The subject that dominates the debate about the new car is of course the styling. The quirky new look is the work of Chris Bangle and is his weirdest to date. If you think the BMW 7-series was a little unconventional, the Z4 will challenge your tastes still further.
This replacement for the popular Z3 is designed to be a hardcore sports car, not just a posing pouch. The front view looks a bit stretched and unbalanced, as the headlights and the grilles don't seem to align. The back is purely butt ugly - a mixture of inspirations, all coming together unpleasantly. Surprisingly, the side profile is more pleasing to the eye. It's not without controversy though, as the diagonal slash running down the side by the A-pillar reminds you that this car was penned by an origami enthusiast. One neat design touch on the side is the indicator light housed around the BMW badge which sits in the middle of that slash. Pretty the car may not be, but interesting it sure is.
The interior is not so much as weird, but just plain. BMW tried to make a classic interior in modern materials, a feat they accomplished beautifully in the Z8. The interior of the Z4 looks so simple. All you see is a big slab of aluminum running across the dashboard. The instrument cluster is all housed in two pods, with the speedo and the tacho housed well inside those pods, preventing a nosy passenger from peeking.
The driving position is okay, not the best I've ever experienced, but not bad either. The seats are comfortable, the cabin quite roomy, especially if you have graduated from a Mazda Miata/MX5. The power top is simple and fast. To operate it you have to put the car in neutral and pull the parking brake up before it will play ball. Then you just touch the button and the top goes down. You don't have to hold the button down until it fully folds down, it's a one-touch operation. It even unlatches from the windshield electrically, so no fussy manual latches to fiddle with. Dropping the roof improves the looks too.
So far, so functional, but it's not got the adrenaline flowing yet. It doesn't sound like it's totally worth the $60,000 (Canadian) price tag. However, so far, I haven't turned the key.
Clutch in, twist the key, and woo hoooo, the engine wakes with a roar. I have been a fan of this 3-litre, inline six, since it first appeared in the BMW sedans, and now in this smaller, lighter, two-seat roadster, it's even better. The biggest difference is the exhaust note. This engine in the 330i sedan is smooth and generally quiet, in the Z4, it is loud and throaty, almost like a V8.
The engine revs hard and fast, never feeling stressed, and is able to put its 225 hp down to the ground very effectively, mostly thanks to its advanced traction control system.
I drove the car a few days after Toronto was hit with one of the worst snow storms this winter. As I set out for my test, the sun was shining brightly and the piles of snow by the side of the road were melting, leaving the roads wet and slippery. The Z4 boasts and an advanced traction control system and also a dynamic stability control system. With those turned on, this car feels foolproof. I tried very hard to unsettle it, but each time the stability control system kicked in and brought the car back onto the straight and narrow without any drama. It's a very good system and will save many people from themselves.
The car does handle extremely well, however the steering lacks proper feel. It doesn't have the direct feel you'd get from a Porsche Boxster, but then again, you don't feel and hear all the bumps on the road as you do in a Boxster either. In fact, the Z4 is pretty comfortable. You could easily cover long journeys in the car and the surprisingly spacious trunk would provide plenty of stowage.
On the open road, with the top up, and you behaving yourself, it's a quiet, relaxed cruiser. Even with the top down, you get very minimal wind buffeting, enough to tell you that you're driving a convertible, but it won't feel like sitting in the middle of a hurricane.
When I first approached this car, I wasn't sure how much I'd like it, or if I'd like it at all. After spending some time with it, it's grown on me. I liked driving the Z4. It had more than enough performance to keep me entertained (0-60mph in 5.6 seconds and a top speed of around 140mph). If only it was prettier...
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