Detroit 2009: 2010 BMW Z4

Don’t judge a book by its cover, and don’t judge the new Z4 until you see it in person.

I admit that I’ve not been a huge fan of BMW’s polarizing new design philosophy of the past decade. But if it’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to judge any new car’s styling until you see it in person. And that holds true even more for BMW than other manufacturers.

Bottom line? The Z4, which can look a little awkward in photos, looks fantastic on the show stand — and I think it’ll look even better on the road. It’s obviously a BMW, obviously a Z4, and very intimidating from straight on. In other words, it’s pretty much exactly what it needed to be.

It looks much better than the previous Z4 with the top up — an accomplishment that’s definitely not a given when a folding hardtop is used. The addition of a rear quarter window (which wasn’t possible with the last fabric top) gives the Z4 less awkward proportions, and a better view out from the driver’s seat.

One surprising thing I noticed about the Z4 was the location of its radio antenna — on the side of the car right behind the driver. My experience with “bee-sting” antennas is that they do generate some wind noise, so I’m looking forward to seeing how BMW has gotten around this issue.

And then, there’s the name. Oy vey! BMW Z4 sDrive35i? If it weren’t for the badges on the car, I might have thought BMW was joking.

The new name follows the new naming scheme we’ve seen on other 2009-model-year BMWs, where all-wheel drive variants receive the “xDrive” moniker – as a suffix on sedans and wagons, but integrated in the name on X (X3, X5, and X6) models.

sDrive sounds very similar to xDrive, but indicates rear-wheel drive. Don’t read any “sportiness” into that — the ‘s’ doesn’t signify a higher-performance engine variant the way it once did in BMW names.

There are no plans for an all-wheel drive, xDrive variant of the Z4 roadster – so why on earth would BMW use such a complicated name?; Most likely for trademark purposes. BMW would have a much easier time trademarking “xDrive35i” than they would just “35i” or “3.5i”. So it looks like the trademark attorneys won over the marketing guys this time. Shame.

Now that the name sDrive has been established, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw it on one of the X products, too. It’s highly doubtful that the X5 or X6 would be offered with two-wheel drive, but it’s concievable that the X3 might some day. The chances of that are slim, but I’d bet that the forthcoming X1 will be available in either xDrive (four-wheel drive) or sDrive (rear-wheel drive) trim.

But what’s in a name?