It's been a very long time since BMW came up with a show car that caused any of us to gasp with pleasure, to make us say, "Gotta have it!" X Coupe? Nah. CS1? Not really. xActivity? Thanks, but no thanks. This year at the Frankfurt show, however, almost out of the blue, BMW unwrapped a car that gets ten out of ten on the desirability scale.
Two days after the show closed, we had a date with the new Z4 coupe concept. (Sure, it's a concept-except that it looks virtually identical to the car that will go into production next July.) After spending half a day with the compact crowd-stopper in a derelict factory complex on the outskirts of Munich, we can report that this thing is not only a gorgeous looker, it also plays one of the catchiest street-legal sound tracks. In the huge architectural echo chamber, part-throttle was the stuff goose bumps are made of, and giving it stick almost instantly separated the mortar from the bricks. Our "test track" was long enough to grab the attention of every alpha male in the building but not quite what we needed to write a proper road test, unfortunately.
Unlike the oddly shaped roadster, the coupe has a rare beauty. In fixed-roof form, the Z4's proportions are spot-on rather than ho-hum, its solid stance substantially im-proved by the self-conscious nineteen-inch wheels and tires. The paint, which lacks gloss and shimmer, emphasizes the dazzling contours rather than the controversial cutlines. The unusual matte finish isn't the only thing that catches your eyes-the car's surfaces actually feel as though they were sculpted from a solid piece.
"The response at Frankfurt was overwhelmingly positive," says chief brand de-signer Adrian van Hooydonk, smiling broadly. "Everybody loved the paint, so we will do what we can to get it into production as soon as possible. BMW already uses a similar application for its motorcycles, but automobiles are something else-just think about stone chips or automatic car washes."
Word is that the M division is contemplating a limited choice of matte paint jobs as part of a future trademark look, but we don't know exactly when this option will become available or how much it will cost.
From the nose to the A-pillars, the coupe and the roadster are identical. But the roof and the rear end are completely different. While one model has a rudimentary canvas top, the other displays a stylish version of the classic double-bubble roof. The cutline management is ingenious. Despite its size, weight, and complexity, the liftgate treatment makes you wonder whether the Z4 started off with a metal top and the roadster was developed later. While the neatly integrated rear window has no wiper, the rear hatch eschews any obvious aerodynamic aids. However, the tail does have some faults: three-quarter rear visibility is poor, the loading lip is too high, the trunk is shallow, and the badge-style latch is bound to get dirty and wet in no time at all.
"The Z3 coupe was loved by some and disliked by others," says van Hooydonk. "With the new model, we didn't want to polarize opinion. That's why a wagon-style rear end was never on the agenda. Instead, we opted for a quite sharp-edged fastback, because we felt it would go best with the basic proportions of the Z4."
Strangely, the Z4 coupe that was shown at Frankfurt doesn't address the planned face-lift for the whole range that is only months away. BMW says that "it's all part of a carefully staggered process." This is how that process will unfold. BMW will present the new M roadster-with a more powerful version of the 333-hp, in-line six currently used in the M3-at the Detroit auto show. At Geneva in 2006, the company will present the M coupe, the face-lifted Z4 roadster, and the accordingly modified Z4 coupe. The key changes are revised bumpers that are more elegant for the mainstream models and more aggressive for the M derivatives, restyled rear lights, and an upgraded interior.
In more ways than one, the show car leads the way for the production vehicle. The interior materials in particular are stunning. Everything you touch feels expensive and very well made: soft nubuck leather instead of coarse plastic, anodized and lacquered aluminum instead of brushed steel, and neatly detailed knobs, switches, and buttons rather than look-alike items from the bottom of the parts bin. Has BMW finally remembered the importance of high-quality interiors-or will this lovely cabin disappear in the transition from one-off to mass-made?
"Some of these things are quite expensive," van Hooydonk admits. "But others are surprisingly affordable. Things like the two-tone cabin treatment are absolutely cost neutral. Truly exclusive options like full-leather dashboard trim or a bespoke color scheme could be offered through the Individual division, however, which is in charge of made-to-measure solutions." Our only quibble with this stunningly beautiful driver's environment is the instrumentation, which features tiny X3 gauges that sit in deep holes, making them even harder to read.
For anyone who's tall, however, the packaging is on the bonsai side of ridiculous. The roadster is a tight fit to start with, but the coupe makes this six-foot, seven-inch-tall driver feel like a woodpecker trying to occupy a knothole sized for a nuthatch. The main culprit is the bulky rear fire wall that acts both as reinforcement and as home for the flexible cargo cover. Wedged between fuel tank and floorpan, this barrier seriously limits seat travel and recline angle. The steeply raked roof doesn't help much, either, and the bottom half of the instrument panel curves down in such a way that you need an extra joint between knee and ankle. Even the 95th-percentile van Hooydonk needs a shoehorn to get in and out. His explanation: "The coupe is a handmade prototype built for display purposes and by no means the definitive vehicle." We sincerely hope the production engineers agree.
At this point, no one is prepared to talk about the nitty-gritty of weight, drag coefficients, or price. Van Hooydonk elaborates: "The Z4 coupe is kind of a back-to-the-roots car. What looks like metal actually is metal, not coated plastic. What looks like leather and has seams to hold it in place is real leather, not fake. This is the real thing, in appearance and driving pleasure."
We are not worried about the way the production car will drive, because it should be stiffer than the regular Z4, which already handles sweetly enough. The show car is equipped with the latest iteration of the magical 3.0-liter in-line six that makes 261 hp and 232 lb-ft of torque. Governed at 155 mph, the glacier silver showpiece can reportedly accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 5.7 seconds. The M coupe, which should get a 370-hp engine, will have Porsche 911 speed. If the regular Z4 coupe is enough to get our mouths watering, then the M coupe has us outright salivating.