Sports cars have never been BMW's true forte. The 507, the 503, the Z1, and the Z8 were all unloved loss-makers that attained cult status only (long) after production had ended. And then there's the Z3, which started as a purists' model until the marketing guys called for fatter margins, morphing it into the overweight, retractable-hardtop Z4. Where, one wonders, is the BMW competitor to the Porsche Boxster and the Audi TT? Perhaps not that far away. There's no decision yet, but when we tap the Bavarian grapevine, we find tantalizing hints of a BMW sports car revival.
Although BMW chairman Norbert Reithofer is not exactly a fan of the cheap Z2 roadster (as it's been internally christened), the decision makers are beginning to understand that they can't cede this segment to the competition. The Z4 has evolved into a good-looking vehicle, but its packaging, weight, and rigid convertible top disappoint hard-core enthusiasts (i.e., Boxster buyers).
Initially, BMW planned to build the Z2 on the brand's upcoming front-wheel-drive architecture. However, the mere rumor of a front-wheel-drive BMW sports car raised enough of an outcry within the enthusiast community that BMW officials are now considering two far better options. The first would be to continue developing the car on this platform, alongside the Mini Roadster and Coupe, but to take a page from Audi and make it four-wheel drive. Among the undisputed advantages of this strategy are (1) a short path to production (spring 2014 for a ragtop roadster, fall 2014 for a coupe version), (2) the traction bonus inherent to four-wheel drive, and (3) the economies of scale offered by hitching up to a high-volume architecture. On the debit side, it's hard to ignore the usual weight, space, and cost penalties of adding driveshafts and other associated hardware.
Plan B scraps all that and pushes the launch back to 2015 or even 2016. That's the bad news. The good news is that this route revolves around rear-wheel drive. The key is the next 1-series. Although the European-market hatchback 1-series will definitely move to front-wheel drive to compete better with the Volkswagen Golf and the like, BMW is now thinking that the coupe and the convertible should stay rear-wheel drive permanently and perhaps become the 2-series. (Indeed, the company just filed a trademark for the M2 name.) The Z2, of course, fits the new nomenclature to perfection and would share the 2-series platform. The Z2 would feature three different 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline engines rated from 170 to 270 hp.
None of this, by the way, hampers the future of the Z4, although it could require some changes. In order to avoid overlap with the Z2, the next Z4 might shift upmarket and grow a bit. A new moniker, Z6, is also in the cards. Whatever the case, it will likely retain its hardtop convertible configuration, as well as its in-line six-cylinder engines (which, we hope, remain the brand's trademark powerplants for decades to come). The range would likely start with today's 300-hp sDrive35i and go up from there to 340- and 380-hp variants. Still not enough grunt? Then zoom in on the M Version, which will likely share its 450-hp straight six with the next M3.