2009 BMW Z4 Expert Review:Autoblog
BMW's storied history of building roadsters dates back to the original 328 of the 1930s. However, there have been gaps in the brand's open-top lineage, including one extended stretch through the '60s, '70s and '80s. After a dalliance with the bizarre European market Z1, BMW finally got serious about roadsters again in the '90s with the introduction of the Z3.
Earlier this year, the Munich brand introduced what's essentially the third generation of its modern mainline roadster (discounting the aforementioned low-volume Z1 and the Z8) in the shape of its all-new Z4. Upon its introduction, the esteemed Mr. Harley took our first crack at the new "E89" at its Southern California launch last spring and came away with mixed feelings.
To be fair, whenever an automaker builds a new model, there's always a distinction between what the engineers and designers expect of it and what consumers bank on. There's also a big difference between spending a few hours on a prescribed driving route under controlled conditions versus living with a car as a daily driver for a week or longer. So we wanted to spend time with the Z4 on more familiar turf to see what life is like with BMW's newest roadster.
Photos by Sam Abuelsamid / Max Abuelsamid / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.
Aside from the Z4's new styling, the most notable change from the previous "E85" generation is the adoption of a retractable hard top in place of a fabric roof. In general, we're not big fans of hardtop convertibles due to the additional space they consume when folded – not to mention the additional weight they carry around. The new Z4 is about five inches longer overall than the last generation, and most of that length has been added to the rear end to accommodate the tin top.
Fortunately, the staff at BMW's DesignworksUSA studio have done an admirable job of maintaining the classic long-hood, rear cockpit proportions in this new iteration. In general, this new Z4 is a huge aesthetic improvement over its predecessor. Elaborate surface development was the order of the day the last time around, but to many eyes, the Z3's sheetmetal seemed to go every which way without much coherence. This time around, there's a more clearly defined flow to the Z4's curves and creases, with forms over the fenders and flanks evoking muscles stretched over a skeleton.
Much to our chagrin, Michigan's rainy skies afflicted much of our time with the Z4, meaning that we had to keep the roof up. However, this situation did help demonstrate that hard-hatted convertibles do offer a couple of functional advantages over fabric lids. When driven in the rain, the Z4 remained as tight and dry as any coupe with a permanent roof. The slim C-pillars also meant that apart from the headrest on the passenger seat and the fixed roll hoop immediately behind it, rearward visibility was outstanding.
Raising or lowering the roof proved to be as simple as holding down a switch at the leading edge of the center console for about 20 seconds. From outside the car, the stowing process appears decidedly convoluted as the rear deck opens, the rear window lifts up and all the assorted bits and pieces fold themselves away. The complexity of these tops always give us pause as a long-term ownership consideration, but we've yet to see any evidence of reliability issues with this top, so perhaps it's just our inner Luddites that long for the simple manual Z-fold of, say, a Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Our tester was a base sDrive30i, and as an entry-level model, our Bimmer was devoid of many higher-end toys like satellite navigation, which in turn meant that it had no iDrive controller. As much as the latest iteration of this all-in-one GUI controller has been improved, we were actually quite happy to have a driving environment free of such complexities, as going without seems more in keeping with the spirit of a roadster anyhow. Thankfully, in the iDrive's place there's a set of well arrayed and pleasingly straightforward controls.
Front and center in the console is a pleasantly short lever for rowing through the six-speed manual gearbox. Directly in front of the driver is a small, reassuringly thick-rimmed three-spoke wheel. Thankfully, it's not so small that it obscures the large speedometer and tach that dominate the instrument cluster. As with most modern BMWs, between the analog gauges is a red-orange LCD display that displays secondary information like mileage, radio stations and so on. The readout is easily legible except when wearing polarized sunglasses.
Unfortunately, there are two elements of the interior that strike us as decidedly out of place in a car that costs $50,000. Higher trim levels get a better covering on much of the dash panel, but the aluminum-look piece on our car was actually plastic and it wasn't fooling anyone. In an apparent move to placate drink-happy Americans, BMW also has tacked a cupholder onto the passenger side of the transmission tunnel, which just begs to be snapped off by an errant knee. There are a pair of cupholders under the center armrest, but they're too far back to be easily accessed. Tellingly, European models don't even bother with the forward cupholder and if we had our druthers, we wouldn't either.
Beverage gripes aside, there's plenty of good stuff to talk about – particularly the seats. The Z4 may not be a hardcore sports car, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't have excellent chairs, and here the roadster scores a solid ten. The seats don't have a lot of adjustments, but they don't really need it. The side bolsters are ample and firm enough to hold occupants in place during truly spirited driving, yet comfortable enough for long interstate slogs. Those with a long hip-to-knee span often find the lower cushion of many seats only reach mid-thigh. Fortunately, the upgraded seats that come as part of the Sport package in the Z4 have adjustable thigh supports that allow the seat cushion to be extended out closer to the mid-leg joint.
