SINTRA, Portugal – The problem with sporty drop-tops is that nobody really needs one. It is more of a want; a hedonistic purchase that forgoes the luxury of rear seats in favour of the need to brush your hair every time you pop down to the shops. This focus has seen the market for these pocket-sized pleasers decline steadily over the last decade. Which leaves manufacturers with two options: either withdraw to rather build SUVs or make people really want your car. Like Porsche has done with its Boxster.
Now, while BMW is adamant that it did not use the Boxster as the benchmark for the new Z4, in a declining market the battle is for a piece of the pie and that means taking on the Boxster at its own game. So, has the BMW Z4 come to play?
The Z4 is largely the result of a technical partnership between BMW and Toyota and, as such, shares its platform with the upcoming new Supra. It was the only way the company could build a Z4 the market desired, with model-specific components, without crippling its coffers. But this is no bad thing. BMW knew it needed a truly sport-focused roadster – something that previous Z4s could never muster and this required a fresh start.
And so I find myself in the all-new Z4. The proverbial Blank Canvas, sharing only a handful of components with its predecessor. And more has changed: out goes the heavy retractable hardtop, replaced with a folding fabric-unit that can stow in 10 seconds and at speeds up to 50 km/h.
This not only frees up space in the boot (a claimed 281 litres, regardless of roof position), but also reduces and lowers the car’s weight – which is really what was needed. The use of aluminium and steel construction in the chassis and body sheds further kilos while the addition of cross members and reinforcements lends the new Z4 about 20 percent greater torsional rigidity over the outgoing model. These are not insignificant figures and the result is utterly satisfying.
“Having a rigid body structure offered our engineers a solid base from which to build a truly rewarding sportscar, since we did not have to compromise ride comfort with overly stiff dampers and suspension setup,” explained Oliver Jung, project manager for the Z4 roadster programme.
In comfort mode, the ride is compliant. With the roof stowed and the blissful sun beating down, there's no doubt of the new Z4 being a decent cruiser. The interior is cosseting, driver-focused and has a distinct "wrapped around you" feel similar to that of the Boxster. The finishes are impeccable with an understated design that trumps the Mercedes-Benz SLC for tactile perceived quality.
In essence, it gets the same B58 3,0-litre twin-scroll turbocharged straight-six as found in the M240i, but here pushing out 250 kW and 500 N.m. The stretched-out nose is effortlessly borne into the distance, with ample thrust available when required.
Select sport and sport+ and the Z4 is equally convincing on twisty roads. The steering and adaptive M suspension damping become noticeably weightier. It is 85 mm longer than the previous model and 74 mm wider, but has a shorter wheelbase and both front and rear tracks are broader. The result is a rewarding dynamism that begs for abuse. Far from austere, the Z4 asks to be hurled from corner to corner.
The engine is punchy and eager to hunt down the next bend. The brakes are nicely dialled in and allow for extreme late braking without getting out of shape. I was particularly impressed with the front-end grip upon turn-in, building masses of confidence as corner followed corner. Mid-corner the Z4 was well behaved with very little body roll … making it easy to forget that the thing has no roof. The steering, meanwhile, is responsive and sharp. Driven in anger, the Z4 feels like a complete package. It feels fun. And capable of more.
Which begs the question: what about a Z4M? Officially, an M is not on the cards. “For sure, the chassis can handle an M, but the current line-up does not include this variant,” Jung explained. However, when questioned on the reasoning behind not introducing an M the answers were less forthcoming and lacked clarity. This could mean something … or nothing.
In South Africa, the range will kick off with the sDrive20i Steptronic (2,0-litre; 145 kW/320 N.m) at an indicative R755 900. The M40i is expected to set you back R1 030 500 (again, note this is indicative pricing) when it arrives in March 2019.
In terms of pricing, it'd thus pip both the SLC and Boxster, which bodes well for its market performance. Having wanted to produce the sportiest Z4 ever, BMW has succeeded with the new model. It is a capable roadster with agility and precision to spare. Is it a Boxster beater? Well, it is good enough to ask…
Author: Brett Hamilton