BMW has had a special relationship with roadsters since the 1930s. The BMW 328 was designed back then and unleashed onto the world as BMW’s image as a “sporty” car maker was beginning to take shape. It wasn’t necessarily because roadsters are particularly sporty as a body type, but because the 328 proved to be quite successful in various racing events.
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Of course, some would argue that the first BMW roadster that adheres to the more modern definition of the word was the more popular 507 model as it was loved by celebrities and VIPs around the world, despite its rather limited production span. No matter how you look at it though, browsing through the history of the Bavarian brand, you’ll notice that a 2-seater with a folding roof was offered for quite extended periods of time, no matter what the political or global trade situations were.
However, not all roadsters are made the same and while some were true innovators back in the day, like the BMW Z1, others were simply the perfect driving machine. Furthermore, cars like the Z8 were a trendsetter and looking at the price tags the Fisker-designed cars have these days, you realize they are truly loved by enthusiasts with deep pockets. Yet, there’s never been a more successful name in BMW’s roadster-rich history than the Z4. While the Z1, Z3 and Z8 have been received well, none of them managed to live past one generation, whereas the Z4 is now at its third.
And the fact that BMW decided to still keep the Z4 name alive says a lot about how much attention the brand pays to its customers and what they want. While the previous generation E89 model wasn’t a huge seller, it was a loved car that truly set itself apart from the rest of the range. As the automotive market is filled with crossovers and SUVs of all shapes and sizes (including even convertible versions such as the Range Rover Evoque Convertible), investing in a niche car that would probably only sell in the low thousand range seems like madness.
In all fairness, creating a successor for the E89 Z4 was probably met with scrutinizing looks in the Munich HQ, but I applaud whoever had the courage to go in there and make the case for it. BMW knew it wouldn’t be cheap and that developing a new model from the ground up could go a lot smoother with a partner that would share the costs. Luckily for them, the Germans already had one: Toyota.
BMW and Toyota have been working together in a number of areas for quite some time now. The Japanese also had an itch that needed scratching in order to satisfy their most loyal fans. That itch was called Supra. Since the Z4 and the Supra are roughly similar in size, the two decided a joint effort that would bring the two cars back to life would be a great idea, thus keeping everyone happy. And that’s how we ended up with the G29 Z4 on public roads today.
The two cars share quite a lot and are even made on the same assembly line in Graz, Austria, under contract by Magna Steyr. And while those shared underpinnings are not visible, some argue that the two even look the same. I’ll admit some proportions are similar, but that’s only because they share the chassis and engine choices for the most part. Thus, not a lot could be done in that regard but other than that, I think the two cars have quite different designs.
The Z4 stays true to its origins. Looking at it, you’ll sort of immediately know this is a BMW roadster. The long hood, the short overhangs and wide hips all tell you this is a BMW, and a pretty good looking one too. Initially, when I first saw the car in pictures, I didn’t really know what to think of it. It seemed pretty enough but I wasn’t completely sold. Having now driven one for a couple of days, I can wholeheartedly say it won me over.
The long nose and short, wide rear end are what probably fool me into thinking it’s more attractive than it really is, but the overall proportions just work. As I said, the G29 model follows in the footsteps of its forefathers and is a true eye-catcher on the road. The front grilles feature something we’ve only seen on one other car in the current portfolio. And that’s new the Y-shaped elements at the front replacing the classic bars.
It’s something the M340i also has and I think it looks fresh. Down to the sides of these nostrils, you’ll find the headlights that also include a premiere for the BMW brand, with the corona rings being positioned vertically rather than horizontally for a change. While it may seem peculiar in theory, they somehow work and look great.
Inside the cabin though, things have changed a bit. Roadsters in the Z family used to have bespoke interiors setting them apart from the rest of the range. Even the most recent incarnation of the Z4, the E89 model, had a unique interior that truly made it special compared to anything else in the range. I won’t even mention the Z8 here as that would be unfair to most cars BMW ever made. In the new Z4 though, that specialness is gone.
Instead, the G29 has the same overall design as most cars in production today, except to a different scale. The dash is basically the same, with the new digital instrument cluster a bit smaller than, say, in a 3 Series. The overall layout inside the cabin is basically unchanged and the only difference compared to other contemporary cars is the fact that you don’t get cupholders in the center console, in front of the gearshift lever. That’s a nuisance, especially since the doors have borderline useless pockets where you can, at most, place your wallet. If you do want to use cupholders, you’ll find them in the center armrest, right between the seats.
In order to get to them, you have to open said armrest and keep it that way, basically rendering them useless. And while I do understand that this is a roadster and thus won’t be winning any practicality contests, having no cupholders to use does get frustrating. What did surprise me though, since we’re on the topic of practicality, was the rather huge amount of trunk space you get. That’s mostly due to the new roof that is now made of fabric, unlike the predecessor’s hardtop.
Soft tops are gaining momentum and reducing hardtops to a distant memory these days and rightfully so. They are lighter, require less complicated mechanisms to work and free up a lot of space. That’s the secret behind the boot space you get, which may not be on the same level as the X7, but it is enough for you to store plenty of stuff for a week away with your significant other.
The problem with this roof is that it cuts visibility. It’s something you see in every roadster though, as the B-Pillar is thicker than usual and therefore, shouldn’t be of any kind of surprise to anyone. Thus, while driving around town with the roof up, you might have a couple of issues making sure it’s safe to pull out of an intersection. Since the whole time I had the car for testing purposes it rained rather heavily, I got to experience that on plenty of occasions. Drop the top and you simply couldn’t ask for more visibility, of course.
