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2009 BMW Z4

By Design

I have long defended Chris Bangle and BMW design, believing it necessary to break the classic mold that had prevailed for too long, an opinion validated by ever-increasing BMW sales. But the fact that I approved that stylistic rupture with the too-comfortable past didn't mean I actually liked the disruptive designs. However interesting they may have been, some were really awful. Particularly distressing was the 2000 Z8, which completely missed its attempt to recapture the essence of 1950s sports cars, something Alfa Romeo's 8C Competizione does perfectly. And the grotesque sagging curves of the Z3 and the 2002 Z4 turned me off completely.

Now, suddenly, the most beautiful BMW roadster since the Albrecht Goertz-designed 507 arrives, embodying almost every shocking Bangle-era design cue but subsumed into a cohesive, coherent shape that is at once beautiful and elegant, expressing power and performance. That this second-edition Z4, with its folding hard top, luxurious interior, and classic long-nose/short-deck proportions, is biased more toward boulevards than racetracks doesn't detract from its charm at all. Such "semisoft" sports cars have enormous appeal, as Jaguar has shown for more than seventy years, from the 1935 SS 90 to today's XK, and indeed as Ferrari demonstrated with the 250GT California and the 365GTS/4 Daytona Spider.

To create such cars is a delicate matter. Consider the Lexus SC430, an excellent car much loved by ladies and gentlemen in Newport Beach and other such wealthy enclaves. True car enthusiasts tend to disdain it because, visually, it has no automotive testosterone whatsoever. Of course, some designs have entirely too much (choose your own examples), whereas this BMW and those Jags and Ferraris have exactly the right amount.

Quite apart from the hormonal aspect of its design, the new Z4 has been masterfully sculpted by a bold yet delicately refined hand. Surface development conflicts that marred previous BMW Zs have been perfectly resolved. I was entranced by the rear corners, where concave and convex surfaces, flowing lines, and changes of color and materials converge without a single clash. Perhaps to fully appreciate what BMW's designers achieved, one needs to have dealt with problems similar to those encountered and surmounted here, but anyone can enjoy a master class in automotive sculpture just by closing his or her eyes and running a hand over the multiple subtle intersections.

Final praise: the tight top tucks into the trunk without the whole car having the fat posterior that spoils the look of almost every other hardtop convertible on the market today. It's a lot better to be able to use words like "lithe" and "svelte" than "pudgy" and "plump." Is the Z4 perfect? Of course not. But when it's surpassed, I will not be at all surprised if the work is done by the brilliant, hard-working team that achieved this result.

Design Analysis

1 The front end seems a little blunt, but the top of the grille is much lower than the base of the windshield while still providing space above the mechanicals to meet pedestrian safety standards. The corners are beveled to further reduce drag.

2 The horizontal blade in the lower outer inlets is picked up in the swept-back leading edge of the front fenders and goes on to establish the character line that goes to and around the rear and leads back to the other side's blade.

3 This long, graceful line flows back across the horizontal hood surface, establishes the front fender, traverses the door handle, and ends in the rear fender below its defining peak line.

4 Painting the windshield frame black separates it from the body, implying that it could be removed for racing, as in classic sports cars. A great trick, this should have been adopted for the Mazda Miata long ago.

5 Rounded, almost bubble-shaped top should be good for aerodynamics and for acoustics. It gives the lower body more visual length and provides good visibility.

6 Two unconnected hard lines are artfully handled so that they complete each other visually to enhance the impression of length. The rear hard line dies before touching the door skin, but the other one dies behind the door cut, tangentially pointing to the wheelhouse's perimeter crease.

7 These four lines are closely related to each other and to the overall theme of the Z4. The upper bumper edge leads to the side crease above the sill; the kick-up in the bumper recalls the spoiler above.

8 This corner is the most impressive part of the surface sculpture, with the spoiler edge line fading to zero while optically connecting to the taillight and the concave section of the deck lid flowing into the fender peak.

9 The strong rib on the body side disappears at the edge of the door cut but is extended visually on the smooth, rounded vertical surface by a body joint.

10 BMW's traditional fender side outlet morphs into a body-color indent, with the corporate roundel at the aft end.

11 There has to be at least one little eccentricity on a Bangle car to confirm its origins. Skewing the hood cutline into the wheelhouse does that job and emphasizes maximum width at the front wheel's centerline. Eccentric, yes, but nice.

12 Instrument placement is traditional for sports cars, with speedo and tach in front of the driver and minor controls placed unobtrusively in the center of a cockpit that's both functional and elegant.

13 This curved line establishes the driver's priority for all controls and augments the performance-car cockpit feel.

14 Comfort in high-g driving is enhanced by this generous grab handle. The use of lighter colors ahead of and alongside the seat suggests a sort of soft glove for the passenger's body.