Putting BMW’s new Z4 in perspective

It’s always exciting to me when anyone introduces a new roadster, not just BMW. Considering that topless models account for just below 1% of US car sales, I’m amazed anyone is doing convertibles, or manual transmissions. Wait – the new Z4 is not available with a manual (or even that awesome dual-clutch) transmission that was available on the last generation E89 roadster.

The haters crawled out of the woodwork like cockroaches chasing an open pizza box, and all the net know-it-alls were quick to proclaim that the new Z suuuuucked. Of course, no one had seen or better yet, driven the new model – but that never stops them. Interestingly enough, a number of people that have driven the new Z (now designated G29) actually like it a lot.

Finally, the Pacific Northwest was blessed with a lovely day, suitable for some top down motoring and my pals at BMW Portland were kind enough to toss me the keys for a test drive in their bright red with white leather interior Z4 3.0. This is now a 2 litre, 4-cylinder, turbocharged engine with 255hp and nearly 300 foot-pounds of torque, good for about a 5.3 sec 0-60 time. (claimed). Soon, the 4.0M will be available, with 389 horsepower, 368 foot-pounds of torque and a claimed 0-60 time of 3.9 sec. Hmmm. Under 4 seconds 0-60 would have been supercar territory a few years ago, but still rather impressive, especially knowing that a number of the top tune houses will probably find a way to easily bump this beauty up to the 450-475hp range. This should be more than enough juice for those more adrenaline dependent.

Perspective round one: background information

It’s always tough to evaluate anything in a void without some benchmarks. To make sure I went into this test drive with plenty of background data in my personal drive computer, I spent a few days driving some other known entities – most from my personal collection. A 1991 E30 convertible, which we affectionately refer to as “Gumby,” because it’s green metallic, and very flexible with the top down. It was the beginning of this journey for two reasons: 1-it’s there, and 2-the Z3 shares a fair amount of lineage with the E30. It’s always fun to go back to the beginning and see just how much tech trickles up with time. And who doesn’t like driving an E30 on a sunny day, right?

Next on the agenda, a Z3 3.0 roadster and a Z3 2.8 coupe show a definite increase in stiffness and evolution. The normally aspirated motors in these cars are much more refined that the one under the hood of my E30, and the simple hydraulic steering still provides tons of driver feedback and a super high fun factor. I admit a heavy bias towards the entire Z3 range – feeling that this is one of the most fun cars I’ve ever driven in any iteration. At least you know where I’m coming from…

My 2008 Z4 3.0Si coupe brings more creature comfort, arguably better seating and a bigger, more refined six cylinder to the party, though that the E86 brings in all of these areas, the telegraphic level of steering input is somewhat diluted. Again, the real trophy here is the M version, with nearly 70 more hp on tap, an almost 9,000 rpm redline and amazing steering.

The E89 Z4 further increases the overall refinement, and for those of us that live in wetter climates and can only have one car, that folding hard top is tough to argue with. I always feel like a Transformer when using mine. The interior reminds me a lot of a Z8, and the seating more like an Aston Martin Vantage, though nowhere near the level of fit and finish of an Aston.

The E89, even in iS trim, with Dinan updates is still a big GT car that doesn’t hesitate to let you know it. But again, we’re not claiming to be a sports car here, and on a nice, sunny day with a big stretch of open road to cover, the E89 is usually the go-to car. Just don’t expect to put much in the trunk.

For a variation on the theme, I took a fairly pedal-down drive over to BMW Portland in our M240i X-Drive convertible in SportPlus/manual shift mode, with DSC fully disengaged. I’m not sure how much different the B58B30 in the new M40 version of the Z4 will be compared to what’s in the M240, but it is rated at 389hp, where my current car is rated 335. Are we confused yet?

Finally, a quick test drive in a current 370hp base Porsche 911 Carrera made for an excellent, and additional data point. My test model weighs in at just a smidge under $120,000, so it’s nearly double the price of the BMW. That extra dough buys more attention to detail, higher quality surfaces, and Porsche has definitely stepped up their game in the paint department. So has BMW with the new Z4, having nearly eliminated the orange-peely finish, that was standard on my E89 and E86.

So, my friends, I tried to do my homework before getting behind the wheel of the new Z.

Perspective round two: Flame suit on

Here’s where I stick my neck out and maintain that the current Z4 isn’t really a sports car, as such. Rather than minimalistic and bashing it for no auto or dual clutch variant, this car is still not a proper sports car – for my money the only thing coming out of Germany that I consider a true sports car is the Porsche Cayman GT4. This is a purpose-built sports car, with a screaming, normally aspirated 6 cylinder engine, massive brakes and a proper manual transmission.

However, I also submit, this kind of car is too raw to drive everywhere, every day for all but the most hardcore driving enthusiast. To me, the Z4 has never been a real sports car, outside of the E85 Z4M coupe and roadsters, with a 6-speed box, luscious manual steering and the legendary S54 straight six that many fans go crazy over. The last generation E89 is much more of a GT car, and I say that with affection, having owned two of them myself. No problem with that.