The soft top does have one downside compared to a hardtop, and that’s the noise that protrudes into the cabin at higher speeds. With the roof up, there will be plenty of it muffling anything else inside the cabin. Fold the roof and you’ll get wind noise, so you’re not really enjoying quietness in any given situation, except maybe when cruising at under 80 km/h (50 mph). That’s something you need to know when buying a convertible though and that’s one of the reasons why I always recommend people buying such a car to go for the top tier sound system, in this case, Harman/Kardon. If you want to hear some music, in a drop top, you need some serious power. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to test out at what speed the wind becomes too much inside the cabin, forcing you to raise the roof, but I know that won’t be a problem as it takes just 10 seconds at speeds up to 50 km/h (30 mph).
My tester was the coveted top of the range model, Z4 M40i, albeit in Euro spec. Just like it happened on various other occasions, with other cars, BMW is selling two versions of its M Performance model in the Z4 range at the moment. Due to tightening European legislation, all petrol cars must now be fitted with Otto particulate filters and that has certain consequences. Therefore, the B58 3-liter straight six engine under that long hood makes 340 HP and 500 Nm (369 lb-ft) of torque in Europe while the US version has more power but the same amount of torque. Don’t think that won’t be enough though as there’s plenty of grunt under the hood, even with that OPF installed.
BMW claims this thing will do 0-100 km/h (62 mph) from standstill in 4.5 seconds, but it feels faster than that. Launch Control does its job well, especially considering the M40i can only be had in rear-wheel drive guise. I tested the feature a number of times and noticed minimal wheelspin which is a good sign, even though the tarmac was damp. Switch DSC off though and things change quite a lot.
Coincidence made it that for the local launch of the new Z4 I was invited to test it out on a proper track and see for myself how the roadster handles the intricacies of a circuit. The track we were on was rather short and quite technical too, with only one straight that allowed you to tap out at around 100 mph (160 km/h) so some would say it would be the perfect proving ground for a car like the Z4.
What I did notice is that it is a very capable car on the track and I’d say the M Performance model is more at home here than around town. The engine is the main star here and it is, at the moment, the main advantage the Z4 has over its main rival, the Porsche Boxster.
It has a beautiful soundtrack from those six cylinders perfectly aligned but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For a car with a single turbo, the throttle responds incredibly fast to your input. There is some turbo lag but nothing we can really complain about.
The steering is yet another plus for the Z4. It’s direct, precise and a bit too heavy in Sport mode. Yes, the feedback could be better but – and I don’t know if that’s because I’m simply becoming more used to EPS – you know where the car is going at all times. Just look at the spot where you need to go, turn and the car listens like a well-trained German shepherd. Chip in the extremely playful rear end and you can basically steer with the gas pedal if you know what you’re doing.
It’s a rewarding experience to track the Z4 M40i, especially with the electronic nannies off. The front-end has plenty of grip while the shorter wheelbase of the car, compared to its predecessor, makes it agile and fun to toss around. You no longer feel like you’re sitting on the rear axle and that, in my book, is a plus, as it puts you right in the middle of the action. I guess a special shout out is in order for the standard Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires that do make a difference when it comes to the aforementioned grip.
The brakes are excellent but a bit hard to modulate at first. Being a brake by wire setup, that’s to be expected though, as the feedback you get is not what it used to be. However, there’s an advantage to that as well, as once you figure out how much pressure to apply, you don’t have to make many more adjustments later down the line.
What surprised me the most was the rigidity of the car, especially for a drop top. As you may know, cars without a roof usually lose some of their structural strength. After all, the roof adds to the whole package and that’s to be understood. Well, on the Z4 I didn’t feel like the car was soft in any way. There was no noticeable twist in the chassis and that’s truly impressive. I honestly started wondering just how stiff the Supra must be if the Z4 feels this way.
That’s also one of the drawbacks of the Z4, a blessing and a curse if you will. While the stiffness definitely adds to the experience on the track, around town or on bad roads, that rigidity will translate into thumps and various noises from the dampers making their way into the cabin. It also messes with your back, even in Comfort mode. Then again, you probably should know that from the moment you choose to buy a Z4 M40i, a car that’s meant to be properly driven in the first place. Since I’m mentioning drawbacks, I’ll also say that the cabin feels a bit small for a man of my stature.
I’m about 6-feet tall and, while I did fit inside, and had room to push my seat back more than enough, I certainly felt like the I could use a bit more width. Also, the steering wheel, at its tallest position, didn’t offer me enough room to keep my left leg in any other position than with my foot on the footrest.
Even so, after putting the car through its paces on the track, all of those small drawbacks become distant memories as you can’t help but be charmed by that brilliant B58 engine and its voice. Furthermore, I now understand why BMW won’t make a Z4 M model anymore: it doesn’t have to. A pure Motorsport-developed version would simply be too much. Heck, even the M40i might prove too much for a lot of people. This isn’t a car that you take to the track even though you could and BMW says is faster around the ‘Ring than the BMW M2.
No, that’s not the point of the Z4. Instead, this is supposed to be a proper Roadster and offer a pleasurable experience out on the coast of the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean whenever you simply feel like getting behind the wheel and driving somewhere. For that, the Z4 will feel more than up to the task, being after all, a fad more than a necessity. The fact that BMW is still striving to allow us to indulge in such simple pleasures of life with cars like the G29 Z4 says a lot about how this brand views its customers, and the lengths it will go to in order to keep them happy.