5i gets 16-inch tires and the 3.0i 17-inchers. Both models are available with the five-speed automatic transmission with Steptronic manual mode ($1,275). Also available for the 3.0i is BMW's six-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox ($1,500), which is a manual transmission with no clutch pedal, controlled by electronics.
The base model 2.5i comes standard with cruise control, power windows and locks, a six-way power driver's seat, leatherette (vinyl) upholstery. But it's missing some options that many buyers choose in the Premium and Sport Packages. It's possible to option up a 2.5i model to the price of a 3.0i, which includes not only the bigger engine but leather upholstery, cruise control and a premium sound system.
Important standard features for both models include ABS, stability control, dynamic brake control and brake proportion control, traction control, run-flat tires, front and side airbags, and rain-sensing wipers; plus the usual convenience features including remote entry and a sound system with in-dash CD. The standard soft top with heated glass window is manual.
The Premium Package ($3,200) includes the fully automatic top, automatic climate control, eight-way power driver's seat with memory, the on-board computer, BMW Assist and small storage nets. Leather upholstery ($1,150) and a cloth and leather combination ($850) are available. The Sport Package ($1,300) includes 17-inch wheels, fog lights with heated mirrors, sport suspension and Dynamic Driving Control, activated by an 'S' for Sport button, which quickens the throttle, steering and shifting of the automatic transmission. Similar packages for the 3.0i cost less because there's more standard equipment, primarily the leather and sound system.
Stand-alone options for the 2.5i include the eight-way power seats ($995), M sport seats ($450), heated seats ($500), automatic soft top ($750), fog lights ($260), Xenon headlights ($700), navigation system ($1,800), BMW Assist ($750) and the premium sound system ($875).
Additional accessories available from your BMW dealer include a hard top ($2,575), an aerodynamic kit with a serious-looking front air dam ($1,164); an ugly curvy rear spoiler ($220); wind deflector ($185); and two sets of wheels: handsome 20-spoke 'turbo-blade' 17-inch wheels ($1,391), the same wheels that are in the 2.5i Sport Package; and an 18-inch set with five spokes, showing most of the brake rotors ($2,240).
Might as well dive right into the debate. The styling is sculpted for the sake of sculpting, and you either like it or you don't. BMW's chief designer, American Chris Bangel, has gained notoriety for the edgy direction he's taken BMW, but there can be no arguing that BMW's styling was long overdue for an overhaul. The cars had lost any distinctive look they might have had, but now they have it back. The new BMWs are dynamically freshened, if nothing else, and the Z4 might be the most dynamic. Because it doesn't have a roofline to rely on, it has to make its statement with its nose, tail and sides.
The hood is stylishly long; the deck is notably short and chopped and uplifted, with a lip; and the sides look like a cake created by a pastry chef who got carried away with his icing spatula. It's 'convex playing off concave,' according to BMW.
The nose is quite attractive, unfortunately ruined by the license plate mounting smack-dab in the middle of it all; imagine the designers' dismay! The front air dam offers very little ground clearance, not even enough to clear a standard sidewalk curb, so be careful when head-in parking. The grille, softened at its eight chrome-ringed corners and having dark vertical bars, and the exotic headlamps work well together. If you want your Z4 to make you feel good, turn on the parking lights in the dark and stand back; sharp arcing slivers of amber follow the bottom lines of the headlamps, creating distinction at a standstill. It smiles at you, flirting with its eyes in the dark. We'd hate to encourage people to drive around using just their parking lots as evening comes on, but your Z4 would look especially cool if you did.
The fenders are smoothly bulged, and our Sport Package 17-inch silver alloy 20-spoke wheels looked terrific. The 18-inch five-spoke wheels aren't nearly as stylish, but they're 8.5 inches in the rear, and with big wide rear tires the Z4 would lose some of its grace while marking its owner as a closet muscle-car guy. Of course if you had those wheels you'd probably also want the aerodynamic kit and weird rear spoiler to make it a fully tarted-up Z4. Next you'll need to find another hundred horsepower so you're not a poser.
The rollover protection is two looped bars behind the front seats, covered by gray plastic, with a seam, which looks unfortunately cheap. The plastic disguises what must be sturdy function; the bars are fixed, not pop-ups like the Z3 used to have, and are strengthened by being attached to a common bulkhead. The Z4 has earned a five-star rollover rating by NHTSA.
We put more than 450 miles on our Z4, including one hard six-hour drive, and felt nary a sore bone thanks to the excellent seats. We did a lot of hard cornering too, and appreciated the pad against the tunnel for that body-contact spot on the outside of the leg below the right knee. We wish there were a similar pad for the left knee against the door, but there's a good dead pedal for support.
The Z4 is a sports car, so there isn't much storage space. There's a decent-sized compartment between the seatbacks, which you can't safely access while you're driving because you need to either swivel in your seat or be double-jointed, but at least it's there. There are small door pockets, and also four tight nets for maps and papers, which require an option package to get. Coins and maybe a pen can be held in the scoop under the emergency brake handle, between the seats.
