Don’t let the pictures fool you: The BMW Z4 looks better on film than it does in the flesh. The soft light under which this particular Z4 was snapped and the big eighteen-inch wheels play visual tricks. Up close and in person, particularly with smaller rims, the Z4 is just plain goofy-looking. All those creases and lines distract you from what are essentially classic roadster proportions, which is worrisome, because one of the primary reasons for buying a roadster is to have a beautiful car in the driveway or the garage, a car you don’t have to explain to your friends.
The BMW 3-Series coupe and sedan sell because they’re great to drive, they have a BMW badge on the hood, and they look lovely. No, the 3-series doesn’t rewrite styling rules, but it is undeniably handsome. Having a 3-series gives you that heady glow that comes from owning something beautiful, in the same way wearing a classy watch or a quality suit does.
Chris Bangle, BMW’s design chief, wants to rewrite the rules. As far as we can see, he’s doing that by making striking, rather than pretty, cars. Sure, the Z4 looks impressive from the front, low down, but that’s easily its best angle. The people who dig the Z4 and find it cool tend to be younger and hipper and edgier than I am. But they’re probably not likely to be able to shell out $33,795 for the 2.5-liter model, let alone $40,945 for the 3.0i. Bangle says he doesn’t care about people like me; he feels BMW has to differentiate its design to stay ahead of the competition. He wants to polarize opinion. Burkhard Goeschel, the funny, smart engineer (and board member) in charge of R&D and the Formula 1 effort, says BMW has to take risks even if it loses customers, because that helps to keep the company special. Yet BMW’s specialness comes from building uncompromised cars that are, to quote the ad copy, the ultimate driving machines. That in itself has been a risk. BMW styling has rarely been anything other than elegant, timeless, and evolutionary. The twenty-year-old motor gophers in our office are turned on just as much by an M3 as is David E. Davis, Jr., a man more than three times their age. Good design transcends age, gender, income, and explanation; bad design appeals fleetingly to tastemeisters who get bored and move on to the next trend.
From our perspective, the styling is a shame because it diverts attention from this car’s greatness. The Z3 lacked the crispness we expect from a BMW and was further let down by a cramped cabin and a semi-trailing-arm rear suspension that was less than faithful near the limit. Even so, it is now one of the bestselling roadsters of all time, along with such cars as the much longer-lived Mazda Miata, Triumph Spitfire, and MGB.
The Z4 addresses the Z3’s faults and rectifies them in spectacular fashion. First, the Z4 has an all-new chassis that features a 1.9-inch-longer wheelbase as well as a 2.4-inch-wider front and 1.2-inch-wider rear track than the Z3. Although the new body shell is more rigid and larger than the old car’s, it’s only marginally heavier, thanks to the use of high-strength steel throughout and aluminum for the hood. (The Z3 3.0i weighs 2910 pounds versus the Z4 3.0i’s 2998.)
The front suspension uses lower control arms and MacPherson struts, as on the Z3. Improvements include forged aluminum control arms in place of steel. At the back, the Z4 has a multi-link arrangement, with upper and lower lateral links and a curved central longitudinal arm. BMW uses relatively firm springs and dampers on the standard suspension, but the optional Sport setup features even stiffer springs and dampers and a 0.6-inch-lower ride height. Included in the Sport package is Dynamic Driving Control, which firms up the steering and sharpens the throttle response at the push of the center console’s Sport button.
At launch, the Z4 will be equipped with 2.5- and 3.0-liter versions of BMW’s familiar all-aluminum DOHC, 24-valve, in-line six-cylinder M54 engine. A new exhaust system improves low-end response, but power ratings remain unchanged at 184 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque for the 2.5-liter and 225 horsepower and 214 pound-feet for the 3.0. The 2.5 has a standard five-speed manual transmission, with an optional five-speed automatic or six-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox. The 3.0i has a brand-new ZF six-speed manual as standard, with the same tranny options. Weight distribution on the six-speed manual 3.0i is a near-perfect 50.4 percent front, 49.6 percent rear.
The Z4 marks the first time BMW has fitted electric power steering to one of its cars. Claimed benefits include easier tuning of the steering and reduced fuel consumption because the electric motor works only when the wheel is turned. The rear disc brakes are larger than the Z3’s and are now ventilated on the 3.0i. The Z4 has run-flat tires mated to sixteen-, seventeen-, or eighteen-inch wheels. The regular 2.5i has 225/50R-16s; the 2.5 Sport and 3.0i have 225/45R-17s; and the 3.0i Sport has 225/40R-18s at the front and 255/35R-18s at the back.
All Z4s are equipped with the latest version of BMW’s Dynamic Stability Control skid-control system. It incorporates a new feature called Dynamic Traction Control in addition to the conventional traction control. This allows a measure of wheelspin so that the car can make it up a snow-covered hill. BMW still gives the driver the option of disengaging the electronic safety gizmos, thank goodness.
