The 255 horsepower, four-cylinder 2020 BMW Z4 is a fun but relaxing pricey roadster. But I drove the hotter, more powerful 382 horsepower BMW Z4 M40i this summer, and my feelings were too complicated by the end to be able to face myself.
(Full Disclosure: BMW lent me a 2020 Z4 with a full tank of gas back in August. Yes, I am aware that was three months ago. I’m busy!)
A car like the Z4 screams certain things about you. It screams that you are childless, or that you are retired. It screams that you probably did alright in life financially since one of the big practical sells of the Z4 is that it fits a set of golf clubs in the trunk and it has an interior hole in said trunk to fit longer rich-people hobby items like a pair of skis.
The M-tuned version of this car — the one I had — is particularly screamy. It was priced at $74,650 since it had all the bells and whistles, which is as much as a lot of people pay for decent homes in this country. By contrast the club of Z4 can be entered (with the smaller engine) at the low price of $49,700.
As someone who gets by on a blogger’s salary, driving a loaner Z4 temporarily put me in a world I didn’t quite belong. A world where other Z4 guys would approach to shoot the shit over all things Z4. No fewer than a dozen such guys thought it necessary to approach me in my seven days with the car. They owned or had owned a Z4, they told me. In most cases that was all the information they were trying to convey.
They were an agreeable bunch, but after so many such encounters with generally the same demographic of human — typically a middle-aged white male — you begin to ask yourself some questions. Mainly: Is driving the Z4 worth all of this attention it attracts? And what could it say about me?
The Z4 isn’t quite cool enough to justify its cost, but it makes up for it by existing as a highly polished, highly fun and highly drivable roadster. I requested it after seeing one too many impeccable R129 Mercedes-Benz SLs around town that had lured me into believing the roadster life might be for me.
I currently can’t afford a new Z4 (I drive a Honda Fit) but maybe I could afford an older Z4, like the M Roadster. And while a modern Z4 won’t drive like the old M, obviously, maybe it would be similar in the ways that matter. Like how when you drive pretty much any Miata for the first time, you now understand the appeal of all Miata. Is there such a formula for the Z cars?
When I drove the 2020 BMW Z4 M40i I felt that I now understood “Z4.” With the Z4, expect to get sunburns if you don’t have the foresight to wear sunscreen. Ownership can be painful as it’s hard to ever stop driving the Z4 with the top down. It means an addictive exhaust crackle in Sport Plus mode, with engine revving high and enormous power at the tips of your toes; it also means surprising quiet and little exhaust sound at all in Comfort mode, with the revving restrained and the gas mileage shooting up. The Z4, like most modern sports cars, is a choose-your-own-adventure.
The Z4’s primary strength is that it can send hundreds of horsepower to its rear wheels and give you a kick in the ass — the M40i’s 0-to-60 mph time is 3.9 seconds — but also gets by just fine as a lazy tourer. With the various drive modes you can make the Z4 be as pissed-off or calm as you like. Optional, for example, are all of the driver assistance systems modern BMWs can offer, like lane-keeping assist, blindspot detection and parking assist.
And while people usually compare the Z4 to the Porsche 718 Boxster, I’m not quite sure that’s right, since the 718 Boxster is aimed more at people who pretend to care about driving dynamics. Even though the Z4's 8-speed ZF automatic is considered possibly the greatest automatic transmission ever, the base Boxster comes with a six-speed manual. The Z4, while still a pleasure to drive, just doesn’t seem to be designed around the same sort of driver connection. The ZF 8-speed auto is as satisfying and perfect as they say, with gear shifts that are smoother and quicker than some dual-clutch transmissions.
All modern cars — and especially modern cars at this price point — have a floor of exceptional quality. Do you like rear-wheel-drive roadsters? You will probably like the Z4. While I didn’t get to test the Boxster and Z4 back to back in the week I had one of the cars, I see no harm in pointing to the team at Car And Driver for their stab at a Z4 comparison with the Boxster:
Aided by its adaptive M Sport dampers, upgraded brakes, and limited-slip differential, as well as the optional 19-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sport summer tires (18s are standard), the hot Z4 impresses with a 148-foot stop from 70 mph and 1.02 g’s of stick around the skidpad, pretty much in line with the last PDK-equipped Boxster S we tested. Yet, unlike the Porsche, finding the BMW’s flow on a good road is elusive. Its ultrareactive steering speaks in whispers and its rear end breaks loose with abrupt throttle inputs. At a more relaxed pace, you’ll find ride compliance and a quiver-free structure. The only thing spoiling your sunbathing is a fair amount of wind turbulence swirling into the cabin over your shoulder.
I don’t have much to add to what Car And Driver said except to say it would be a mistake to buy the Z4 if driving dynamics were your primary concern. The Boxster is a better car for that.
Instead, celebrate the Z4 for what it is; a dying art. It’s an internal-combustion, rear-wheel drive roadster in the classic tradition, but if you so choose, it can transform into a comfortable convertible lavished in modern conveniences. It isn’t meant for track days, it’s for weekend trips. The occasional press on the throttle to remind yourself you’re still alive, and to remind yourself that there really is 382 horsepower underneath the hood, and then slipping back into comfort is a fine tradeoff for not being a Porsche.
You don’t feel compelled to drive fast in a BMW Z4, even with the six-cylinder, even in the sportier modes; what you feel instead is the wind. Car And Driver is right about the wind turbulence, which actively acts as its own sort of speed limiter. This is a roadster not built for American interstates but for twisty backroads. Preferably in the dying days of summer. Preferably there is nothing on the radio. Preferably it’s just you and the wind.
Nearly every modern roadster — the Nissan 370Z, Jaguar F-Type, Fiat 124 Spyder, Porsche 718 Boxster, etc., in addition to the Lamborghinis, McLarens, Ferraris, and BMW i8s of this world (I’m probably forgetting a few) — suffers from at least one fatal flaw, which is usually price. That, in turn, explains one of the fundamental attractions of the ultimate roadster, the Miata.
The Z4 is expensive, too, even if the smaller-engined version starts at $12,000 less than the Boxster. And while that $49,700 chunk of change is still well out of my price range, I will tell you what might soon be not after this review: a used Z4, since they aren’t terribly rare and they are desired but not as desired as a Porsche.
I could soon be one of those guys, sidling up to a fellow Z4 owner, ready to shoot the shit about all things Z4. This is a future I never wanted, given that I’ve always opted for practical with my car choices — see my Fit. But at some point you accept you’re a roadster person and go the opposite direction. Is this what early-onset retirement looks like?