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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 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.

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


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