A hairdresser’s car? A worthy alternative to the Porsche Boxster? The savior of BMW’s sports cars in a time when that market is declining? A Toyota Supra? The 2019 BMW Z4 M40i could be all of those—and maybe a bit more than people will give it credit for.
(Full Disclosure: BMW needed me to drive the new 8 Series and Z4 so badly it flew me all the way to Portugal and paid for my food and booze.)
It seems like we’ve been waiting forever for the replacement for the E89 Z4. Thanks to the much-hyped (over-hyped at this point, I’d argue) partnership with Toyota to co-develop the new Supra, the anticipation for the Z4 has been much higher than you’d normally expect. The folks here at Jalopnik have been dutifully reporting on the crazy rumors surrounding this new sports car since 2012, if you can believe it. (Remember when it was supposed to be a hybrid replacement for the LFA?)
It’s a lot of excitement for the Z4, which to be fair hasn’t really been on many enthusiasts’ radars since Clive Owen was racing the devil through Las Vegas in them.
Hell, the last of the Z line I was really excited about was the Z3M Coupe—and that was 20 years ago. Did BMW have the magic to make this thing relevant again? To find out, I went to the M850i press launch in Portugal, where BMW also gave us a taste of the new Z4 M40i.
First things first: the G29 (the new designation for the current gen Z series) Z4 is as good looking in the flesh as it is in pictures. There’s really not a bad angle on the car. Now I preface that by saying I was a big fan of the looks of the old car, the E89 Z4, as well.
Sure, it doesn’t have wide fender flares or a super aggro look to it, but so what? Neither does its class competitor, the Porsche Boxster, and I would very much argue that the Z4 is the more handsome car of the two.
The interior is just as good looking. From the driver’s seat, the look is unmistakably BMW. You get the latest iDrive system and the fully digital dash that’s also coming to the new 3 Series. This is a good thing, as BMW’s really upped its interior game in the past couple years, though Mercedes is still the current leader in that department.
The important bit, though, is that the Z4 has a huge amount of interior space for a small two-seater, and it’s all covered in leather and Alcantara standard. It’s so roomy I was able to adjust the seats to perfectly fit my 6’1” frame and still had a bit of adjustment left in case I suddenly grew any taller—a valid concern in any car, and also definitely for me, a 40-something-year-old man with surely the potential for a mid-life growth spurt at any moment.
With the top down—which you can do in 10 seconds at speeds up to 31 mph—the cabin obviously feels open and spacious, which may just be, maybe, could be, because there is no roof. Wind intrusion is minimal allowing for a chat with your passenger without having to shout into a hurricane.
More importantly, the Z4 doesn’t get claustrophobic when the top goes up. It feels like a real sports car and not a coffin on wheels, as some smaller convertibles can feel. Even with the roof in place, it’s a pretty roomy and comfortable place to be.
The reason for that sense of spaciousness is that the new Z4 has, well, more space. Everywhere. The sports car is now based on BMW’s new modular CLAR architecture, a super flexible platform that underpins everything from this to the new 3 Series, 8 Series and X5. And, yes, the Supra.
As a result it’s 3.35 inches longer, 2.9 inches wider and half an inch taller than the old car. The good news is the one area that the Z4 hasn’t grown in is weight: the four-cylinder Z4 comes in at 3,285 pounds and the six-cylinder is 3,549 pounds, about on par with the last car. It boasts a lower center of gravity and a 50:50 weight distribution as well. An increase in track (+98mm front and +57mm rear) and shortening of the wheel base (-26mm) point towards a car that’s more serious than its more pedestrian predecessor.
A big reason the Z4 stayed away from a huge weight gain is the new top, which reverts back to a soft top from the last-gen car’s folding hard top. As much as I liked the hard top, the weight penalty was just too great—and in the wrong location—in a car this size with sporting pretensions. The soft top actually looks good in the raised position, and once on the road did a solid job in keeping outside noise to a bearable level.
My only issue is the trunk. You get only 9.9 cubic feet of trunk space with the top down or up. BMW claims that it’s 50 percent more spacious than the last Z4, but even still, that’s barely enough space to get more than a couple of soft-sided weekend bags in.
So it’s lighter and it looks good, but does it move? To me, good looks mean nothing if there isn’t the performance to back it up. But BMW made sure that the Z4 had the chops to deliver, starting with the powerplant.
The M40i is motivated by a classic BMW 3.0-liter straight-six unit helped along by a single twin scroll turbo. The engine puts out a very healthy 340 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque. That’s only five horses more than the old i35, but a substantial 37 lb-ft more torque, and all of these torques are available from just 1,600 RPM. It’s enough juice to propel the roadster from zero to 62 mph in just 4.6 seconds. Forget about the tired jokes about “hairdresser’s cars.” With highway speeds being achieved that quickly, I made sure to encase my entire head in hairspray just in case.
The 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder sDrive30i also puts out a respectable 258 HP and 295 lb-ft of torque. Expect that to hit 60 mph in the five second range, but as we didn’t get to drive that car, I’ll just have to take BMW’s word for it.
Either way in both the four and six-cylinder, power only goes through the BMW’s eight-speed, paddle-shift ZF-sourced Steptronic Sport transmission. That’s it. There is no manual option on the Z4 going forward which is definitely a knock on the Z’s sports car pretensions.
