2009 BMW Z4 sDrive35i
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
Yes, Joe, this has to be a contender for the most-ridiculous-name-on-a-modern-car title. Let's just call it a Z4.
Aside from the crazy name, this is a perfectly good roadster. The Z4 is quick, eye-catching, and handles well. I was fortunate enough to have light traffic during my night with the Z4, but that light traffic was partially due to the fact it was a rainy day. Leaving traction and stability control on, the Z4 never wanted for grip and the intervention was generally pretty smooth. I was expecting the explosive, yet linear, power of the twin-turbo engine to overwhelm the rear tires on wet pavement on a regular basis, but that only happened when I started playing with Sport and Sport+ modes.
This was also my first experience with BMW's DCT gearbox and I walked away impressed. Other than the shift paddles being the push up/pull down variety instead of the standard right up, left down variety, I found the DCT to be easy to live with. I prefer to leave these DSG-style transmissions in "S" mode, which gives a more aggressive, sporty shift strategy than fuel economy-focused "D" will.
I also agree with Joe DeMatio that a car like the Z4 is perfectly acceptable with a cloth top. Initially, the folding hard top craze seemed like a great idea, but there's an elegant simplicity to the cloth top. The Mazda MX-5 Miata is a perfect example of a car that's worse with a hard top and the Z4 is likely in that group, too. In a roadster, it's not like you're going to have that much cargo inside the vulnerable soft top, so you might as well enjoy the reduction in weight and complexity.
Phil Floraday, Senior Online Editor
What a great improvement over the original. Compelling rather than perplexing design, and the new Z4's cabin is roomy and gorgeous rather than harsh and Spartan. Fantastic suspension, and you know that here in Michigan we REALLY mean it when we say it this time of the year. The roads are particularly horrible right now, including the Interstate.
I love the look of the hardtop, and I especially loved how fast it covered me up when the BIG RAINS came. It's a wonderful roadster, and I'd love to drive it back to back with a Porsche Boxster.
Jean Jennings, President & Editor-in-Chief
Like every other BMW I've driven with this sweet turbocharged six, the Z4 is incredibly quick and entertaining. As others have noted, the steering and handling are spot on, and the dual-clutch automatic is beyond reproach, especially when it's in sport mode. I found the ride a bit harsher than I'd like, but all the jouncing only further highlighted the car's incredible structural rigidity.
The hardtop opens and closes quickly enough, but it can't match the simple freedom of a fabric roof. Driving a Mazda MX-5 Miata last weekend, I must have opened and closed the top forty times. It didn't matter where I was going or what I had in the trunk, I'd just fling it open without a second thought. In the Z4, I didn't bother with the roof unless I thought I'd be in the car longer than ten minutes. Of course, the Z4 is no simple roadster - it's a luxurious, fast two-seater bristling with technology. Perhaps a hardtop better fits the car's character.
I'm usually not a fan of bright red in a cabin, but it works wonderfully on the Z4's well-bolstered seats. Indeed, the interior design alone goes a long way in justifying the price premium over a 135i convertible.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I found the Z4 to be very pleasing to drive. With the top dropped, a country drive through some back roads is total bliss. Under heavy throttle, the exhaust tone ripples down your spine and echoes off your surroundings. The BMW steering-wheel-mounted push-pull paddle shifters take some getting used to, but once acquainted, make a lot of sense when you're hand over hand in a sharp curve. With 300 horses, the twin-turbo six effortlessly propels you down the road.
BMW did a nice job with the design of the Z4. I had a few of Ann Arbor's finest take an extended stare at it, then overheard one say to the other, "that's pretty sweet looking". As far as the rest of the car, I thought the red interior looked sharp at first, but as time went on, I think a simple black would be much better. And since I'm getting picky, give me an M version.
Mike Ofiara, Road Test Coordinator
I don't know if I could characterize back-road driving in the Z4 as bliss. It's more like an intense ride, palpably amplified by the super-quick shifts of BMW's dual-clutch transmission. The red interior was a quick way to pick up curious glances while briefly cruising down Main Street. If only it had hung around a little bit longer, I could have gotten used to the somewhat unusual arrangement of controls in the cabin. Who thought that replacing the shift lever with something that looks like a cell phone was a good idea? And what's up with the supposedly keyless ignition? You still need the transmitter, a foot on the brake, and a start/stop button on the dashboard. I'm all for embracing new technology, but give me a nicely wrapped plain-metal key, and I'm all set.
Jeff Jablansky, Web Editor Intern
2009 BMW Z4 sDrive35i
Base Price (with destination): $52,475Price as tested: $58,050
Options:Space Gray Metallic - $550Sport Package - $2300  : Adaptive M Suspension, Sport Seats19" Wheels with Performance Tires - $12007-Speed Double Clutch Transmission - $1525
Fuel economy: 18 / 25 / 20 mpg (city/hwy/combined)
Engine:Size: 3.0L DOHC Inline turbocharged 6-cylinder 24VHorsepower: 300 hp @ 5800 rpmTorque: 300 lb-ft @ 1400 - 5000 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed double clutch
Weight: 3494 lb
Wheels/Tires:19 x 8.0 front, 19 x 9.0 rear wheels225/35 front, 255/30 rear run-flat tires