Recently, BMW has not only relaunched a new Z4 roadster, it effectively launched a shot across the bow of the Porsche Boxster in the premium sports-car segment.
The Z series has undergone several attempts to find its path. The Z1 was a limited-production model — distinctive for doors that opened by dropping down into the door sills — that was sold only in Europe. In North America it started off as the Z3, a small roadster manufactured in the U.S. in 1995.
The first Z4 appeared in 2002, a more mature-looking car compared with its predecessor. The second generation Z4, launched in 2008 as a 2009 model, ditched the soft-top in favour of a retractable hardtop. This model lasted until the 2016 model year.
After a three-year hiatus, the Z4 is back as a soft-top once again, with its German competitor square in its sights.
I was invited to a BMW launch event earlier this week, where I had an opportunity to drive the Z4 both on public roads and on a closed track.
The Z4 will be offered in two models, the 30i or the more potent M40i. At the present time, only the Z4 M40i is shown on the BMW Canada website, with a starting price of $76,100.
My main observations in this review are about my time with the latter.
While I would not call the previous-generation car a boulevard cruiser, it was definitely heading that way. It was a charming car in its own way, with a retractable hardtop that dazzled in its execution. Unfortunately, it did not dazzle enthusiasts with its performance, and they showed their displeasure by purchasing Porsche Boxsters.
BMW withdrew its contender and has spent the past few years coming up with a better mousetrap.
To say that the time away has been well spent is an understatement — the new Z4 is head and shoulders above previous generations. More importantly, it has levelled the playing field against its main foe.
The M40i is the model to get, obviously. The turbocharged 3.0-litre straight six produces 382 horsepower and 368 pound-feet of torque. The Boxster S can only manage 350 hp and 309 lb.-ft. of torque from its turbo four.
BMW claims it will run a 0-100 km/h dash in 4.1 seconds (the Porsche is half a second slower, at 4.6).
While the power will push you to the back of your seat, the sensation is amplified by the glorious sound of the exhaust growling and spitting in unison. Compared with the hushed experience with the Boxster, I know which one I would prefer.
Most enthusiasts prefer a manual transmission to get the power to the road, and this is where the Z4 disappoints initially. The only transmission is an eight-speed automatic gearbox.
Yes, you can shift the automatic transmission manually via the gearshift knob and paddle shifters, but once you begin to get used to the transmission, you might find that it is your ally, not your foe.
It was on the track, pushing the Z4 to its limits (or rather mine), that the transmission shone for me. With the car set in Sport Plus mode (the most aggressive) the transmission’s quick shifts — and downshifts — allowed me to concentrate more on keeping the car on the road on a short but technical track.
On the road, I was able to manually shift at a more leisurely pace, but eventually gave up to just enjoy the ride.
It’s on the track that I was able to compare the 30i with the M40i. Two fewer cylinders result in a weight savings of 77 kilograms.
This made the 30i more agile and slightly better balanced on the track, but the loss of 126 horses underfoot is pronounced.
Another difference is the addition of the Adaptive M Suspension package in the M40i. Essentially the feature allows you to dial in your intended usage — Comfort, Sport or Sport Plus. Sensors use road speed and corner angles to help firm up the suspension appropriately when needed, and deliver a softer ride when required.
One of the hidden secrets of Z4’s handling prowess is its wide track — 1,594 mm front and 1,589 rear. More obvious are the staggered high-performance Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires with 255/40s in the front and 275/40’s on the rear riding on 18-inch wheels.
Apart from enjoying the sunshine on your scalp, your eyes will enjoy a bright 10.3-inch widescreen infotainment screen that dominates the cabin.
The fit and finish is in the best tradition of BMW, and all controls and switches are logically and ergonomically arranged.
The interior is suitable even for tall drivers with the top up. When it’s retracted, the cabin is well-protected from buffeting, even with side windows down.
The Porsche Boxster has been the benchmark for premium sports cars in this price category for years. It will take more than one positive review of the BMW Z4 to unseat it from its perch. But as more enthusiasts discover the new Z4, it might become more difficult for the incumbent to hold on to the crown.
THE SPEC SHEET
Type: Premium sports car, front engine, rear-wheel-drive
Engine: Turbocharged 3.0-litre six-cylinder, 282 hp at 5,500 to 6,500 rpm, 368 lb.-ft. of torque at 1,850 to 4,500 rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Dimensions (mm): Length, 4,337; width, 1,864; height, 1,303; wheelbase, 2,470
Curb weight (kg): 1,643
Price (base/as tested): $76,100/ $77,335 (includes $1,135 freight and PDI and $100 AC tax)
Tires: 255/40 R19 front, 275/40 R19 on alloy wheels
Fuel type: Premium
Fuel economy (L/100km): Not available
Warranty: Four years/80,000 km new car and roadside assistancee