BMW's (labored) sDrive30i appellation denotes the company's normally aspirated 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine. While we're just as enamored with roaring V8s as the next guy, there's something simply sublime about a great straight-six, and it's a BMW hallmark. Unlike a V6 of any bank angle, inline sixes are inherently balanced without having to resort to band-aids like balance shafts. While the two turbos on the sDrive35i do an excellent job of inflating the torque curve, the more moderate 220 pound-feet of our un-boosted sDrive30i arrives at an eminently usable 2,600 rpm. That means cruising around town is a smooth and effortless process that doesn't require drawing excessive attention to one's self by revving out the engine all the time. That is, unless you want to – in which case the six will happily spin up to nearly 7,000 rpm all day long.
In urban traffic or on the freeway, the Z4 is a happy cruiser. With the top up, it's also a remarkably quiet place for a road trip, although you can still can still hear the pleasant engine note coming through. It's not the glorious wail of a high strung race engine, but it does have a mechanical sound that evokes precision machined internals. With the top down and the side glass up, buffeting is surprisingly subdued – even without any sort of wind blocker. For those interested in running the numbers, a normally aspirated Z4 like our tester will scoot to 60 mph in about 5.5 seconds, yet the EPA rates the Z4 at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway regardless of transmission choice. We saw 23 mpg in mixed driving.
If you enjoy listening to something besides the tires thrumming along on the brushed concrete or the air flowing over your head, you may want to consider a serious upgrade to the stereo system. The base entertainment system simply does not have the auditory oomph required to overcome high speed air flow. Even maxed out, the volume was totally inadequate at 70+ mph.
We had an all-too-brief opportunity to sample another Z4 in the vicinity of California's celebrated Mulholland Highway earlier this year, and while our man Harley was right that the Z4 ultimately lacks the knife-edged feel of at least one of its primary competitors, this is still a car with a a very well-balanced chassis. As it approaches its cornering limits, the rear axle will smoothly drift out at least to the limit of what the stability control system will allow. And when the Bimmer's electronic overlords do intrude on the fun, they do so in a very smooth and progressive fashion. Rather than jerking the car back into line, the system simply holds the car at its the maximum allowable slip angle. As the time for directional changes approaches, the steering allows the driver to make adjustments with precision while feeding back information about how close the tires are to their limits.
Back here in the decidedly less glamorous environs of southeast Michigan, the opportunities for that sort of vehicular merriment tend to be more limited. Most of the roads are of the straight and flat variety, and they're often poorly maintained. The patchwork of random materials that make up many of the surfaces may not be good fun for fans of winding roads, but they do provide an ideal over-the-road laboratory for assessing structural rigidity, and they routinely have windshield frames quivering madly. All due credit, then, to BMW engineers, who have managed to create one of the most solid-feeling convertible structures we've ever experienced – the A-pillars exhibited no movement relative to the rest of the body.
Like all hardtop convertibles, the Z4's roof eats up a significant portion of the trunk space when retracted, and what's left is only accessible through a narrow slot. With the top up, the trunk is rated at eight cubic feet and with the roof stowed, the available space shrinks to just five or six cubic feet. Couples planning a road trip are advised to pack very lightly or run with the top up until they get to their destination.
Admittedly, BMW's latest is probably not the best track day companion, but after spending a week with the Z4, it's clear that BMW never intended it to be. Instead, this is a roadster that excels in the everyday world, yet is still one whose limits can be safely explored without fear that it will reach out and bite. Between its friendly power delivery, robust structure and snug-fitting hard-top, the E89 is a legitimate daily driver for virtually any region in the country. Even mounted with proper snow tires it would make a reasonable case for itself in the winter. So while the Z4 may not provide the last word for the weekend brain-bucket and Nomex set, for the average enthusiast it's a genuine pleasure and a worthy addition to BMW's roadster canon.
Photos by Sam Abuelsamid / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.
Photos copyright ©2009 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc
The all-new 2009 Z4 is BMW's fifth roadster offered during the past two decades. The first model was the late-80's steel and composite two-seat BMW Z1. It never made it to the States, but its influence paved the way for our U.S.-built BMW Z3 in 1996. The drop-top Z3 started life with a four-cylinder, but that didn't matter at the time as the roadster was inexpensive to own and a hoot to drive, even if it was based on the dated E30-platform's 3 Series mechanicals (not to worry, as later variants received the M-division's hot inline-six). The Z3 was followed by the M Coupe, with styling that lifted more than a few eyebrows and performance that extinguished any doubt about its capabilities. BMW followed the Z3 with the limited-production Z8 in 2000. The aluminum-bodied roadster featured an M-sourced V8 under the hood, and exclusivity that drove the secondary market wild, at least for a while.
The first-generation Z4 debuted in 2002. Larger and more sophisticated than the Z3, it was also built in South Carolina like its predecessor. A series of six-cylinder engines offered increased performance, and a power-operated cloth top kept the elements at bay. Again, following the pattern set with the Z3, BMW eventually introduced high-performance M models and a sleek hard-top variant that set some enthusiasts on fire.