The aluminum spoke steering wheel is nice, an appropriate size for spirited cornering, and contains buttons for the sound system and optional cruise control. Our test 2.5i had leather with brushed aluminum trim in a darkish graphite shade and it looked clean. The matching silvery instrument needles are some of the most delicately shaped we've ever seen, teardrop stiletto splinters dancing up and down the faces of the speedometer and tachometer. The optional on-board computer provided information through a digital readout, your choice between temperature, fuel mileage or average speed since the last setting, or miles to empty. The latter is the only one that means much.
Our 2.5i had the optional Harman Kardon premium sound system with 10 speakers and two subwoofers, but we weren't impressed. Believe it or not we couldn't get it loud enough, and we'd like to think we're not extremists. We wanted to hear Bonnie Raitt rocking at 80 miles per hour with the top down, but she was overpowered by the noise of the wind. Maybe the $185 wind deflector is the answer, although we weren't particularly bothered by buffeting even with all the high-speed top-down driving we did.
The standard halogen low-beam headlights seemed shockingly dim, so we'd recommend getting the $700 bi-xenon headlamps.
The Z4 is a sensuous sports car, not a visceral one. It strokes you, responds to you. After five minutes on the open road, we knew it would be difficult to write this review without using the word 'smooth' about 20 times. It's the ultimate smooth sports car. The 24-valve inline six-cylinder engine is bliss, crooning its way into your heart, and the five-speed gearbox is virtually idiot-proof, or maybe that should be jerk-proof, because that's what it never does. Meanwhile, the handling and brakes are typically (if not universally) BMW: almost flawless. At least for what the 2.5i is. It's not a racer's sports car.
But you can still race up to the brink of 30-mph turns at 80 mph, stand on the brakes and bang two downshifts from fourth to second gear, and feel like Juan Pablo Montoya. You do not blow those downshifts, because the gearbox, clutch, and heel-and-toe action is so smooth. No lurching, no snatching. The Z4 can make a great driver out of mediocre one.
The vented disc brakes, with ABS, front-rear proportioning and electronic brake assist, are typically BMW-brilliant, although we managed to get them to smell hot during one intense long downhill curving stretch; but they only smelled, they didn't fade. And unlike Mercedes' electronic brake-assist program, we didn't feel any interference despite our aggressive use.
BMW chassis engineers have made a real effort to get the Z4 to handle better than the Z3 it has replaced, especially in getting the rear end to stay stuck to the road, and they have succeeded. The Z4 grips in the corners like the Z3 never did. And even with the optional run-flat 17-inch tires, which have stiff sidewalls, it isn't twitchy over high-speed choppy undulating pavement.
The 2.5-liter engine makes a modest 184 horsepower, but it's good horsepower, ample as well as sweet. It's definitely not slow, and it sounds surprisingly great, with a built-in back-pressure deep burble at low rpm. It's got variable valve timing to make the most of its 175 pound-feet of torque, and redlines at a gentle 6500 rpm, with horsepower peaking at 6000. BMW's rev limiter is also the most sophisticated in the business, gently taking the power away when you hit it.
If you need more performance, the 3.0-liter delivers 225 horsepower, 214 pound-feet, and has a six-speed gearbox. BMW's acceleration claims are 0 to 60 in 7.1 seconds for the 2.5i, and in 5.9 seconds for the 3.0i, which is a big difference.
Changing gears with the manual was so easy and satisfying that we can't imagine wanting an automatic transmission, but the five-speed Steptronic with manual control is a good option. As for the high-tech Sequential Manual Gearbox, this is a gearbox for racers. We've tested an M3 with that gearbox, and found it interesting, aggressive, and fun but imperfect. We've also sampled one on a 6 Series coupe and didn't like it in that car. Make sure your fully try one out before opting for the SMG.
The BMW Z4 Roadster succeeds as a replacement for the Z3 with room to spare. Its styling is controversial, but that's a buyer's call to make; like it or not, it's dramatic. The 2.5-liter engine is supremely sweet and fast enough to be worthy of the rest of the car's good qualities, in particular handling, ride and brakes. The 3.0-liter engine offers the power a performance-minded buyer would need, along with a six-speed gearbox. The power soft top makes the Z4 totally comfortable and civilized. At a base retail price of $34,300 with leatherette interior and simple manual top with one-handed release, an entry-level Z4 is an affordable and excellent BMW sports car with all the BMW engineering strengths.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Sam Moses reports from the Columbia River Gorge.
BMW Z4 Roadster 2.5i ($34,300); Z4 Roadster 3.0i ($41,300).
Options As Tested
Premium Package ($3,200) includes fully automatic power top, automatic climate control, eight-way power driver's seat, on-board computer, BMW Assist; Sport Package ($1,300) includes 17-inch wheels, sport suspension; heated seats ($500); premium sound system ($875); hardtop prep ($75).
BMW Z4 Roadster 2.5i ($34,300).
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