But according to BMW, this gearbox is supposed to be the best of both worlds, offering quick and responsive manual control of the shifting when you want it and fully automatic shifting when you can’t be bothered. Additionally, the ‘box in the M40i has been specifically tuned to match the engines characteristics. And the ZF8 is good—we know that. It’s in tons of cars these days for a reason.
However, no matter what the press releases say, this is still an automatic gearbox at heart. And its relatively languid shifts and lack of clutch involvement dull a bit of the sports car shine from the Z4.
On the suspension side, this roadster is also equipped with Adaptive M Sport suspension, M Sport brakes and an electronically controlled M Sport differential—all included as standard on the M40i. With all of these active systems in place, selecting Comfort, Sport, or Sport+ all dramatically change the character of the car from boulevard cruiser to canyon carver.
As we were staying in Sintra, Portugal, the home of some epic driving roads, it made sense to hit the go pedal and put the Z4 through its paces. Completely ignoring the route programmed by my BMW guides, I took off in search of the most squiggly lines I could fine on the map. That took me north in the hills over looking the Atlantic.
As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, the roads here can generously be described as glorified goat paths. I think even the Portuguese goats look for better routes to get around. Between the rough, narrow road and the never ending stream of cyclists and massive tour busses, you need to be 100 percent focused on what was coming up or you could end up in a BMW shaped smear on the side of the road.
However, the Z4 was more than up to the task. When I drove the admittedly massive 850i through these roads the day before, it was all I could do to keep the big Bimmer on my side of the road. But these roads were made for the nimble convertible.
I can tell you this: it’s not a pure sports car. The Boxster is definitely harder-edged and more focused on performance over comfort, even though it, too, is a pretty livable daily driver. But on these bad roads, the Z4 was an absolute pleasure. The adaptive suspension soaked up all of the rough patches—and there were many of them—all while providing solid feed back and stability.
Switching over to Sport+ definitely tightened things up on the handling front but also sent every crack and bump through my spine. Again, it’s a pretty radical character change when you swap through the driving modes. Sport + doesn’t result in Ferrari FXX levels of masochism, but unless the roads near you are eternally freshly paved, it’s not a mode I’d recommend for anything besides a quick blast up the canyon.
Where the Z4 really shines is with its engine. The 3.0-liter straight-six propels the Z4 off the tight corners like a rocket. With gobs of torque from seemly any RPM, you can just leave the car in whatever gear you like and the little Z will just pull. That being said, you may want to drop it down a gear or two just to hear the engine sing.
Now I know there must be all sort of audio-techno trickery going on behind the scenes to make this engine sound so good—even when muffled by a turbo—but I didn’t care. With the top down I don’t even bother turning the radio on, the engine note was all the music I needed on this drive.
Speaking of the in-car electronics, the Z4 is has the same instrument cluster and 10.25-inch display that its big brother the 850i has. I raved about them in the 8 Series and they are no less impressive here. BMW, in conjunction with Harman International, has developed one of the better systems on the market. It offers so many features that there is no way, in the short time I had allotted with with car, to go through and test them all.
But one of the cool features I found out after my drive was done, is the digital key. This will allow the car to be unlocked and started with your smartphone, much like Tesla has been doing for some time, and access can also be shared with other people. This electronic key works via Near Field Communication, meaning the phone has to be within inches of the lock to work. So if you start noticing people putting their asses up to the doors of their BMWs soon, this is why. (At least, it should be.)
At the end of the day, the very annoying hardcore sports car (and BMW) fans are likely to criticize the new Z4 as just another in a long line of “hairdresser cars.” But I think that pigeonholing them in to that category doesn’t do the car justice.
Pricing for the Z4 hasn’t been released as yet (we expect to see an announcement by the upcoming LA Auto Show) but expect the 30i to be in the mid-$50,000 range and show up in dealers spring of 2019. The Z4 M40i will follow later in the year, with pricing in the $60,000 range. This makes both cars competitive from a price standpoint with their intended rival, the Boxster.
On the track, Porsche’s roadster would be seconds ahead of the BMW. But on the drive home the Z4 would be a far more enjoyable place to be. This doesn’t mean the BMW is a lesser car—just differently focused.
And the competition is slimmer than ever. The two-seat convertible sports car segment is shrinking, as BMW itself has admitted. There’s the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro droptops, but I don’t know how many people will really be cross-shopping those against this. The now-more-powerful Mazda Miata is smaller, more focused, cheaper and less powerful, but nowhere near as luxurious. There’s the Audi TT, which lacks rear-wheel drive and is even less of a pure sports car. (Update: Somehow we forgot the Jaguar F-Type and Chevrolet Corvette convertible, which are similar price-wise and, in the latter’s case, much more powerful. And they can be had with a stick.)
So besides the Boxster, this car’s most interesting fight may be with its platform-mate, the upcoming Supra. I’m eager to see how that track battle goes down.
I don’t feel that the Z4 needs to have a hard edge to it to be considered a “real” BMW sports car. If you want hard edged, go buy an M2, but enjoy the Z4 for what it is: a sporty roadster that is livable enough for everyday, around-town driving but still manages to be a capable canyon-carver on the weekends when your shift at the hair salon is done.