Killing two birds with one stone, BMW has altered the formula significantly for 2009. While the Z3 and first-generation Z4 were offered in both soft-top roadster and fixed-roof body styles, the German automaker is offering just one retractable hardtop model this time around. While that approach effectively accomplishes its objective, a folding hardtop adds complexity, weight, cost, and it seriously taxes luggage space. In another drastic move, BMW has also shifted Z4 production back to its German facility (allowing the Spartanburg plant to focus on the X3 and lower its price).
Artfully sculpted, the clean-sheet Z4 Roadster looks remarkably similar to the Z8 (in fact, they nearly share dimensions), itself an aluminum-bodied roadster that acknowledged the classic and timeless design of BMW's 507 roadster from the 1950's. Immediately recognizable as a Z4, however, the new two-seater features a long hood, blacked-out A-pillars, flowing character lines, and a cohesive tail treatment that adds an upscale yet more traditional look to the second-generation model. The overall package looks great in pictures and even better in the metal.
Like the exterior, the passenger cabin doesn't disappoint. Softer, warmer and more cohesive in overall execution than its predecessor, it envelops the driver and passenger in leather, high quality plastics and rich wood or aluminum trim. The speedometer and tachometer take center stage, with fuel and oil temperature gauges set immediately below. Round HVAC controls occupy the middle of the dash console with the audio controls at the bottom and the available flip-up NAV above. Driver and passenger are separated by the transmission tunnel, where the gear selector, next-gen iDrive controller, electronic parking brake and the switches for suspension settings, roof position and heated seats are all conveniently placed atop its mound.
Emblazoned on the front quarter panel is the automaker's awkward nomenclature (which has finally caught up to the Z4). Buyers choose between the "Z4 sDrive30i" and the "Z4 sDrive35i." Simplified, the sDrive30i is the entry-level model with the normally-aspirated powerplant and an abbreviated list of standard features. The sDrive35i gets the two turbochargers, bigger brakes, a larger tire contact patch out back and more standard creature comforts. Visibly differentiating the two are the accents on the front grille (silver treatment on the sDrive35i), the exhaust outlets (dual chrome exhaust on the sDrive35i), and fancier wheels.
BMW is fitting its newest Roadster with two very familiar powerplants in the U.S. market. The standard engine, found in the sDrive30i, is the company's magnesium-block 3.0-liter inline-six. Rated at 255 hp and 220 lb-ft of torque, the normally-aspirated petrol-burner is mated to a standard six-speed manual gearbox or an optional six-speed automatic (aka "Steptronic"). The automaker is conservatively quoting 5.6 seconds to 60 mph for the sDrive30i manual and 6.0 seconds with the automatic. The sDrive35i features BMW's award-winning N54 direct-injected twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-six. Rated at 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, the aluminum-block is mated to a standard six-speed manual or an optional seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox (DSG). With the manual gears, the blown Z4 variant sprints to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds, or a tenth quicker with the rapid-fire DSG. You can't go wrong with either powerplant, as both are absolute jewels to spin to redline.
Climbing into the driver's seat, your author's six-foot two-inch frame fit comfortably. The legroom feels nearly identical to the Porsche Boxster, but the Z4 offers a bit more shoulder room. In typical BMW fashion, all controls are easy to use after a bit of familiarization (even the next-gen iDrive is starting to make sense). The three-spoke steering wheel is small in diameter but very thick. Outward visibility, regardless of whether the top is stowed or raised, is excellent. Ah, the top... The multi-piece retractable hardtop is a masterpiece of engineering formed from lightweight aluminum and with a heated glass rear window. It automatically drops out of sight in about 20 seconds at the touch of a button. Retracted, the top disappears completely from view. Like the Mercedes-Benz SLK, the vanishing roof effectively limits passengers to soft baggage in its small rear luggage compartment (the Z4 offers a pass-through for golf bags or skis) and Porsche's Boxster continues to lead the trio with not one, but two decent-sized luggage compartments thanks to its mid-engine placement.
We drove nearly all of the variants, but most of our time was spent in a Deep Sea Blue Metallic sDrive35i with a six-speed manual. The entry-level Z4 sDrive30i starts at $46,575 (including destination). Our Z4's base price of $52,475 rocketed to $65,345 with a handful of options (Sport Package, Premium Package, Premium Sound, Navigation, Ivory Leather and more). Regardless of how much equity is left in your home or cash in your PayPal account, that is going to make a big dent. We don't need to remind anyone that $65,000 will also deliver a hot Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG or a razor-sharp Porsche Boxster S with your name typed on the title. Nevertheless, the money is less relevant than the driving experience at this price point, so let's see how she rolls...