If you are an E85/E86 M owner, I predict that unless you are just plain tired of shifting your own gears, the new Z, even with the six that I have yet to drive, is not going to be the droid you want. If you are in love with the visceral pleasures that this model delivers, the new car will not be involving enough for you. And I won’t call you a bad Smurf for loving your current ride.

Compared to the Z3s, the new Z feels like an Aston Martin, in terms of experience delta. The Z3 is a more raw car, but the new Z4 3.0 has a near perfect balance. If not for the relatively subdued engine note, I could easily live with the 4-cylinder. It has an excellent power band, and honestly, enough power. The real curiosity will be to see what the dynamics of the Z4 M4.0 is going to be like: will the extra 200 pounds make the more powerful car more ponderous as well?  Watch for round two to find out. I may end up owning a 4-cylinder car after all.

Comparing the new Z to my M240 is the tough one. I like the aesthetic of both cars, but where the M240 feels like a zooted up 1 series (yup, had one of those too) the new Z is absolutely glorious, and the BMW engineers responsible for the interior gave this car a fresh look without going too far. The 911 is cramped like a 70’s Japanese stereo receiver: there are so many buttons, you’ll never figure the damn thing out. Gone is the austere and highly functional interior of the 60s – 80s 911s.

Ins and outs

Depending on what model BMW or Z you are currently driving, I suspect you’re going to either love or hate the new Z’s interior. Put me solidly in the love column. Maybe it’s just my medium height and frame, but this side of a 911, the new BMW Z has the finest interior I’ve experienced, in terms of seat quality, overall visibility, and ergonomics.

The Z3 sits a little too high (though again, the basic cockpit layout is a sublime combination of form and function), the E85 Z4 a little bit tight, and the E89 awesome until I get in the new car.

Much as I love the E89, it’s just a little bit plump/plush. The new Z4 trims and tucks a little bit here, a little bit there, delivering an outstanding result. The now soft top only goes down quickly, and can be retracted at speeds up to 35 miles per hour. I did not try this with BMW Portland’s car, just in case, so I’ll take the engineers at their word on this spec.

Without so much top to retract, the new Z4 has quite a bit more functional trunk space than the car it replaces. Again, this will be good for some, bad for others. My roasters are strictly pleasure cruise cars, so cargo space is a non-issue. A long, topless road trip means the M240.

It’s also worth noting that the level of interior fit and finish has taken a substantial leap in overall quality. Where the E89 and definitely the E85/86 feel a little bit “plasticky” on the inside, the new car is more nicely appointed. The gaps are a bit tighter, and the level of materials used feels a few clicks better. Well done BMW on this one.


It’s back to that word again. While the new Z4 isn’t a true sports car, it’s more heavily weighted in the sporty category than the Z it replaces. Driving through a long series of twisties up above the city, this car is an absolute joy to drive. It’s also worth noting that the new view screens used for the dash and radio/nav system are much brighter and more crisp than past BMW designs, making these useful tools in the brightest of weather.

Where the E89’s steering has more of a disconnected, almost Play Station game controller like feel, BMW is headed back in the right direction on this car. We could certainly use another helping of this, and I’ll be curious to see if there is a further change with the M4.0. I’m sure the absence of run-flats on my test car (20” Michelins were affixed) helped the vehicle’s dynamics tremendously, having replaced more than my share of pre-installed RF tires over the last few years.

This little four-cylinder has a nice amount of giddyup, and no turbo lag at all, but somehow a growly six would round out the package to near perfection. (so would a damn manual transmission, or at least a Dual Clutch option!!) Coupled to the 8-speed ZF automatic, it always has the right gear at the right time, and if you need to be sportier, the paddles are available.

In the end

After spending time with Zs past, I think that for nearly everyone, the new Z4 is a major step forward from models past. Should you be looking at one as an “in-addition-to” purchase, rather than an “instead-of” purchase, this decision requires precious little thought. More performance minded enthusiasts trading in/up may want to reserve their judgement until a six-cylinder model can be test driven.

For the rest of you, run don’t walk and grab one before they are gone for the year. BMW never makes a terribly huge amount of Zs.

Though I haven’t driven the M4.0 yet, my only complaint with this car, as it has been with BMW in general, is the lack of color options available. Besides the usual white, silver and black, one shade of red and one of blue is all that’s available. Porsche used to offer this for $5,500, but they’ve now doubled this on current cars. I don’t know if I’d drop another $11k for a special color, but a wider palette would be nice.

At the end of the day, if the only thing I can find to complain about the new BMW Z4 is the limited color options, that’s a good day.

In closing, I find this car much, much more attractive in person than I have in any of the photos I’ve seen. The long lenses so many automotive photographers use to throw the backgrounds out of focus, merely compress the look of the Z4, not doing it any justice. In person, it is much sleeker than on your screen.

Whether you go for the 3.0 or the 4.0, I feel BMW’s new Z4 is an excellent car and worthy of your roadster dollar. But in the end, it’s a lot of money, and a very personal decision. Stop by your BMW dealer and take a test drive. And if you happen to go to BMW Portland, tell them I sent you.

Happy motoring…