Like the rest of the BMW range, the 2009 BMW Z4 is bigger, heavier and more complicated than its predecessors. But could it be bigger, heavier, more complicated and much better to drive?
Full Disclosure: BMW wanted us to drive the new Z4 so badly they flew me out to California to drive it. They also fed me a bag lunch. A bag lunch just like mommy used to make.
The old BMW Z4 M Coupe was one of my favorite cars. More raw and focused than just about any other BMW, under the hood was the 3.2-liter inline-six from the M3, here making 330 HP and 262 Lb-Ft of torque. Weighing just 3,230 Lbs and positioning its driver nearly over the rear axle it drove more like an unrefined, but capable, muscle car or like a slightly slower TVR Sagaris that was capably of traveling more than a mile without suffering catastrophic mechanical failure. It looked good too, the sexy hard top drawing attention away from the Z4's awkward front end and bizarre diagonal feature line aft of the front wheels. I liked it so much that I put nearly 200 miles on one of the first customer cars off the production line even though I had strict orders not to drive it at all.
In sDrive35i form — sDrive stands for standard or rear-wheel-drive — this folding hard top Z4 makes 300 HP, 300 Lb-Ft of torque and weighs 3,450 Lbs. Don't like a folding hard top? Tough. It replaces both the coupe and the convertible. Anyone that's driven BMW's 3.0-liter twin-turbo inline-six can see where this is going, it's an amazing engine, making everything from the 4,894 Lb BMW X6 to the 335i Coupe fast and flexible. With a manual transmission, it propels the new Z4 to 60 MPH in 5.1 seconds and onward to a limited top speed of 150 MPH. The old Z4 M was officially rated at .1 second faster to 60 MPH and was limited to a 5 MPH faster top speed. Spec the $1,525 7-speed DSG and the new Z4 will match the Z4 M's 0-to-60 time.
I'd actually pick the new Z4's turbocharged engine over the Z4 M's naturally aspirated engine. The turbo motor makes peak torque at just 3,200 RPM; the M's peaked at 4,900. That means that any gear, any speed, the new Z4 has huge amounts of shove, culminating in a still impressive top end rush. You can run a gear higher in corners, achieving the same acceleration out of them or pass cars without downshifting. It sounds just like an inline-six BMW should, too.
To make things more interesting, the Z4 sDrive35i returns 18 MPG City, 25 MPG Highway, compared to 15/23 for the Z4 M.
Last year, a Z4 M Coupe started at $50,400. Today, the 2009 sDrive35i starts at $52,475. That might not sound like a bargain, what with the give-and-take performance differences and the lack of an M badge on the new car, but when you figure in what the new Z4 offers over the old Z4 M it starts to make sense.
For one, the new Z4 is manufactured in Germany. The fit and finish and quality of materials is far beyond that of the old Z4, now on par with the 3- and 5-Series. It's also a bigger car, with noticeably more room in both the passenger cabin and trunk. Then there's the new, all-aluminum folding roof.
Up, the roof lends the Z4 all the refinement of a coupe — conversation is easy even close to the vehicle's top speed — without the traditional downsides of a folding hard top. Vision is excellent with no oversize blind spots. That's thanks to tiny rear 3/4 windows that retract into the car's body instead of the doors. There's 10.9 cubic feet of room in the trunk with the top up and a still-very-useful 6.4 cubic feet with the top stowed. That top is really good-looking too, replacing the awkward shapes of most hard tops with Gurney bubbles that mirror the hood's twin power bulges. The top's not as nice to look at as the old coupe's, but the rest of the car looks so much better the ducktail isn't missed.
Of course, like all great BMW's, the Z4 M coupe wasn't about performance numbers, it was about handling. Everyone's going to think that I'm crazy when I say this, but the 2009 Z4 has it beat there too. Where the Z4 M was a one-trick pony — great at corners, but harsh everywhere else — the new car is at least as capable without sacrificing a smooth ride. BMW's new Driving Dynamics Control helps a lot there. Controlling the gas pedal control map, engine management, stability response, electro-mechanical power steering and electronic damper control. In "Normal," it's an accomplished and comfortable boulevardier or highway mileage cruncher. Switch through "Sport" and into the not-so-uniquely named "Sport+" and out goes the stability control (traction control can be fully defeated), the steering ratio and response sharpens noticeably, the throttle responds quicker and the car carves into corners with complete confidence. In fact, Sport+ can be a bit nerve-wracking at very high speeds, likely due to the quickened steering.
Your first few corners in the Z4 will feel odd if you're coming out of a car where your rear isn't resting a couple of inches in front of the axle. What initially feels like body roll is in fact the feeling that comes from the inertial effects of sitting behind the center of gravity. Luckily, the electronic steering works exceptionally well, banishing bad memories of variable rate racks of just a model generation ago. But, there's still an an ever-so-slight sense of vagueness — you can feel what the car's doing, but it doesn't communicate every pebble you run over.
As a former BMW fan boy, I've watched in horror as its cars bloated with unnecessary technical complication, morphed into soft roaders, suffered under Chris Bangle's maniacal hand and lost the defining characteristic that once made all its cars so special: handling. While cars like the X6 are neat feats of technical wizardry, they just make no sense. Cars like the 2009 BMW 135i were just disappointing to drive. If this new Z4's anything to go by, all that complication has finally been twisted in the right direction, it's come together to create a car that doesn't wear an M badge, but still drives like one. I could learn to live with that.