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Thursday 6th July 2006


BMW Z4M ROADSTER

Is the Z4M Roadster better than its predecessor? Nick Hall reports on the muscular rag-top.

BMW Z4M Roadster
BMW Z4M Roadster

The Z4 was a welcome injection of masculinity after the androgynous Z3, and personally the M version of the hardcore roadster was one of those cars I have been gagging for ever since a 2,000-mile jaunt round Germany in the 3-litre two years ago.

The opportunity to jump behind the driver’s seat of the drop top finally came at Millbrook Proving Ground, thanks to an invite from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). Was it worth the wait? Hell yeah...

Z4M: an animal

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Now this muscular roadster was always at the sporting end of the scale: sacrificing comfort for cornering speed, so to justify the extra cost and mark itself far enough apart from the muscular Z4, the M Roadster had to be an animal.

And it is, which comes as no surprise when you consider how much of the great M3 has given itself to the cause, in a final package that weighs even less.

There’s not much room inside, but there’s enough, the seats are comfortable, boot space huge and the roof raises at the touch of a button to cope with the changeable British weather. If there aren’t any kids to consider this could be a stylish daily driver.

The 338bhp engine gets the 1485kg M Roadster to 60 mph in around five seconds. Torque peaks at 269lb-ft at 4,900 rpm, but the engine is already making 80 per cent of that by 2,000 rpm, and it's one of the finest engines in the civilised world.

Aggressive wasp

This is the swansong for this 3.2-litre in-line six, as the next generation M3 will have a bigger V8. While it will certainly have more power, it’s hard to see how the new powerplant will top this one for pure character.

It responds to high revs and comes alive as the red rev counter homes in on the 8,000rpm redline. It’s an aggressive buzzing wasp of an engine compared to a lazier, unstressed bumblebee V8, and will it’s one of those cars that’s just begging to be driven hard.

The stressed, angry exhaust note sounds fantastic in an M3’s closed body. Here, with the roof off and nothing but wind between ears and those four exit pipes,, the noise is  borderline sexual.

It’s all controlled thanks to the M3’s differential and reworked ZF Manual box that requires just the right amount of shove to snick into the next gear.

There is no SMG option and that’s somehow fitting, the Z4M feels like a brutal, old school muscle car and there’s no place for the semi-automatic technology here.

Visceral pleasure

There’s a visceral pleasure in shoving the clutch, and unleashing the next wave of acceleration as part of a fluid mechanical process. This is an involving drive in a way the higher tech M cars can’t hope to match.

At pretty much every given opportunity, the Z4M proudly takes the driver’s option, from rock solid suspension, to instantaneous throttle response, to loud yet devastatingly effective brakes.

Even the base car took a kicking for its solid ride, and as this one sits 10mm lower on stiffer springs it won’t be for everyone. It relates every ripple and piece of paint on the road, but if you can live with that constant interaction then the rewards will far outweigh the pain.

It does seem too solid for broken roads, and given a chance it could literally shake itself offline, but then that’s where diligence and self-preservation kick in and you slow down. And we have all lived with cars that are even more reticent in the wrong conditions to soak up those moments when the right ribbon of tarmac unravelled before our eyes.

The Z4M wasn’t designed for British B-roads, either, although it copes with them perfectly well. It was designed for glass-smooth highways and high-speed sweeping bend, where its balance and composure are impeccable. This was a sports car designed for German and American roads, which don’t seem to suffer from potholes the size of small villages. That’s our problem, not theirs.

In the twisties, this car is nose heavy, and so will slip into gentle understeer at the first sign of trouble, And that is a good thing when the limit comes all of a sudden in the middle of a tightening right-hander. With two levels of traction control, it will also solve the problem before it becomes one by applying the brakes to individual wheels.

Switch all the electronics off and it can be muscled through corners, the natural understeer is easily balanced out with a quick slide of the tail and you can lean on the M3-sourced differential to hold the Z4M at a lurid angle – if you’re that way inclined.

A manly experience

Now the Z4M doesn’t have the composure or even outright cornering speed of its nearest competition, Porsche’s Boxster S, but it’s more fun and a much more manly experience.

In fact both cars are diametrically opposed. The Porsche is all about momentum and apex speed, this car is slow in, and fast out. It’s at its best powering through the corner at an angle with a whiff of smoke from those rear ContiSportContacts.

To drive a car well over the ragged edge into the realms over oversteer, car needs to be keyed into asphalt, and the BMW isn’t completely without fault here. Yes it hugs the tarmac in obsessive fashion, but you don’t want to turn in hard on the stoppers, which can limit truly fast progress on an unfamiliar road, as it can pitch into the bend leaving the electronics to sort out a significant mess.

And the steering lacks that nth degree of feel on offer in the Porsche, too. But if you’ve got the car slowed before the bend then you can lean on the electronics, diff and nose heavy stance all the way through the corner at any number of angles. This is a natural show-offs car and has been built for entertainment value as much as speed on the stopwatch.

As for the brakes, the discs and pads themselves are devastatingly effective. They’re loud and hardcore, but they’re unlikely to fade during even the hardest road use, as they were initially designed for the CSL that still gets talked about in such reverential tones.

Tyre smoke

BMW could have been forgiven for producing a softer Z4M to build on the sale success of the last roadster. Instead it has given us a lesson in brutality and tyre smoke, and they should be applauded for that.

It’s a completely different driving experience to the Porsche Boxster S, and £4,000 more expensive. But it you like your thrills on the visceral side, this is the one you have to get.

Author: Nick Hall