First Drive: 2009 BMW Z4 Roadster

One important question is how much ride comfort is sacrificed with the firmer sport-plus, and the answer is none - provided you're on unblemished pavement like that in sun-kissed southern Spain, where we conducted our test drive. As long as the ride in less idyllic conditions isn't too brutal, it's frankly hard to see the need for the other settings.

A second major aspect of the new Z4's attempt to expand its appeal is the switch to a retractable hard top. Not only does this mean a power top is now standard, but the sense of claustrophobia with the top up is greatly diminished thanks to the hard top's slim C-pillars and the addition of rear quarter windows. On the downside, a retractable hard top usually weighs more than a soft top and eats up more trunk space when stowed. Indeed, the Z4 has gained about 200 pounds, but the top-down trunk space has shrunk only slightly, to a still-usable 6.4 cubic feet. Top up, the trunk is significantly larger than before.

The hard top crowns an all-new exterior that sees the previously gawky styling transformed into a striking and handsome new design. The skillfully reshaped sheetmetal is stretched five inches in overall length and fractionally in width. The cabin is again set well back in the car, creating a cab-rearward, old-school roadster feeling. You look out over the long, stylized hood and in front of you is a curving, swept-away dash, which faintly recalls the BMW Z8. The passenger compartment has a bit more elbow room than before and, in our test car, was decked out the optional Nappa full-leather trim, with materials quality that was above reproach. The new cabin also boasts additional stowage, but the cupholders are awkwardly located under the center armrest. BMW's iDrive makes its first appearance here (with the optional navigation system), and this latest version, with more dedicated buttons making for less menu surfing, now actually borders on user-friendly.

A quick look at the sticker prices suggests that BMW has in effect dropped the entry level Z4 (which last year started well under $40,000) and that the two versions of the new car match up against the previous uplevel Z4 and the M Roadster. The new Z4 sDrive35i may not have the purity of the old M Roadster, but it essentially equals its straight-line performance and its handling is even better. We might not be totally convinced by all the electronically changeable elements, and we might prefer the standard manual transmission, but we're happier in the new cockpit and we gratefully welcome the new exterior design. With this latest generation, the modern BMW roadster takes another step on its way to becoming a sports car classic.

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