A push of the start button brings the 3.0-liter twin-turbo six to life. Our right hand presses the switch to release the electro-mechanical parking brake, and we put the Z4 into gear. We travel no further than the end of the driveway when we pause. Something under our fingertips does not feel right. While it is obviously not broken, the electric power steering is uncharacteristically light and numb for a BMW. A bit more than baffled by this early misstep, we suppress our thoughts by stepping on the gas and heading for the highway.
We put about 250 miles on our Z4 Roadster in one day on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The rear-wheel drive BMW took us across highways, through the quaint (but road construction-laden) town of Ojai, and then up Hwy 33 through Lockwood Valley into Frazier Park. A short detour on a near-empty two-lane road led us up to the summit of 8,300-foot Mt. Pinos before we wandered back into the LA Basin on the highway again. We really couldn't have asked for a better playground to romp with the Z4.
Traveling up Highway 101, the Z4 shines. BMW references a newfound "maturity" and refinement, mannerisms that are immediately apparent at cruising speeds of 60-80 mph. The chassis is very rigid, with the stiffness allowing the suspension to soak up undulations with aplomb while keeping passengers isolated from the harshness. The extra couple hundred pounds of weight over its predecessor is felt, but in this arena, it works to improve the ride. Compared to the sporty Z3 and first-gen Z4, both jittery highway travelers, the second-gen roadster reminds us more of the sedate – and much more expensive – Mercedes-Benz SL-Class. Even with all of the windows down, and without a wind blocker between the seats, air management is acceptable.
On the road, the power from the blown six is impressive (except for a bit more engine cooling and a different exhaust, it is unchanged from its configuration in other "35i" models). Gobs of torque down low put the power to the ground at nearly any engine speed. In stock form, it should run neck-to-neck with the Porsche Boxster S and close to the Mercedes-Benz SLK 55 AMG (an inexpensive ECU retune will leave both of those bad guys in the Z4's twin contrails). The six-speed manual transmission has been reconfigured with a shorter and more deliberate throw. It works exactly as advertised (think of it like a factory version of the aftermarket "UUC Motorwerks" short shift kit). We only wish it was standard on all BMW 6MT variants.
Leaving the ho-hum highway at nearly sea level, we drive through the artisan community of Ojai heading for the Los Padres National Forest more than a mile up in elevation. Our test model was fitted with the $1,900 Adaptive M suspension. According to BMW, "sensors measure relevant acceleration and adjust the damping within hundredths of a second." With high expectations, we set it on "Sport" before throwing the Z4 into the climbing canyons.
Again, we immediately notice something amiss. Even on the firmest "Sport+" setting, there is far too much body roll. On many bumpy corners we find ourselves compressing the shocks completely to the bump stops. The jarring on the chassis unsettled our mental state more than the roadster, which admittedly remains composed throughout our trauma (even if it has run out of suspension travel). There are meaty 255's on the rear wheels, but they just don't feel that wide as the rear end steps out and stability control reins things in. Once again, we are left shaking our heads thinking, "This is supposed to be a refined Z4, right?
As the asphalt tightens, the roadster's beautiful styling also starts to work against it. The pedestrian-friendly hood is long... really long... like Granville Brothers "Gee Bee" airplane long. With that much vehicle in front of the driver and the pilot's seating position low and only inches from the rear wheels, it's difficult to ascertain exactly where the front wheels are. Mix in a bit of low steering effort, add a touch of numbness, and recall our suspension issue and you verily have a dimly lit bulb. The Z4 that shines so brightly during normal driving frankly fizzles in the canyons. We are not enjoying ourselves. How can a direct descendant of the Z3 forget how to dance?
We meet Interstate 5 once again at the Tejon Pass near the southwest end of the Tehachapi Mountains. With the top up and our cabin sealed tightly, we make good time through the Los Angeles traffic as it begins to congest. The time passes by as we tinker with the sweet audio system and enjoy the intuitive NAV system with its clear eight-inch display. Hushed in its coupe role, the Z4 is comfortable, content and polished as it covers the mundane miles home... while we are left to ponder our impressions.
After some thought, our take is that the all-new 2009 BMW Z4 is a world-class convertible hardtop roadster. However, it has purposefully grown and matured at the hands of its maker. As a result, the Z4 is apparently no longer interested in toying with the boyish Mercedes-Benz SLK and Porsche Boxster. Its fresh civility introduces elegance and class at the expense of youthful playfulness. Its new size, weight and price hammer the message home. If you are seeking a luxurious German roadster/coupe in one tidy package, this just may be your ideal vehicle.
On the other hand, if you are a weekend track junkie or a canyon carver, the new Z4 may not illuminate your socket. Don't fret, until BMW rolls out the rumored Z2 (or a Z4 Motorsport variant in a couple years), there are other alternatives out there, and besides, you can always pick up a last-gen certified pre-owned Z4 if you're a committed Bimmerphile.
Photos copyright ©2009 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc
New Car Test Drive
All-new version features folding hardtop.
