I can muster no complaints about this turbocharged in-line six-cylinder engine and its seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. We’ve all driven various BMWs with this powertrain, and I’m always particularly struck by the transmission’s performance. Crisp, fast, upshifts and explosive acceleration are yours with a simple mash of the accelerator pedal.
Yet in driving the Z4 again, I begin to understand why our European bureau chief, Georg Kacher, has recently criticized BMW for being an automaker that historically hasn’t really “done” sports cars. The Z4 is still lacking the fluidity, the finesse, and the sense of athletic balance that cars like the Porsche Boxster, the Mazda Miata, the Chevrolet Corvette, and even the Nissan 370Z are blessed with. It’s not bad, mind you; in fact, the Z4 is very, very good. It is not, though, at the top of the sports car hierarchy, despite its brilliant powertrain.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
This car is little more than a big engine strapped to a tiny body. The sweet exhaust sound that comes from the turbocharged in-line six and the paddle-shifted dual-clutch automatic gearbox make for intoxicating aural fun. However, this Z4 seemed too much on edge, as though it was trying too hard: the steering felt artificially too heavy, the suspension unnecessarily too firm in normal mode, and the transmission sluggish to engage gears from a stop.
When this generation Z4 came out in 2009 and one of the important points BMW pushed was that its interior had been designed by a woman, giving it a softer, more luxurious touch. The female designer did a top-notch job, as the interior has a number of sweeping lines, all aesthetically pleasing yet without hampering ergonomics. It is a nice change from the more utilitarian look of most BMW interiors. The sweeping dashboard complements the Chris Bangle-era “flame surfaced” exterior design, with its multitude of convex and concave surfaces, which look quite dramatic in our tester’s optional Melbourne red metallic paint.
I was able to drive this Z4 back-to-back with a 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 and found the SLK to be a better all-around package. While the BMW was trying too hard to be an all-out sports car, the Mercedes understood that its objective was to be a sporting roadster, not a track tool. I have also driven the lesser Z4 sDrive35i but still found it trying a little too hard to be an enthusiast’s machine.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
This may be the ultimate performance driving machine in the BMW’s roadster portfolio, but it’s not the ultimate driving machine in general. I’m sure this is an absolute hoot to blast around a closed course, but I’d rather thread a roadster along back roads, through small towns, past old farms, and through state parks instead of whittling seconds off my lap time. In that capacity, this iteration of the Z4 doesn’t satisfy; it’s simply too stiff and perhaps too fast to enjoy in anything but high-speed hijinks. If this opinion warrants the revocation of my car enthusiast card, then so be it — but at the moderate speeds I prefer to drive at, the is-spec Z4 doesn’t tug at my heartstrings.
Funny, Donny, that you mention the revamped interior. Although the Z4’s cabin does look to be the epitome of beautiful (and materials are top-rate) its ergonomics are still a little funky. Want a cup holder? Unless you decide to use the accessory that protrudes into your passenger’s knee, you’ll have to flip up the entire center console and subsequently sacrifice both a covered storage area and the armrest. A minor complaint, perhaps, but when Mercedes-Benz is able to put a pleasing yet functional cabin into its compact roadster, so should BMW.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
I think this is the best-looking BMW of the past few years. I love the Z4’s sultry lines, top up or down. It was raining during my morning commute so I kept the top closed; compared with other convertibles, it seems less shameful to have this car’s top up, so effectively does its interior and exterior design make it a “convertible coupe.” It’s best to have the top down, though, of course–all the better to hear the crisp exhaust note and the dual-clutch transmission’s super-quick shifts. After driving this version of the Z4 at New Jersey Motorsports Park last year, I’m leery of this car’s twitchy handling at the limit. Since the roads were wet during my entire session with this test car, I was extra cautious. No matter how you drive a Z4, though, it’s easy to enjoy the car’s sweet character. I can’t say that I disagree with my colleagues who say that they prefer a Z4 with lower limits or more tossable and predictable roadsters like the Porsche Boxster and the Mazda Miata.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
It’s truly remarkable how absolutely pinned to the road the Z4 feels, whether in a high-speed corner or during a triple-digit straight run on the highway. Not even Michigan-style heaves, holes, or otherwise imperfect pavement can deflect the Z4 off your chosen line. But that glued-to-the-road feeling is accompanied by an overall impression of heaviness that makes the Z4 feel far less fun than a Porsche Boxster or a Mazda Miata.
What’s most surprising about this Z4 sDrive35is is its sticker price. I know that the majority of the $64,000 is paying for the turbocharged straight six under the hood and various other under-the-skin technological or mechanical systems, but if I spent this much money on a car, I’d expect a more attractive and user-friendly radio interface; or at least a modern-looking one. The overall look and general setup of the unit in this car is nearly identical to the radio that came standard in the BMW 3-Series — in 2004. And even back then, it was never particularly nice-looking or easy to use. There’s no need for iDrive in this small car but this system could really use an update.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
The lines and shape of this car are a bit abstract, but from any vantage point it’s amazing to see how they all work together to create a whole that is quite thrilling and fluid. Like any performance BMW, this car wants to get up and scream, you would almost think it was an “M” car. When I used the paddle shifters it seamed as though there was a slight delay as well as odd almost burping sounds from the exhaust; using the center shifter to manually move through the gears seamed to work better than the paddles. I must say, though, that the car seemed to perform better in automatic mode, with the transmission doing the thinking.
