I drove the Z4 sDrive35i (what a stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid name; there's even a ridiculous badge with this horrible combination of letters and numbers) around Ann Arbor and environs over the Memorial Day weekend and came away impressed. First, the exterior styling is about perfect, with the long, sexy hood, the curvaceous rear, and the handsome 19-inch wheels. The interior is also very nicely designed, with an appropriately upmarket ambience. This was one of those cars that, after it got a little dust on it over the weekend, I dug out the detailing spray and a chamois and cleaned it up. I didn't want this car to be dirty while it was in my possession, even if I were just driving to the grocery store.
The Z4 sDrive35i's body structure is notably stiff; every time I went over rough pavement, I marveled at how well this very tightly screwed-together roadster absorbed the bumps, the heaves, the asphalt patches, and the railroad crossings. Structural rigidity appears to be first-rate.
Our test Z4 sDrive35i is equipped with BMW's 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, for which I had mixed feelings. Shift quality is uniformly smooth and quick, but the driver interface is a little fussy. I found myself playing around with the stubby gearshift lever more than I would have liked, and I found the shift paddles to be only marginally useful, which is what I find with ALL shift paddles (some day, we're going to look back at shift paddles and wonder why we thought they were so cool). Sometimes, a graphic of the gearshift knob would appear in the center display, and I could never figure out why. It's easy, though, to grab the shift knob and push the wrong button on it; it takes a while to trust that, indeed, you have put the car in P for Park, not R for Reverse. I decided that the best thing to do is to shove the gearshifter to the left, which causes an "S" for sport to appear in the center display. Then just treat it like an automatic and use your right foot. You're rewarded with crisp, fast upshifts, accompanied by lovely rorty exhaust sounds.
Not surprisingly, the Z4 sDrive35i's steering feel and precision, body control, and ride quality were pretty much above reproach. Some of the fussier chassis gurus around the office might find something to nitpick, but it all worked for me, and I was able to drive the Z4 sDrive35i way too fast on some of my favorite roads with little drama and a lot of pleasure. Somehow, though, the 3.0-liter twin-turbo inline-six didn't seem to strain at the leash, to be quite as exuberant, as it is in other BMW applications. Maybe I just didn't have enough opportunities to really let the Z4 sDrive35i unwind this weekend; it being a holiday, everywhere I went in Washtenaw County was thick with radar-gun-pointing cops. And the Z4 sDrive35i makes a mighty tempting target.
The folding hard top really does seem like overkill in a tiny little car like the Z4 sDrive35i, but the car looks great when the top is up. Top down, there's still a respectable amount of cargo space, enough that I was able to stow a case of wine (in a horizontal, not vertical, box) under the tonneau cover with lots of room to spare. The top goes down quickly enough, but I wish there were a more noticeable signal that it is indeed all the way down, or all the way up, so you know when to stop pushing the open or close button. Sometimes I thought I was done, put the car in Drive, and then the car gave a little "dong" or something and there was a warning graphic in the central display.
The only real downside to the Z4 sDrive35i is its cost: $58K as equipped. Then again, this car is a long way from the 1996 BMW Z3 roadster and its little four-banger.
Joe DeMatio, Executive Editor