The 2009 BMW Z4 marks the second generation of the Z4 name and third of this recent line of two-seat roadsters James Bond debuted in his 1996 Z3. The 2009 Z4 is a totally new car, apart from the lower output of the two engines and a few miscellaneous pieces.
The 2009 Z4 sports a retractable hard top, a departure from any previous two-seat BMW. The retractable hard top replaces the roadster and coupe versions of previous-generation (pre-2009) Z4 models with one car. The hard top retracts for the same open-air driving of a convertible, but closes with the press of a button to provide the advantages of better security, rigidity, rearward visibility, quiet and weather control of a coupe.
The Z4 offers the driving character you expect from BMW and it will be familiar to any fan of the marquee. As with other cars getting bigger and laden with more luxury and features, the higher-optioned Z4s tend to feel more like Grand Touring machines than sports cars. In terms of pure sports car, we liked the sDrive30i with sport package. The performance and feel of balanced precision is there in every Z4, and the sDrive35i with dual-clutch gearbox gets close to the previous M Roadster as a track day tool.
While some will choose a Z4 based solely on the badge and others solely on style, they will over time learn the real reasons, both objective and emotional, behind the car and why they want to keep it. Others will appreciate the performance and technology without regard to style, and yet others will shop merely because they've been waiting for a folding hardtop roadster from Munich.
BMW accurately point out that the Z4 sDrive35i is about the same size and offers performance close to the Z8 of early this century, and it does so for about half the price. The Z4 is also far more practical, and yes, there is such a thing as a practical roadster.
The Z4 competes primarily with the Audi TT, Mercedes-Benz SLK and Porsche Boxster; secondary consideration may go to the Nissan 350Z roadster, Infiniti G37, or Lotus Elise relative to your position on the luxury-sports continuum.
The 2009 Z4 is offered in two models, the sDrive30i and sDrive35i. In current BMW nomenclature, sDrive refers to rear-wheel drive. However, there are no xDrive (all-wheel-drive) Z4s and no M model has been announced.
The Z4 sDrive30i ($45,750) comes with a 255-hp 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission; a six-speed sport automatic with shift paddles is optional ($1,325). It's delivered with faux leather leatherette upholstery, manual climate control, power retractable hardtop, heated power mirrors and rear window, six-way manual bucket seats, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, power windows and locks, trip computer and adaptive bi-Xenon headlamps. Options unique to the sDrive 30i are brushed aluminum or ash wood trim ($500) and Kansas leather upholstery ($1,250) from the sDrive35i.
The Z4 sDrive35i ($51,650) uses a 300-hp 3.0-liter inline six, though it is a different engine than the 30i and employs twin turbochargers; a six-speed manual gearbox is standard and a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual optional ($1,525). Other mechanical upgrades include larger brakes and wider rear tires and wheels. Cabin upgrades include standard leather upholstery, brushed aluminum trim or ash wood, and automatic dual-zone climate control. Kansas leather upholstery on the dash, visors, door sills ($1,350) is optional, along with a 19-inch wheel upgrade to the Sport package ($1,200).
Options for both Z4 models include navigation ($2,100); Comfort Access ($500); Park Distance Control ($750); HD radio; satellite radio w/1-year sub ($595); smartphone integration ($150); anti-theft alarm ($400); metallic paint ($550). The Cold Weather package ($1,000) includes heated steering wheel and seats, storage pack, through-loading system, headlight washers. The Premium package includes auto-dimming mirrors, gate opener, power seats with lumbar and driver memory, ambient light package, BMW assist, leather on 30i. Premium Sound ($2,000) adds six-disc DVD changer, hi-fi sound system, iPod/USB adapter. Sport adds 18-inch alloy wheels and run-flat performance tires, Adaptive M suspension, sport seats; 19-inch wheels are also available. Exclusive Ivory white Nappay leather is available, along with anthracite wood trim.
Standard safety features include frontal airbags, head/thorax side airbags in the seats, active knee protection, roll hoops, and electronic stability, traction and braking controls, tire pressure monitors. The only option that might be considered safety related is the Park Distance Control.
The all-new 2009 Z4 is built on the same wheelbase as its predecessor but adds length, most of it at the rear. The lines are slightly softer on this generation, aiming for the happy medium between the Z3's mild, more feminine curves and the last Z4's more masculine, aggressive flame surfacing and sharp stub of a tail. This latest Z4 is about six inches longer than the previous Z4 due to the retractable hard top mechanism.
Classic roadster proportions give the Z4 a long hood and short decklid, shoulders over the wheel arches and tapers in three axes. The creases begun at the inner edge of the headlight housings roll over the front fenders and lead back to bisect the door handle, while an opposite lower sweep started at the front bumper curves upward to the rear wheels.
