BMW’s return to the roadster realm (with the exception of the freakish Z1 in the late ‘80s) has been a mixed bag. However, my first impression of the new Z4 is that BMW has got the recipe right. This roadster is, admittedly, not as hardcore as its predecessor, but it’s better-looking, significantly more user-friendly and still engaging to drive. Simply put, it’s a better car…
Previous Z models all seemed a bit contrived. The Z3 and left-hand drive only Z8 were studies in retro cool, but neither garnered much acclaim with driving enthusiasts. Then the flame-surfaced, purposefully athletic Z4 arrived… It offered Boxster-rivalling performance, but lacked boutique appeal, not least because of its abrupt rump and excessive “flame surfacing”. The new car, which owes its sensual-yet-toned lines to designer Juliane Blasi, looks good from most angles. Even when behind the wheel, an owner will appreciate his or her car’s sweeping bonnet creases and sculpted shoulder lines (when looking in the side mirrors). There are many BMW Z cues, (who could miss the oversized roundels on each of the front fender “gills”?), but the pin-sharp frontal aspect is particularly well-executed.
Three models make up the new Z4 range, each powered by a sonorous straight-six engine mated with either a six-speed manual gearbox or an automatic transmission – six-speed Steptronic for the two naturally aspirated models, and an optional seven-speed DCT dual-clutch transmission for the 225 kW 3,0-litre twin-turbo model. BMW SA only offered examples of the sDrive30i and sDrive35i on the recent local launch, and this may come as a surprise to some, but I preferred the automatic sDrive30i over its tightly sprung, more potent sDrive35i DCT sibling, especially because it undercuts the flagship by more than R100k.
With rear-wheel drive, near-optimal weight distribution, a long wheelbase and low centre of gravity, the sDrive30i offers a combination of sure-footed and sufficiently sharp handling, with a nicely-weighted steering feel combined with a ride quality on the sporty side of compliant, but anything but uncomfortable. There’s something so refined and responsive about that Valvetronic 190 kW multivalve straight six at the heart of the sDrive30i – it is a powerplant that lives in the shadow of the multiple World Engine of the Year winner planted in the sDrive35i. Having completed my stint in the sDrive30i, I was pleasantly surprised… Although a dual-clutch transmission generally trumps an automatic-with-tip-shift ‘box in terms of the time it takes to change up or down to the gear you selected via either steering wheel paddles/buttons or the gear selector, the sDrive30i was a revelation. Sure, its transmission wasn’t quite as reactive in cut-and-thrust driving as the DCT, but there was little in it. Besides, there’s enough torque to leave the transmission to its own devices in Sport mode.
Despite its sizeable metal folding roof, which can completely close or open in 20 seconds, the new Z4 retains the driving position just ahead of the rear axle. The interior, penned by Nadya Arnaout, features swathes of sumptuous stitched leather and brushed metal or wood inserts. I didn’t care much for the gauche “matt satin” finishes on the model I drove, but the four elegant roundels that control the air-conditioning and ventilation settings, and high-resolution LCD monitor (linked with the revised iDrive controller in the centre console) that folds oh-so-elegantly out of the top of the dashboard, were highlights.
Headroom is relatively generous and all-round exterior visibility better than before – although some people may find the scuttle line awkwardly high when performing parking manoeuvres. Also, the driver sits with the centre of the steering wheel slightly offset to the left, instead of in line with his or her sternum, and the sun visors don’t clip out – but those are minor gripes.
I adore every little nuance of a BMW straight-six exhaust note, and the Z4 dishes it up with aplomb. Overall, the new Z4 offers haute couture appeal and all-season practicality, combined with impressive, if not class-leading, sporting ability. Whereas Z4 may have appealed primarily to traditional sporty roadster buyers before, it is now an accomplished all-rounder!