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Tuesday 31st March 2009


BMW Z4

Will a more refined GT-like Z4 prove as entertaining as its predecessor? Alisdair Suttie gets behind the wheel to find out.

Coincidence or Teutonic timing at its best? No one was saying at the launch of the BMW Z4, but just as Chris ‘all-angles’ Bangle heads into the blue yonder from BMW’s styling department the new Z4 shows its toned down rump.

Has the Z4 gone soft?
Has the Z4 gone soft?
Fans of the first Z4’s flame surfacing may find the new Z4 a little short on the sharp cheek bones of the original as it takes on more of the look of a 6-Series. This is especially noticeable in the flattened-out nose and kick-up on the boot lid’s trailing edge, and emphasised by the new roadster’s longer, wider, lower stance.

Another similarity with the 6-Series for the new Z4 is a shift in focus away from the original’s uncompromising sporting bent. All the evidence you need for this is provided by the option of the new Adaptive M Suspension. This has three settings, ranging from Normal, through Sport to Sport +, and BMW says the most aggressive of these settings is equivalent to the standard ride comfort levels of the previous Z4. So, has the Z4 gone soft?

Seven-speed auto 'box is slick and seamless
Seven-speed auto 'box is slick and seamless
Not in the roof department. In place of the quick-fold fabric roof of the original comes a scissor-jacking metal roof. It’s still one of the quickest in the business at 20 seconds from full up to full down and retracts into an impressively small space, but it still means the Z4’s boot is not as easy to access as its predecessor’s when the roof is stowed away. To counter the added weight of a hard roof versus a cloth one, BMW has constructed it from aluminium.

There are benefits to the new roof in the form of improved refinement with the roof raised, along with better security. It also offers increased vision thanks to a larger glass area, but we had the initial nagging suspicion that this Z4 has steered more towards a GT feel than the earlier car’s out and out sporting character.

Nestle into the cabin and there’s decent room for the two occupants and the driver has reach and rake adjustment for the steering wheel and plenty of scope for fine tuning the seat. However, we found the Z4’s seats just weren’t comfy enough for longer drives, were set a fraction too high and didn’t quite snuggle us the way a Porsche Boxster’s do. With the roof raised, and despite the light colour of the headlining, the Z4 feels a touch claustrophobic compared to a Mercedes SLK.

More than a hint of 6-series
More than a hint of 6-series
Still, it’s easy to forgive the Z4 these minor faults when you fire up the twin-turbo 3.0-litre straight six engine of the sDrive35i, to give the new range-topping Z4 its wordy full title. The faff with fob and ignition button still irritates when a simple key would do the job in half the time, but at least the iDrive is much simpler and clearer to use. Otherwise, the dials and controls are clear and classy.

The 302bhp sDrive35i was the only Z4 on offer at the launch and was fitted with the seven-speed DCT double clutch gearbox. This ’box flicks between ratios in double quick time and is slick and seamless when left to its own devices in auto mode. The steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifts take a little getting used to, though they do come into their own on sneaky, snaky back roads to let the driver keep his or her hands on the wheel. That said, one of BMW’s engineers admitted he would have preferred a simpler system with a paddle on one side for upshifts and another on the opposite side of the steering column for down changes a la BMW M3. Once you get used to the paddle shifts, you can revel in the snarling bark between gears as the Z4 heads up or down the ’box.

Roof down to enjoy the sound
Roof down to enjoy the sound
There will also be non-turbo 3.0- and 2.5-litre engines on offer when the Z4 goes on sale in the UK at the start of May. They offer 0-62mph in 5.8- and 6.6 seconds, respectively, and top speeds of 155- and 151mph. Neither is a match for the 35i’s 5.1 second 0-62mph sprint or its far greater 295lb ft mid-rev grunt, which makes the new Z4 sDrive35i a match for the outgoing Z4M even if the new 35i weighs 270kg more than its predecessor at 1580kg.

The new Z4 models come with BMW Efficient Dynamics, so there’s brake regeneration to help charge the battery and give average fuel consumption of 30.1mpg for the 35i. Opt for the Double Clutch Transmission and economy improves further to 31.4mpg and emissions drop from 219g/km to 210g/km. There are similar gains with the other engines in the range.

Models will arrive in the UK in May
Models will arrive in the UK in May
All Z4s will come with the Drive Dynamic Control (DDC), which allows the throttle and steering response, ride comfort, dynamic stability control and, on DCT-equipped models, the speed of gear shifts. For once, there are distinct steps in the various settings, so the Z4 can be fine-tuned to the conditions, though we found the most aggressive Sport + to be our default choice unless pootling around town.

Even in this sportiest setting and on the optional 19in alloys of our test car (17in alloys are standard), the suspension is just the right side of supple for all-day comfort. Choose one of the softer options and the Z4 morphs into a GT more akin to a Mercedes SLK instead of a serious Porsche Boxster rival. BMW reckons this Jekyll and Hyde potential opens up a broader seam of sales to mine, though we reckon there was nothing much wrong with the previous car’s set-up.

Z4 proves to be a secret GT car
Z4 proves to be a secret GT car
It’s still easy to set the rear wheels off in a sideways direction with a healthy dose of throttle and the steering is more than quick enough to catch and curtail such antics, so the new Z4 still retains a strong sense of driver appeal. During our drive over endless miles of switchback roads, it was our stomachs that limited the amount of cornering effort rather than the BMW as it enjoys masses of grip and gives the confidence to make the most of it.

The new Z4’s ability to cover country miles with such enthusiasm shows BMW has not turned its roadster into a softy, it just takes a little tinkering from the driver with the DDC button to unleash the full potential and charm of the car. That said, the £37,060 price of the sDrive35i, plus £1810 for the seven-speed DCT gearbox, makes the Z4 an expensive choice, even if the new car had a broader appeal that should have both the Porsche Boxster and Mercedes SLK peering over their shoulders.