In side view it looks like a French curve over each wheel, the forward one twice the length of the rear, and from the driver's perch the hood seems to rise from the windshield base before falling off forward. We think it looks better with the top down but it's still relatively sleek top-up and has a similar closed profile to the big Mercedes SLR. Gills behind the front wheel carry the substantial badge and the side signal repeater is now behind an opaque panel in the gill; the BMW propeller logo is still here, but no longer serves to disguise the signal.
A variety of wheel sizes and finishes are offered, and while the Z4 is light and well-suspended enough that even 19-inch wheels can deliver decent ride quality they might not work well with poor infrastructure (rough roads), and some wheel styles will require more cleaning effort.
From dead-on at either end the top-dropped Z4 has strong resemblance to a scaled-down version of the 6 series and its roadster precursor the Z8. Sections of the taillights look like horizontal light tubes and appear to ramp up like theater lights when the lights are switched on. Adaptive brake lights deliver more red light when you hit the brake pedal hard than when merely slowing mildly. The center brake light is midway between rear window and tail on the trunk lid where it will not interfere with rear vision but will be covered up by an inch of snow. A single side twin-exhaust outlet signals a 30i where the 35i uses a single outlet on each side, a la Z8.
Although front-end shaping is the same, with BMW's trademark corona (programmable) daytime running lights for instant identification, trim varies by model. The 30i has black vanes in its grille and a silver slash across the outer lower grilles, where the 35i has matte silver grille vanes and perimeter frames for the outer grilles. While the Z4 is close to the ground the front overhang is shorter than many and not prone to scraping at every speed bump or mild driveway.
The Z4 is longer than the Audi TT and Mercedes-Benz SLK, shorter than the Boxster, but the difference is a few inches. In height and width, they are much closer so exterior dimensions should not factor in purchase decisions.
The Z4 is now built in Regensburg, Germany. In BMW fashion, many systems on the Z4 have been proven in other recent BMW models, including the higher-output engine, transmissions, and suspension design.
The Z4 cabin is immediately familiar to any BMW owner, with many of the Munich builder's hallmarks: simple white-on-black analog instrumentation, sweeping driver-centric lines, functional controls and a high level of fit and finish (apart from the molding seams on the map pockets). In a generally evolutionary upgrade you notice first that, yes, it's definitely a BMW roadster, second, that iDrive has been revamped and the parking brake lever is gone, and lastly, it feels just like the old coupe with the top up.
The Z4 30i comes with leatherette upholstery, but that is available only in black which might not be best in sunny areas where you're likely to park the car open. Order leather (designed for a convertible climate), or get the 35i, and the palette increases to four colors and only one of them is dark; on 35i versions you can even extend the leather coverage for the ultimate in premium feel. The low-gloss brushed aluminum or ash wood trim (which does reflect a bit of glare top-down) of the 35i may be added to the 30i.
There is plenty of space for two people in the Z4, the head and legroom about what you find in a full-size SUV. Standard manual seats and tilt/telescoping steering column provide enough adjustment to suit many driver sizes; slender types will appreciate the side bolsters on the seats and larger bodies will be framed as much by the door and console. While they may not look like thick armchairs the seats offer excellent support over multi-hour drives; the sport seats are a bit more confining for wide girth and superb for a spirited drive. The driver's footwell is large enough for size-13 shoes to comfortably operate three well-positioned pedals and a good dead pedal to rest/brace your left foot on.
Inside storage has long been the bane of roadsters so particular attention was paid to that. The door pocket walls tilt out for access, and in doing so make excellent coin catchers for the change flying out your pants pocket at the first hard bend. A bin ahead of the shifter has good containment properties and there's a cubby atop the dash on cars without navigation. Other storage areas are behind the seats, and there is a pass-through door available for carrying skis or golf clubs. The armrest lid conceals two cupholders and that lid stays up on its own and clears even lanky elbows, and a third cupholder clips in to the right side of the console right about where the passenger's left knee rests. Cupholders are not the priority here, driving is.
The multifunction steering wheel is thick enough to feel good and thin enough to receive all the feedback the suspension delivers. Ahead of it are large speed and engine rev gauges, with smaller fuel and oil temperature (more useful than coolant temperature) in the bottom. Digital displays in the center handle outside temperature, mileage, trip data, and on automatics, gear indication.
Outward visibility is good, and a major improvement with the top up. The windshield curves across the top and the pillars are no impediment, but taller drivers will have to look around the inside mirror on up-and-down winding mountain roads. The three-quarter view right behind the seats is much better because the folding top added two small windows. Even the 8.8-inch stowable navigation display (1280x480p) was easy to read in direct sunlight, polarized sunglasses or not.
Climate control is manual on 30i and automatic dual-zone on 35i with an automatic recirculation mode that senses air contaminants. With the heated seats and steering wheel option the close-the-top temperature goes down 10 degrees or more. Slide the control wheel at the center dash vents from warm to cool and the response is immediate. This happens with most of the controls. There is no need to hold the trip odo button to reset it, and some are designed as multifunctional with one result from a quick tap and another from depressing and holding.
