The convertible that (almost) stands alone
The day before BMW turned a troupe of auto journo types loose around the Lisboa region of Portugal in the all-new Z4, the Bavarian carmaker allowed us to sample roadsters from glory days past. Sadly there was no touching the gorgeous 1939 BMW 328 parked in front of the sprawling Penha Longa Resort adjacent to the former Estoril F1 circuit. We were, however, allowed to sample the Z1, Z3, and Z8. The Wacky-doored Z1 drove just like an E30 325i if you removed all damping and structural rigidity. Fun, but perhaps not for reasons the factory intended. The supermodel-gorgeous Z8 featured slow, recirculating ball steering, dumpy suspension, and a muted soundtrack. Still, the near-magic hustle of the 394-hp naturally aspirated V-8 is a reminder that things used to be better. Especially when you slam the 3-4 shift at wide-open throttle. Oh, baby! The best-driving roadster of the bunch, it turned out, was a seafoam-green, neoclassical-looking Z3. What a thing of (handling) beauty. The last BMW ever to feature the brand’s old trailing arm rear suspension setup, only 10 open-air miles were enough to remind us why the Ultimate Driving Machine used to be such a spot-on mission statement. We spent the rest of the day looking up used Z3 prices. Not kidding.
The new BMW Z4 only exists because Toyota wanted a new Supra. And just like what ToMoCo did with Subaru for the BRZ/86, Toyota put up the cash and BMW engineered all the hardware. Call it what you will—joint venture, badge engineering, brand dilution, or a savvy way to build sports cars in the age of the SUV—the more go-fast toys in the world, the better. I harbor no ill will or animosity toward either carmaker. Car geeks now have two more sports cars than we did before: gear heads rejoice! Getting more granular, how good could a BMW be that’s cost-engineered to also work as a Toyota? Also curious is the fact that—because the hardware between the two cars is identical—software and suspension tuning are all that will separate them dynamically. Who at BMW is capable of taking a parts-bin special and making it, well, special?
Meet Jos van As, the man responsible for the Z4’s kinematics. I had the pleasure of chasing Herr van As around Estoril for multiple laps, and let me tell you, homeboy can drive. It’s hard to stress exactly how crucial it is to have hot shoe development engineers when you want to build sports cars. Front-engine and rear-drive might seem like a simple, time-tested sports car formula, but I’m continually amazed at how many carmakers struggle. I’m certainly happy to report that the Z4 is a solid entry into the segment.
Let’s talk a little hardware. I only drove the new Z4 M40i, but there will also be a Z4 sDrive30i with a four-cylinder engine. Under the M40i’s polarizing skin sits the latest version of BMW’s ubiquitous 3.0-liter inline-six. Featuring a single twin-scroll turbo, this engine is good for 382 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque. Want to hear the crazy part? In Europe, the M40i makes less power! In your face, you socialized medicine peoples! I’m giddy about this because BMW has a long tradition of shipping weaker, wimpy Bimmers over to the States while spreading the good stuff around the Continent. Not this time! Reasons why? A particulate feature on the gas engine and a softer exhaust system help the M40i comply with EU regulations. I think most red-blooded Americans would happily accept a little lung cancer and tinnitus in exchange for 45 extra ponies. The I-6 mates up to the familiar ZF eight-speed automatic; only the rear wheels are driven. BMW claims a 0–60 time of 4.4 seconds.
I asked the Z4 project manager Oliver Jung which cars BMW benchmarked while developing the new Z4. He told me the two competitors they initially looked at were the Audi TT roadster and the Mercedes-Benz SLC. Internally, Jung’s team looked at the M240i convertible. Quite quickly, he told me, the team surpassed all three of those targets, so they next looked at a new bogey, the Porsche 718 Boxster S. A harder target for sure, as the Boxster is one of the best-handling convertibles on earth. How close did Jung’s team get? From my perspective, the mid-engine Porsche is still the handling king. However, in every other category the BMW is the better roadster. Ride comfort and quality, luggage capacity, interior quality, and of course sound—something essential to the roadster experience. And keep in mind that the Z4 M40i I drove has the muted European soundtrack.
With the top dropped, the new Z4 is a comfortable place. Wind noise is surprisingly low, and even at extralegal freeway speeds, you can carry on an inside-voices conversation with your cabin mate. The ride in Comfort mode is quite good, and even in Sport or Sport Plus, it remains refined and composed. Actually, refined and composed isn’t a bad way to describe the new Z4 as a whole. Push it hard on the street and no bad habits emerge. The steering is good: direct, solid, and with enough feel to pacify even the most ardent EPAS haters. The handling is neutral: I never felt a drop of understeer, and even with the traction control set in Sport, there wasn’t any oversteer, either. Blame the abundance of mechanical grip. If I have any complaints about the Z4’s street driving, it’s that you can feel the weight. BMW isn’t saying, but I’d guess right around 3,600 pounds (1,633 kg). We weighed a PDK-equipped 718 Boxster that came in at 3,160 pounds (1,433 kg), and a six-speed manual version that was 3,079 pounds (1,397 kg). As competent and confidence-inspiring as the Z4 M40i is on the road, the car would be more exciting if it were lighter. More dynamically satisfying, too.
On the track you really feel how hefty the Z4 is. The rear end stepped out when I pushed the car hard (in fairness to BMW, Estoril was repaved a couple of months ago and the surface is still slick—though not as slick as when I drove the Lamborghini Aventador SVJ). Understeer never reared its head, but I never thought I was driving the (not announced but inevitable) Z4 M. There’s a sweetness missing from the mix, a sweetness I experienced behind the wheel of the old Z3. Although remember, I wasn’t in the Z4’s more powerful American version. In my experience, more power is often the answer. Are people going to track the Z4 M40i? Most likely not, but if an owner did, they wouldn’t be mad. Especially here in the States.
As simply a sports car/luxury convertible, the new Z4 almost stands alone. Sure, the muscular Americans—Mustang, Camaro, and even Corvette—make more power and go a little quicker, but they have nowhere near the refinement of this German. Like Jung told me, the Z4 bests the SLC, the TT, and BMW’s own 2 Series convertible. All that’s left really is that Porsche 718 Boxster. Taking racetracks out of the equation for a second, I’d rather go for a long drive in the Z4. Convertibles make up less than 1 percent of the cars sold in America. The new BMW Z4 may not improve that statistic, but it sure won’t hurt.