Anybody who tries to claim BMW doesn’t position itself as a performance brand anymore doesn’t really know what they’re talking about. That’s never been more obvious to me than after I drove the new BMW 3 Series, BMW 8 Series and 2020 BMW Z4 back to back last month, but the star of the show was the Z4.
(Full Disclosure: BMW paid to fly me out to Palm Springs, put me up in a hotel, let me drive their cars for a few days, and they even showed off by having one of their PR guys take me around the track in a 2015 Z4 GTLM race car.)
BMW sometimes hosts journalists for what it calls BMW Group Test Fest, an event where the company’s latest performance models are made available at BMW’s performance driving center in Palm Springs, California, with opportunities to drive some cars on track and some on the street.
It’s like being handed the keys to the entire dealership, except it’s a special dealership that only has the cars you actually want to drive. And you don’t have to worry about financing.
I drove the new 8 Series, the M2 Competition, a few classic Minis, and the new 3 Series again, but the only car I came back really wanting to talk about is the new BMW Z4.
What Is It?
The 2020 BMW Z4 is what the new Toyota Supra sees when it stares into a mirror for too long. It’s the third-generation of the Z4 convertible, or fourth-generation if you count the original Z3, and this time around, it was designed and engineered alongside the new Supra, of all things.
It’s one of those situations where Toyota claims it made a lot of changes, but BMW claims it did all the hard work, and in the end the actual guts of the cars are practically the same—and pretty much based on entirely other car, the new BMW 3 Series.
Part of the deal was the Supra would be a coupe and the Z4 would be the roadster. I love convertibles, so I may already be just a little biased between the two.
Specs That Matter
I drove the BMW Z4 sDrive30i model, with a single-turbo (BMW calls it a TwinPower just to mess with you) 2.0-liter four-cylinder putting out 255 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, with a claimed 0-60 mph time of 5.2 seconds and a limited top speed of 155 mph. These specs are surprisingly close to the original BMW M5 from the late ‘80s, just with two fewer cylinders and a lot more tech.
Also available is the Z4 M40i Roadster with a whopping 382 HP and 369 lb-ft of torque from a turbo inline-six engine, which I have not yet had the pleasure of driving, but I will say that it already sounds like a lot of car. (Also, it’s underrated on torque by the looks of things.)
The sDrive30i starts at $49,700, and the M40i starts at $63,700. (Correction: I previously reported a made up dollar amount for the M40i. We regret the error.)
The Z4's curb weight is 3,287 pounds, it’s rear-wheel drive, there’s only two seats, it’s got about 10 cubic feet of cargo space, and you can drop the top (or put it back up) in just 10 seconds at speeds up to 31 mph.
Those of you hoping to metaphorically hold hands with your car as you shift through the gears will be sadly disappointed, reserved only to a mere handshake with the selector for the ZF 8-speed automatic—unless you’re one of those weirdos that manually shifts with the gear selector and not the paddles.
Why I Jumped At The Z4 First
After a few presentations and a quick unveiling of the 2020 Alpina B7, BMW released us to its playground of cars, and I knew exactly where to go. Me and two other journalists went straight for the Z4s, and furthest away was this creamy blue car, the only one that wasn’t grey or silver. So, rather rudely, I started running.
I was probably about nine or 10 years old when I first saw the 1994 James Bond flick GoldenEye, which I now consider one of my top-10 favorite movies of the spy franchise.
In the movie, Q issues Bond a gadget-laden sky blue BMW Z3 roadster, the first evidence of BMW’s controversial three-picture promotional partnership with the Bond franchise. (A British spy in a German car? This apparently matters to some people!)
The car had rockets, radar, and an ejector seat, which is all outlined in the third-to-last scene starring long-time Bond actor Desmond Llewelyn as Q. It made quite an impression on me at the time, despite the car getting next-to-no actual action on screen.
The movie debuted before the Z3 was actually in production, and BMW expected around 5,000 deposits to be put down for the car. The success of Pierce Brosnan’s first Bond movie pushed deposit orders up to 10,000 units of a planned first-year production run of just 15,000 cars—for a Z3 that only appeared in the movie for about five minutes, total. It was a hit.
I’ve never driven the Z3, unfortunately, but hopping in this Misano Blue Metallic Z4 sDrive30i was about as close as I’ve come to meeting this particular hero. (Editor’s Note: The Z3 coupes are lovely to drive in M and non-M form.)
