Production cars rarely carry quite the same visual clout as the concepts that precede them, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the latest BMW Z4 isn’t as arresting in the metal as we’d perhaps hoped.
Some of the reasoning behind that is obvious. The rear buttresses of the roofless concept (pictured below), for example, have understandably made way so that an electrically folding canvas top can be stowed, the ride height is less severe and the bonnet doesn’t protrude as aggressively. And so while the all-new Z4 is still a striking piece of design (not least when finished in one of BMW’s brighter hues), there remains a nagging doubt that it should have looked even better.
BIGGER AND BETTER
There are no such complaints when it comes to the car’s specification. Underpinning the Z4 (and indeed the new Toyota Supra) is the same CLAR platform architecture as the latest 5 Series (the two cars are built alongside each other in Austria), which allows this two-seat sports car to carry the latest in BMW hardware (think lots of aluminium) and software. That includes the two-screen display for the infotainment and instruments, as well as natural speech recognition for the voice control, and an optional head-up display.
It also dictates that the Z4 has grown compared with its predecessor, and by some margin. At 4.3m it is 85mm longer than the outgoing Z4, as well as 74mm wider. Despite this the wheelbase has actually contracted by 26mm and the tracks made significantly wider front and rear, all of which, says BMW, makes it a much more dynamically capable car.
The petrol-only engine range includes a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo unit with either 197bhp or 254bhp in the 20i and 30i respectively, or a 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbo with 335bhp in the M40i, tested here. All come with an eight-speed automatic gearbox for now, but a six-speed manual will be added in due course. All models have a 50-50 weight distribution and send drive to the rear wheels only; classic BMW, in other words.
To demonstrate what all this has done for the Z4, BMW sent an M40i example to the Nurburgring Nordschleife, where it lapped faster than an M2. For many buyers though, the biggest news will be the replacement of the previous folding metal hardtop with the aforementioned fabric roof for a ‘more organic roadster design’. This can be raised or lowered in just 10 seconds, and when folded away doesn’t impinge on the generous (by roadster standards) 281-litre boot.
A GREAT GRAND TOURER
That boot, which is equivalent in size to what you’ll find on many superminis, is one of the things that makes the Z4 brilliantly suited to grand touring. Another is how refined this car is on the move, even when riding on 19-inch wheels.
The M40i comes as standard with adaptive suspension to help soften or stiffen the ride depending on the road surface and/or your mood. In its most relaxed setting it’s an excellent GT car, and with the small (optional) wind deflector in place wind ruffle is kept to a minimum. Roof up it feels almost every bit as refined as a coupe. Throw in the fact that the roof is so quick to stow away (at speeds of up to 31mph, too), and the Z4 is a convertible that you really can make the most of.
In M40i guise it’s fantastically fast, too – we are talking here about a car that’ll get from 0-62mph in just 4.6 seconds. After increasing exposure to turbocharged four-cylinder engines it is so refreshing to have a high cylinder count up front, both for the noise it makes and the flexibility of the power delivery. This is a big, brawny (how does 367lb ft of torque from 1,600rpm grab you?) engine that’ll still rev to 7,000rpm, at which point there’s an intoxicating howl from the exhausts.
As we’ve come to expect from BMW, the engine also works beautifully with the eight-speed automatic gearbox, which has been engineered to produce a small jolt as you move up through the gears with the car in one of its more aggressive sport modes. It is, without doubt, a brilliant drivetrain, and all the better for BMW deciding to fit large, tactile paddles for the gear selectors.
BETTER THAN A BOXSTER?
Depending on what you’re looking for from your roadster, one area for potential disappointment with the Z4 is the lack of delicacy or communication when you drive it quickly. For while it is undoubtedly well balanced, sensationally grippy and very capable, there’s also a feeling that you could be more involved in the process.
For that reason, a Porsche Boxster 718 remains the driver’s choice when it comes to buying a two-seat roadster at this kind of price point, simply because it is better at telegraphing what’s going on around you, through both chassis and steering, and thus provides a more immersive experience. With the Z4, on the other hand, BMW seems more interested in getting you from A to B either as comfortably or as quickly as possible – which, in fairness, it does extremely well.
This new Z4 is, be in no doubt, a highly desirable vehicle – just one that still leans more towards being a GT than out-and-out sports car.
That it is not quite as visually striking as people might have hoped, or as rich in feedback as its rival from Stuttgart, might prove to be stumbling blocks for some potential buyers. But they should still be in no doubt that it is a significantly better car than its predecessor, and in M40i guise about as quick as anybody could ever really need.
Price: BMW Z4 M40i from £49,040 (Z4 range from £36,990)
0-62mph: 4.6 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Fuel economy: 33.2mpg (WLTP)
HISTORY GUIDE: BMW Z4
BMW Z4 Mk2
By 2009 folding metal hard-tops were in vogue, and so it was that BMW adopted the technology for its second-generation Z4. The idea is to combine the security and refinement of a coupe with the open-air excitement of a roadster. A trick it pulled off quite neatly, even if it was a much softer car to drive than its predecessor.
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BMW Z4 Mk1
Launched in 2002 as a replacement for the Z3, the original Z4 was a boldly styled compact roadster and coupe that put sharp driving dynamics at its core. The larger-engined models – and in particular the Z4M Roadster and Z4M Coupe – are particularly entertaining to drive.
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