Audio options include HD radio, satellite radio, glovebox-mounted six-disc DVD changer, iPod and USB ports and a hi-fi system with 14 speakers driven by an amplifier capable of delivering 650 watts. On navigation cars much audio control is done through iDrive but common requests can be handled by steering wheel buttons as well. On cars with iDrive there is an 80GB hard-drive that has 15GB allotted to music storage, and it will contain CD contents for you.
The new Z4 gets the next generation of iDrive (with navigation) and it is improved as much as anything on the car. Buttons have been added to the controller to speed access and operation is much more intuitive while maintaining the myriad functions. It might not be the best such system in modern automobiles but should put an end to the criticism of earlier iDrive. Our only complaint is that the controller is located between the shift lever and the armrest and on gear changes we frequently bumped the controller, often executing a command or changing the radio station in the process. Automatics with paddle shifters won't have this problem, nor manual non-navigation cars.
The parking brake is electrically operated by a switch behind the shifter, and it does get hot in sunshine, even underway. Concerns about starting on a hill without a lever to work are addressed by the start-off assistant that keeps the brakes applied momentarily while you engage the clutch and throttle. Switching for the suspension and transmission, where applicable, is to the left of the shifter so you're hands never have to travel far.
On the 35i the optional dual-clutch transmission has a shift lever shared by some other new BMW products that's a bit unconventional and looks like a cross between a video-game controller and a beer tap. Neutral is the default position and park a pushbutton; push the lever forward to go backward and vice-versa, and in manual mode, it shifts like a racecar with downshifts forward and upshifts back, allowing g-forces to assist the driver with shifting.
The top opens and closes in 20 seconds without any fear it will bump you on the head and once up felt just like a coupe in terms of noise; the headliner is off-white to enhance spaciousness. Raising all four windows (use the master on the driver's door) allows conversation at 75 mph top down, and most window-down wind noise comes from the area around the seatbelts. There is no wind-blocker panel for between the headrests specified in early option sheets though we have seen photos and it may become available through your dealer. Cargo room is about average for the class, but better with the top up (10.9 cubic feet versus 6.4 using the DIN standard). On cars with Comfort Access you can, through the key fob, lift the stowed roof out of the way for easier loading and unloading.
BMW labels this Z4 an expression of joy. We usually just smile, and the Z4 may well bring a smile to your face, so we'll go along for now. While the retractable top and added features have nudged it a bit closer to grand touring car than sports car it is still clearly aimed at those who enjoy driving.
Both inline sixes are smooth as an America's Cup boat hull right to redline, deliver a sonorous note, are 3 liters in capacity and there ends most similarity. The 30i engine is a very light, modern, rev-happy unit that brings 255 horsepower at 6600 rpm and 220 lb-ft of torque at 2600 rpm; it has more than enough power for any road and delivers it in linear fashion, output rising commensurate with revs. This package is rated 19/28 mpg with the manual and 19/29 for automatics, numbers we easily met or exceeded.
Although also a 3-liter the 35i's is a different engine altogether. It uses two very small turbochargers to boost maximum horsepower to 300 at just 5800 rpm and more noticeably, up torque by 80 lb-ft to 300 from just 1400 rpm through 5000. The extra muscle gets the 210-pound-heavier 35i to 60 a half-second quicker than the 30i and delivers plenty of power for street and track alike. It will wind to 7000 rpm but there's really no point with that abundance of torque, and while it's a superb engine it doesn't offer the emotional happiness the 30i does.
With a manual, EPA numbers are 18/25 and with the dual-clutch seven-speed 17/24. With decent aero drag numbers, small frontal area and an efficient driveline we managed almost 24 in a manual over some amusing roads and 38 mpg/72 mph on an 80-mile leg from 4000 feet elevation to 700.
The primary competitors similarly have multiple engine offerings and similar mileage ratings. Mercedes SLK300 gets 228 hp and 221 lb-ft from its V6 with six-speed manual or seven-speed auto, but the SLK350 with 300 hp is automatic only. Porsche Boxster (about $800 more) brings 255 hp at a lofty 7100 rpm and 214 lb-ft of torque; the Boxster S, about $8000 above a Z4 35i, rates 310 and 266 respectively. Audi TT offers three engines starting from $10,000 less than a Z4 30i but the closest match is the TTS roadster ($1,800 above a Z4 30i) with a turbocharged four-cylinder of 265 hp and 258 lb-ft from 2500-5000 rpm, and despite all-wheel drive you might appreciate in inclement weather, the TTS is lighter than the Z4 30i. For the price of a fully loaded Z4 35i you could also contemplate an AMG SLK55 V8 or a lightly used recent Porsche 911.
The six-speed manuals, both of them, offer soft, progressive clutch take-up for smooth starts whether crawling in traffic or weekend autocrossing. Shift action is light, short and semi-notchy, rather like there's a rubber-edged metal gate hiding under the shift boot. Shifts are quick, clean, and error-free.