I didn’t have a particularly good time driving this car starting out, as the “fun” route option BMW planned to send us to was suddenly closed due to the gusty winds of Palm Springs turning the street into a sandpit trap for rear-wheel drive sports cars—the nearby San Gorgino Pass creates a natural Venturi effect shuffling winds into Palm Springs, the same aerodynamic concept engineered into cars like the Aston Martin Valkyrie to increase downforce. Good for designing super sports cars, bad for my driving route.
So instead, I took up valuable time away from the rest of the BMW performance fleet to drive all the way across Palm Springs, down the main roadway littered with stop lights and retirees in Bentaygas cruising between golf courses, to get to the closest curvy road I could find on a quick exploration of the Google Maps app, ending up on section California State Route 243 that wrapped through San Bernadino National Forest.
With the top down, pushing the car uphill, the situation immediately improved. In the car’s Sport drive setting, the throttle response tightened up and the transmission hung on the gears a little longer, and it became quite a sporty little roadster.
The steering in Sport mode was tight and precise with good feedback by today’s standards of electronically-assisted steering setups, none of which are particularly excellent. On the tight roads, I wasn’t exploring beyond third gear, but the four-cylinder felt progressively fast. I didn’t really want for any more power. The noise refinement BMW has engineered to represent this four-cylinder was also decent, even if I’m still not certain what I’m hearing is 100 percent the real thing.
Even on straight roads between stoplights, this car is a lot of fun with the 255 HP and 295 lb-ft of torque it’s given. Coupled with a dropped-top, it offers the same sensations of agility and small size as another roadster, the Mazda Miata I drove last year. It’s just that the Z4 does it a much bulkier and much more expensive package. But the roadster formula is in there, and it’s working.
I didn’t want to give the car up, and I had a racetrack, an 8 Series, an M2 Competition, an M5, and a 2006 Mini John Cooper Works GP all competing for time.
The real problem with the Z4 is that the Miata is just so much more fun to drive. It’s lighter, it carries a presence that just feels less complicated, your inputs feel more natural, and there’s the big one.
That and I really missed having a manual on the Z4.
It’s so frustrating because, going down the checklist, every other aspect of this car feels like it comes from a formula written down somewhere to make something that drives a little bit different than your standard BMW. Solving for X on the Z4 formula should leave you with a stick shift. But you can’t get one.
There’s no major complaints about the roadster aspects to the car, though the button to raise and lower the roof did get a few frustrated mashes as I was too impatient to figure what sort of push/hold/press requirement there was to operate it.
And then there are the looks. I don’t really know what to say about the looks. I don’t hate it, but there are just some angles that catch me off-guard.
The overall language is aggressive and sporty, though it has lost a bit of the charm of the Z3s and Z4s before it. The word I think of is chunky. Where the previous cars still had elements of smoothing and roundedness, this is blocky and angular, and it’s lost a bit of its warmth.
I think this has one of the best current applications of the kidney grille, but I hate the headlights flanking it. I kind of get B-movie scary insect costume from it.
Staring at the rear end, I don’t actually have a lot of complaints. I just think the thin, up-swept taillights pull a lot of the visual weight of the car too high and make it look uncomfortably boaty, like its design is engineered to look better buoyed in water, where you can’t see the bottom half.
And finally its name, the sDrive30i, is super dumb! BMW shouldn’t feel the need to clarify that its cars are intended for sportyness—and that’s only if you can decipher what they’re going for with the “s” in “sDrive.”
This car doesn’t suck just because it has a four-cylinder and is cheaper! We swear! sDrive! This is a two-seater convertible. It should be obvious, and it’s just more alarming that they felt the need to point it out.
What’s wrong with just “Z4” and “Z4 M40i”?
The most affordable and lowest power Z4 is still really fun to drive. That’s what you need to know. BMW isn’t shortchanging anybody with this car.
The fact that it rewarded me for struggling to get it to a road I could enjoy driving it on promises that there’s something engineered in this car to make it feel just a little more special than your go-to BMW models, even if you go for the lowest power option.
It’s a light blue two-seater roadster. If it’s not rewarding and it doesn’t feel special, it’s failed. The sDrive30i passed with flying colors, and it was definitely worth letting people see me run to get it out on the street first.