On The Road Review: BMW Z4

When BMW introduced the Z3 sports car in 1995, it was the brand’s dramatic re-entry into the two-passenger sports segment for a company more focused on sporting sedans and luxury cars. The Z3 created quite a stir in the marketplace and revitalized a segment dominated by Mazda’s popular Miata.

The Z3 was built at BMW’s South Carolina plant for sale all over the world. Initial power was a small 1.8-liter four-cylinder barely making 140-hp while pricing hovered around $26,000. Demand was high and the Z3 soon sprouted more powerful editions including the high-output ‘M’ series roadsters and the unique M-coupe.

The Z3 evolved into the Z4 in 2002, also built in the USA, but the changes in design and execution turned the newer car into more of a sports touring machine than a lithe roadster. With more competitors fighting for a shrinking market, Z4 sales never reached the levels of the previous Z3.

For 2009, BMW has made wholesale changes in the Z4.

The new car’s styling is much more expressive. Crease lines and contours appear to have more emphasis and give the car a much more appealing visual statement. Both the front twin-kidney grille and the expressive rear taillights add character to the car where none was evident before. Critics of the first Z4 complained that the car had too many styling messages and lacked the precise confidence of the Z3 — this car is much sharper and makes a very nice statement.

The new Z4 retains the exaggerated long hood/short rear deck convertible style made popular by the Z3. Highlighting rather than concealing the elongating accents that mask the growth in measurements in both width and length give the new roadster a street presence that in many ways is reminiscent of the muscular Z8 sports car of just a few years ago.

The soft-top is gone, replaced by a power hard-top that quickly scissors into a wide well atop the trunk. Owners don’t need to worry about a tonneau cover as the rear deck articulates to cover the lowered roof and provide a finished appearance.

Cargo space may not be ample, but it is surprisingly expansive for such a small convertible. Top-up, the car is quieter than before with lots of head room, however, buyers will be surprised to find that the Z4 does not come with the small rear windblocker that many convertible rivals include as standard. On warm rides, the windblocker was not needed. But when the mercury plummets — like after dark — you’ll want to divert those cooling breezes filling the cabin around your neck.

While the Z3 offered joyous top-down motoring, the whole class has experienced a proliferation of advances including numerous electronic driving aids. This adds complexity and costs.

BMW has always been a leader in this regard and the Z4 is another example of the breakthroughs developed by the brand’s engineers. Not only do you get active traction control and dynamic stability control, but electronics help to eliminate brake fade under heavy driving situations as well as brake drying to improve wet-weather action. There is an adaptive suspension package, too, that adjusts shock valve pressure to enhance road-holding, while the new hill-holder clutch provides stress-free starts under all conditions.

Two transmissions are used. A new dual-clutch seven-speed automatic includes paddle shifter levers and replaces the sequential automatic that never captured enthusiasts’ admiration. My crimson red sample car featured the six-speed manual gearbox that God intended for sports cars. Shift action is appropriately weighted and precise and accompanied by a superb clutch.

Of course, the hallmark of a successful sports car often relies on what emanates from the engine room and the latest Z4 — now built in Germany — offers one of the auto industry’s finest powerplants. Base power is supplied by a 255-hp 3.0-liter in-line six. Optional is the twin-turbocharged version of this motor — the S-drive 35i with 300 hp and 300 pound/feet of peak torque. This is the same engine used in the latest 1-series coupe and convertible as well as the vaunted 335i sedan and coupe.

Producing a seamless flow of energy, the sampled S35i is not only very quick; it is also extremely responsive at all engine speeds and all road speeds. Lug the engine around in sixth gear and the Z4 can build speed quickly even while climbing long grades. Forget to shift out of third gear while cruising, and the car never protests. In fact, you don’t feel any of the noise, vibration, or harshness that other engines produce when running near the motor’s rev limits. Silky smooth almost to a fault, the Z4’s twin turbo does produce a smart exhaust snarl at the limit. But otherwise this engine is a blast to spin to redline and everywhere else for that matter.

In the past year I have had the good fortune to drive the new BMW 1-series convertible, the exciting M3 convertible, and now the latest Z4. Each is a strong package with crisp power, top-of-the class road manners and upscale interiors.

Buyers can expect to pay premium prices for these outstanding performers, a reminder that excellence does not come cheaply despite economic factors that might suggest otherwise. In this segment the Z4’s rivals include the Porsche Boxster, the latest Audi TT-Sport, plus a revised Mercedes SLK. There is also a new Nissan 370Z due out any day that will surely be the performance equal to these German roadsters, but will undercut their prices by $10,000 to 15,000.

It’s truly a good time to be a roadster aficionado when cars such as the latest Z4 continue to make big strides forward.

Just the Facts: BMW Z4

The 2009 Z4 is a two-passenger, rear-drive sports convertible with a retractable power hardtop. Pricing starts at $46,575 for the base 30i model while tested S35i starts at $52,475. BMW has not announced an M-series Z4.

Z4 measures 166.9 inches long on a 98.3-inch wheelbase. S35i weighs 3,520 pounds with manual gearbox. EPA estimates are 17/25-mpg on suggested premium fuel. I averaged 23 mpg with a virtually new test sample.

Standard gear includes: 3.0-liter twin-turbo straight six engine with Double Vanos steplessly variable valve timing, dynamic stability control, independent aluminum sport suspension, speed sensitive power steering, rain-sensing wipers, xenon headlamps, multifunction sports steering wheel with tilt and telescoping action, rollover protection system and 18-inch sport wheels. Seven-speed automatic is a $1,500 option.

Next week: Volvo XC60


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