CAPE TOWN, Western Cape – Four cylinders or six? I’d wager the overwhelming majority of you would opt for the latter, before wondering why such a question would even be posed in the first place. Well, rest assured, I’d tend to agree. Six beats four, pretty much any day of the week.
That’s certainly the case with the new BMW Z4, which arrives in South Africa in two forms. The first is the entry-level sDrive20i model, which employs the Munich-based firm’s turbocharged 2,0-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine, directing 145 kW to the rear axle via an eight-speed automatic transmission.
Since the German brand’s local arm has opted not to bring in the mid-tier 190 kW sDrive30i, your only other option is the flagship M40i derivative, with its turbocharged 3,0-litre straight-six churning out a considerably healthier 250 kW and shaving a full two seconds off the four-pot variant’s claimed 6,6-second sprint from standstill to three figures.
On paper (and certainly in a straight line), then, the inline-six is the one to have. But, since CARmag.co.za already sampled the M Performance derivative on the international drive in Portugal towards the end of 2018, I made a beeline for the sDrive20i at the local launch (my haste, of course, was entirely unnecessary as the rest of the group scrambled for the six-pot).
So, what did I learn? Well, while the B48’s soundtrack isn’t nearly as boisterous as that of the M40i’s B58, it offers some character in the angriest of drive modes. And while its outputs seem modest alongside those of its sibling, throttle response is frankly excellent, with the full complement of 320 N.m available from as low as 1 450 all the way through to 4 200 r/min. The torque-converter gearbox, too, seldom puts a foot wrong.
Pore over the two-seater’s technical specifications, though, and you’ll find the four-cylinder model has one obvious advantage (besides claimed fuel consumption, of course) over the M40i. Yes, it’s not quite as heavy. In fact, at BMW’s official figure of 1 405 kg, the sDrive20i is a full 130 kg lighter than the flagship model. That's not an insignificant number, is it?
When it comes to sportscars (including roadsters), of course, a reduction in mass is generally A Very Good Thing. And that holds true here, too. But just as important is the corresponding redistribution of weight. In the case of the Z4 sDrive20i, the smaller (and therefore lighter) engine means there’s less heft over the front axle, further improving the already razor-sharp turn-in.
In short, the base Z4 has a pleasingly pointy front end, precise (if a little artificial feeling) steering and an abundance of confidence-inspiring grip. I’d have to drive the two derivatives back to back (which unfortunately wasn’t possible on the day) through the same string of bends to say which handles sweetest, but I suspect the lighter sDrive20i would feel just that: quite a bit lighter on its feet. That’s certainly the case with Jaguar’s F-Type coupé, as the lowly four-pot derivative feels markedly more balanced than the more desirable V6 and V8 variants.
Anyway, back to the Z4. Specifying the R23 200 optional M Sport package adds the brand’s sports suspension set-up (the M40i, meanwhile, features an adaptive arrangement as standard, along with an M Sport differential). Kitted out as such (and running on 18-inch alloys), the Z4 trots along with sufficient sophistication on freeways and other well-maintained strips of tarmac, but its secondary ride suffers a little over less consistent surfaces. The chassis, though, feels stiffer than one might expect, considering the distinct lack of a roof.
As you’ve no doubt by now noticed, this G29-generation Z4 has ditched the folding hardtop employed by its forebear in favour of an electrically operated fabric roof that opens or closes within ten seconds at speeds up to 50 km/h. While blustering gales made it tough to judge roof-up refinement on the day, the Z4’s cabin is a pleasant enough place to sit, with the facia dominated by a centrally sited touchscreen and a digital instrument display, each measuring 10,25 inches.
While the quality of interior materials is generally good, the black plastic that lines the inside of the A-pillars (and runs across the top of the windscreen with the roof in place) feels a little low-rent. Storage space is a mixed bag, too, with the door pockets unable to accommodate small water bottles and the cupholders hidden inside the central armrest. Still, claimed boot capacity at 281 litres is impressive for a vehicle of this ilk, as is the fact this figure is unchanged even with the roof stowed.
Compared with its predecessor, the new Z4 is improved in virtually all objectively measureable ways: it’s lighter, quicker and offers more luggage space. While the segment it enters is not exactly bustling – that’s part of the reason BMW opted to save on costs by teaming up with Toyota to develop its roadster alongside the new Supra – it’s this base model that will likely drive volume for the range.
Sure, the M40i will be the variant attracting all the attention as the new Z4 hits local shores. And rightly so; most of us love a good inline-six, after all. But there’s something to be said for the charm of this base model and just how rewarding it is to drive quickly on the right road. Even if it offers a mere quartet of cylinders.
FAST FACTSModel: BMW Z4 sDrive20i Steptronic
Price: R759 442
Engine: 2,0-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Power: 145 kW
Torque: 320 N.m
0-100 km/h: 6,6 seconds
Top Speed: 240 km/h
Fuel Consumption: 6,0 L/100 km
CO2: 137 g/km
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Maintenance Plan: Five-year/100 000 km
See Full BMW Z4 price and specs here