The 30i automatic is a conventional six-speed unit and goes about its business exactly as intended; it's not as quick as the manual but costs only in purchase price and not fuel economy.
However, the big engine in the 35i gets an optional seven-speed dual-clutch automatic from the M3. Don't let the name confuse you: it does have clutches but they are all controlled by the car, the only coordination required is engaging D and pressing the gas. Around town you will feel like it has a momentary delay between when you press the accelerator from a stop and when the car starts moving; the actions behind this are also why it doesn't creep in gear as much as a conventional automatic.
Pushbutton mode changes allow you to ratchet up the speed and intensity with which it shifts to the point it is faster than the manual and makes a milleseconds-long burp from the exhaust pipes as it rips through the gears. It's also smart, doing things like dropping gears automatically (rev-matching the downshifts) if you hit the brakes hard to go into a corner, but it will shy away from gear changes mid-corner so it doesn't upset the balance of the car. There is also a launch control mode for ultimate acceleration but read the owner's manual cautions on this before you take the steps and disappear in a wisp of tire haze.
Since it has more power and weight, the 35i gets substantially larger brakes. Brake performance and feel is good across the range, and we had no brake issues at all charging downhill in 100-degree weather in a 30i; racers may opt for the 35i's bigger parts. The 35i also has wider rear wheels and tires to cope with the added weight and power.
A $57,000 35i with sport package, dual-clutch gearbox and 19-inch wheels arguably makes the best track car in terms of outright performance, but we found the 30i ($49,000 with sport package) the sweeter ride on a winding road where the lighter weight is felt, reactions and response seem more linear, and the whole effect is more pure sports car than race car.
Even on the standard run-flat tires (no spare) and optional sport package the Z4 rides commendably well. Part of this is good suspension tuning, part from the rigid structure it's mounted to, and part from the adaptive damping included in the sport package that allows for Normal, Sport, and Sport-plus settings.
Steering is electromechanical but you'd never tell by how well it communicates what the front tires are doing. Unlike many sports cars that feel heavy steering is a requirement this is light around town, weights up nicely with cornering force and reminds us somewhat of the Honda S2000. It can't really match the surgical detail of the Porsche Boxster, but nothing at this price, short of a Lotus does.
With a low center of gravity and near-perfect weight distribution with occupants, the Z4's handling is exemplary. You'd need something considerably lighter, more stiffly sprung, equipped with fatter or stickier tires to make notably faster progress. Like the Mazda RX-8 (a lighter two-door, four-seat, front-engine, rear-drive coupe), the Z4 is not only nicely balanced and goes where you point it, it does so with little drama and it's relatively easy to find where its limits are.
Putting the top down doesn't change the behavior at all because it's the lightest such assembly in the industry (aluminum panels) and changes front/rear balance by 0.3 percent and it puts that weight closer to the ground. You could argue lowering the top costs some rigidity as the triangulation between windshield, floor, and trunk is gone, but there is no cowl shake and only the inside mirror vibrated a bit on poor road surfaces so characteristics don't change.
The one thing you do have to get used to, depending on whether you're looking at the road or the hood, is what your brain might interpret as a momentary delay between when you turn the wheel and when the car rotates and changes direction. Since you sit so far from the front axle and adjacent the rear axle, steering input tends to send the hood off to one side before you feel the rear tires join the party and rotate the car. It's a sensation the more driver-forward Boxster and TT don't offer, and it's much more muted in the softer SLK.
Among the competitors, the SLK also offers a folding hardtop, while the Audi TT and Porsche Boxster use folding cloth tops; they're perhaps not as quiet and sealed as a hardtop, and not as easy to see out of, but trunk space doesn't suffer as much when motoring top-down. The TTS has the foul-weather bonus of all-wheel drive and a nicely finished cabin, but not the same balance and precision finesse as the Z4. The Mercedes offers many similar amenities but is less a driver's car and more a small version of the SL luxury convertible. Porsche Boxster has even better driving precision and power of the 35i with the pilot engagement of the 30i, but its tariff can rise even faster than that of the Z4.
The all-new 2009 BMW Z4 picks up right where the last generation left off, or as a more intimate, involving 6 Series cabrio. That it is a bit bigger and more luxurious doesn't indicate any loss of soul or enjoyment, and the folding hardtop offers the best of coupe and roadster forms with fewer of the drawbacks of either. We think it's the best sports car in this class short of the Porsche Boxster, and it can't switch between top-down roadster and hard top coupe the way the Z4 can.
G.R. Whale filed this NewCarTestDrive report from Los Angeles.
BMW Z4 sDrive30i ($45,750); sDrive35i ($51,650).
Options As Tested
Metallic paint ($550); cold weather package ($1,000); premium package ($2,500); sport package ($2,300); Comfort Access ($500); navigation/HD radio ($2,100); satellite radio ($595).
BMW Z4 sDrive35i ($51,650).
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