Zipping through the side roads with the wind in my little mohawk, I LOVE that my left elbow can be resting atop the door while my hand rests perfectly on the A-pillar! Getting out of the car is like a bonus set of squats at the gym… but I did not mind. After all, it’s a sporty convertible BMW, and that makes any day better.
Kelly Murphy, Creative Director
This BMW Z4 sDrive35is is truly an excellent car, but there’s one small problem: it’s just too darn fast. Part of the fun of a small roadster is dropping the top and wending your way through winding back roads. That’s just not enjoyable with this sDrive35is model. With just a few seconds of full-throttle acceleration you can break every speed limit in the state of Michigan. Not a single turn on public roads (at legal and sensible speeds, anyway) comes close to challenging the chassis. This Z4 is so capable and has so much performance on tap that it feels dull and uninteresting on public roads.
Still, the acceleration is breathtaking and the M DCT transmission a marvel of responsiveness. I love the loud exhaust note, which emits fantastic crackles and burbles on engine overrun. Too bad the steering wheel feels like a video-game simulator. There’s barely any feel, and the wheel is overly aggressive returning to center.
Donny has it right: This Z4 tries too hard. The ride is uncomfortably harsh even in the “Normal” setting, and that thrilling exhaust note becomes an annoying drone on the highway. A softer, slower version of this car would be far more enjoyable for most people. (There is a lesser sDrive30i and an sDrive35i.) Yet I won’t deny that I loved driving this Z4 — I didn’t want to turn in the keys.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
As others have intimated, the sDrive35is is an out-of-this-world engine and transmission shoehorned into a car that’s “only” very good. My basic problem with the Z4 is that its handling, at least on public roads, is very much a student of the “high-grip, no body roll” school. I want a roadster that I can slide about at lower speeds — simply hanging on and allowing the adaptive dampers to sort everything out isn’t as fun. BMW tries to make up for this lack of involvement by dialing in really heavy steering, but that only makes it less tossable.
Now the good stuff: Floor the Z4 in a straight line and it charges forward with six-cylinder growl and only a hint of turbo whine (which, by the way, sounds unnervingly like a distant police siren). The gear changes are an occasion — an amazing statement about an automatic. They happen instantly and with a puff of turbo blowoff. Delicious.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
The Z4 may not be at the top of the sports car hierarchy, but it sure is fun to drive with the top down on a sunny day. One push of the button is all it takes to lower the roof and start to enjoy the exhilaration that you can only feel when driving in the open air. Add to that the ability to summon 335 hp from a responsive turbocharged in-line six, and driving the Z4 is hard to beat. Sure, it doesn’t quite match the dynamic performance of a Porsche Boxster, but I have no complaints. Anyone who buys a Z4 should know exactly what they’re getting, and I doubt that most of them have any complaints, either.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
2011 BMW Z4 sDrive35is
Base price (with destination): $61,925
Price as tested: $64,225
● 3.0L DOHC 24-valve turbocharged I-6
● 7-speed dual-clutch M-DCT transmission
● Regenerative braking system
● Dynamic stability control w/ brake fade compensation, launch control, brake drying, brake stand-by, and traction control
● 19-inch alloy v-spoke wheels
● Speed-sensitive electric power steering
● Adaptive M suspension
● Xenon adaptive headlights with auto-leveling
● Retractable hardtop w/ heated glass rear window
● M aerodynamics package
● Cruise control
● Rain-sensing wipers w/ auto headlights
● 3-spoke multifunction M steering wheel w/ paddles
● Trip computer
● AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system w/ HD radio
● AUX input
● Advanced Key system
● Adaptive brake lights
Options on this vehicle:
● Melbourne Red Metallic — $550
● Comfort access keyless entry — $500
● Heated front seats — $500
● iPod and USB adapter — $400
● Satellite radio — $350
Key options not on vehicle:
● Premium sound package — $1800
o iPod and USB adapter
o Premium hi-fi system
o Satellite radio
● Cold weather package — $1000
o Retractable headlight washers
o Through-loading system w/ integrated transport bag
o Heated steering wheel
o Heated front seats
o Storage package
● Premium package — $2500
o Auto-dimming interior and exterior mirrors
o Lumbar support
o BMW Assist w/ Bluetooth
o Power front seats w/ driver memory
o Ambiance lighting
o Universal garage door opener
o iPod and USB adapter
● 19-inch light alloy wheels — $1200
17 / 24 / 19 mpg
Horsepower: 335 hp @ 5900 rpm
Torque: 332 lb-ft @ 1500 rpm
Curb weight: 3549 lb
Wheels/tires:19-inch aluminum wheels
225/45R19 front, 255/30R19 rear performance summer tires
Competitors: Audi TTS Roadster, Mercedes-Benz SLK350, Porsche Boxster S