The Z4 is also a great deal more practical than the Z3. The trunk is larger, partly because the car’s run-flat tires obviate the need for a trunk-mounted spare. Inside, there is 0.2 inch more legroom and 0.8 inch extra shoulder room. The increases don’t sound like much, but the Z4 feels much more spacious. You feel as if you’re inside the car, whereas you always felt as if you were perched on the Z3. The new top folds flush with the rear deck and has a heated glass rear window. BMW claims that the new manual top (standard on all U.S. Z4s) is considerably easier to operate than the Z3’s; we will have to take their word for that, as all the cars we drove had the optional electric top. This lid is astonishingly fast in its operation, taking less than ten seconds to stow or erect.
The interior styling is much more pleasing than the exterior, but not everyone likes the swoops and swirls and curlicues that Bangle and his team favor. At least the speedometer and the tachometer are in hooded binnacles ahead of the driver, the air-conditioning and radio controls are intuitive, and the seat controls remain simple. The Z4 steering wheel is attractive, with just the right rim thickness, and it is adjustable in both rake and reach. Stowage space is adequate, and there are two decent-size cup holders.
The Z4 is offered in four grades of trim: leatherette seats on the base 2.5i with graphite gray interior accents; leather and synthetic fabric on the optional 2.5i Active Sport interior with brushed aluminum; leather as standard on the 3.0i and optional on the 2.5i; and a full leather interior available on the 3.0i starting in April ’03. Sycamore wood trim can replace the aluminum finish that photographer Richard Newton hated and I rather liked.
Among the stand-alone options are a dash-top navigation system, heated seats, bi-xenon headlights, and a wind deflector (which is useful above 100 mph when the top is down). A Premium package adds power seats, leather, the automatic soft top, and cruise control to the 2.5i’s standard equipment. (Leather and cruise are standard on the 3.0i.) The 2.5i Sport package gets the firmer suspension, Dynamic Driving Control, seventeen-inch wheels, heated mirrors, and front fog lights. The 3.0i adds eighteen-inch wheels to this option grouping. Our test car, with the Sport and Premium packages as well as heated seats, standard ten-speaker premium audio system, metallic paint, and bi-xenon lights, would cost $45,320.
The Z4 is a wonderful driver. The 3.0i is as stable as the Swiss franc and without cowl shake, even on seriously pockmarked pavement. At low speeds, the ride can be a bit jiggly with the sport suspension and eighteen-inch wheels and tires, but the trade-off is majestic composure in turns. The regular suspension with seventeen-inch rims is a little more pliant and affords a touch more roll in corners, but the difference isn’t marked.
The 3.0-liter in-line six is just about perfect. There is decent thrust from as low as 2000 rpm, with a noticeable increase in urgency at around 3500 rpm. All the way through the power band, the engine revs eagerly and makes a great noise, thanks to a special acoustic system on this model. At low speed, there’s a mellow bass burble followed by a hard, creamy yowl at the top end. Lift off the gas under hard acceleration, and the exhaust pops and bangs like a racing engine. It goes well, too, taking just 5.8 seconds to reach 60 mph and easily reaching 150 mph on the freeway.
The new six-speed shifter is gorgeous, with short, precise throws and a honed fluency that reminds you that these people genuinely know how to tailor cars to enthusiast drivers. The brakes are fantastic, stopping the car with alacrity and great feedback. We recorded 70 to 0 mph in 155 feet, which is a stellar performance.
Around town, the car is easy to drive and very user-friendly. Once you get up to speed, straight-line stability is exemplary, and it’s even possible to hold a conversation with the top down at 80 mph. This is a perfectly civilized set of everyday wheels, but you need to give it some boot on a twisty road to uncover its magic. The only roadster that comes close to the Z4 in terms of handling, fluency, and feedback is the Porsche Boxster, which has one of the best chassis out there.
The Z4 grips like a mad dog; it has immediate turn-in and a virtually neutral handling balance. On wet pavement, with all the electronics switched off, you can hang the tail out with impunity in slower corners. If you tried that in the twitchy Z3, you would be staring an accident in the face. On dry pavement, you would have to be insane to try to induce power oversteer in all but the tightest of corners. The chassis is faithful, quick to react, and a whole bundle of fun along twisting secondary roads. The steering is quite light until you switch on the Sport setting, at which point it gains more heft to match its accuracy and directness. It still lacks the reassuring weight and feel of a Boxster’s, though.
The Z4 3.0i is easier to drive close to the limit than the Honda S2000 and is a more tactile, involving experience. It is also much more of a driver’s car than either the Audi TT roadster or the Mercedes SLK and is more polished and well rounded than a Corvette convertible. Whether it can beat the Boxster in a straight fight remains to be seen, but its price does undercut the Porsche by $2420 in base trim. (The 2.5i is way cheaper, of course, but isn’t as quick as the Boxster, hitting a claimed top speed of 146 mph and taking 7.1 seconds to reach 60 mph.)
BMW wants to sell at least as many Z4s as it did Z3s, which means more than 40,000 a year. Whether it will or not depends on Bangle and his designers being right and critics like me being wrong. At a time when the industry has gone gonzo in a power and performance frenzy, there is plenty of competition for the minds and wallets of enthusiasts. Failing to connect on any level can damage a car’s chances; failing to connect with a sports car’s design could kill them.