Tempting two-seat sports cars have been a BMW tradition for more than 80 years, one that's continued by the new Z4. Though demand for such pure-bred driver-pleasers isn't what it used to be, the Bavarians seem determined to keep one in their line-up...
WHAT IS IT?
Classic formula two-seat, soft-topped sports car. Under that long bonnet are four- and six-cylinder turbo engines, driving the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic.
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WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
The Z4 won't reach Australia until around March 2019. The international media launch in Portugal in November was our first chance to slip behind the wheel for an assessment of its lust-worthiness
THE WHEELS REVIEW
SPORTS cars may be a dying breed, but the Z4 is a lively reminder of why they must be saved from extinction. This low, lithe two-seat soft-top is impressively agile and immensely entertaining. Purpose-built for pure driver pleasure, it's everything an SUV is not, and can never be.
Insatiable demand for SUVs threatens the survival of the sports car. Manufacturers know that adding SUVs will add to their profits. Meanwhile, the global audience for proper sports cars is diminishing. And this makes it ever more difficult to create sound business cases for their production.
We can thank Toyota for the new Z4, and BMW for the new Supra. Both companies insist their car would not exist without the other partner to a collaboration deal inked back in 2012.
Disentangling the fine detail of the Z4/Supra project is difficult, with BMW and Toyota managers sometimes giving different answers to the same question... to be later contradicted by some more senior exec.
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Still, it's clear that BMW deserves credit for designing most of the shared hardware. Munich also provides the Supra with an off-the-shelf in-line turbo six, something Toyota says was key to their coupe revival concept.
Chassis design was "100 percent BMW" says driving dynamics exec Jos van As. The genial Dutchman says the platform shares most, but not all, its components with the new 3 Series. The changes endow the sports cars with more suitable caster and camber angles for the strut front and multilink rear suspensions. While brake systems are borrowed from the M3/M4, the electrically assisted variable steering system is specific to the car, says van As.
The new Z4 is longer and wider overall than the second-generation Z4, which stopped rolling off BMW's Regensburg production line back in 2016. The newcomer's front and rear tracks are wider, but the wheelbase is fractionally shorter.
BMW bought only the top M40i version of the Z4 to its international media launch in Portugal. This model's 250kW/500Nm 3.0-litre turbo six, teamed with an eight-speed auto and driving the rear wheels, is basically the same engine as used in the Supra.
And it's a lovely thing in the Z4; smooth and responsive, with oodles of boosted torque tappable from low in the rev range, along with a willingness to rev. It's pretty close to petrol-burning perfection.
BMW's engineers have done a great job, too, with calibration of the auto. It's relaxed yet alert in cruisy Comfort mode, and a snappy shifter in Sport or Sport +, modes which also uncork the mufflers to release a just-right amount of crackle and pop. Alone in the Z4 range, the M40i's transmission has specific M Sport control software.
Two 2.0-litre turbo fours - 20i (145kW/320Nm) and 30i (190kW/400Nm) - will complete the Z4 launch line-up. They also have eight-speed autos, but with standard BMW software calibrations. All variants will go on sale in Australia around March 2019, around five months after European deliveries begin.
The M40i’s more muscular engine makes the Z4's chassis work harder, but the extra urge didn't reveal any glaring flaws during a half-day test drive in and around Lisbon.
Even in Comfort mode, the adaptive M Sport suspension standard in the M40i delivers a ride that's firm and tightly disciplined. M Sport brakes and differential are also standard on the M40i, along with M Sport exterior package.
Selecting Sport mode makes the suspension firmer, and brings a palpable lift in smooth-road cornering ability. The effect of Sport+ on throttle response and transmission shifting makes the M40i feel like it's been dosed with amphetamines. It's too manic for public road use.
On poor quality Australian roads, leaving the car in Comfort mode but nudging the stumpy shift level sideways for shifting sportiness, and perhaps using the paddles, is likely to be the best recipe for driver pleasure.
It sure worked for me on the narrow clifftop road overlooking the Atlantic Ocean that was the highlight of BMW's drive loop. The Z4 has a great depth of chassis talent. This is a sports car with great inherent poise and balance, yet super sharp reactions to control inputs. The sniper-rifle accurate steering is a particular highlight, though the too-thick leather-covered rim of the M40i's steering wheel dilutes the effect.
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Chubby-feeling steering wheel aside, there's little to complain about in the Z4 M40i's cockpit. The seats are excellent, the driving position fine, and the instrument panel artfully blends clarity and quality. Pretty much all of BMW's latest driver-assist and infotainment technology will be available in the sports car, either standard or as options.
The Z4's roof takes only 10 seconds to raise or lower, at any speed up to 50km/h. It looks good when erect, and does a good job of insulating the interior from noise. It does impede over-the-shoulder vision more than a little. Same goes for most other soft-top sports cars.
The new Z4 has a much bigger cargo compartment than before. It's 281 litres roof open or closed, an increase of 50 percent over the previous model with its space-invasive folding hardtop. There's room in the new Z4's boot for a very well-dressed weekend away.
The exterior of the Z4 is the work of young Australian Calvin Luk. The Z4 is his third design into production, following the X1 and X3 SUVs. He can't disguise the fact that he enjoyed working on the new Z4 more than his earlier projects.
"This one's extremely emotional, because there's such a personal connection," he says. BMW's two-seaters were always cars that fascinated him. "I loved the roadsters the most."
Now Luk is living the dream of the BMW-besotted kid who grew up in Sydney yearning to become a car designer. "That first-gen Z4 was a car that inspired I think many kids to become car designers," he says. "So now to own that, and drive that in Munich, then be able to work on the new one, you know, it's such a dream, it really is."
Luk drove his own car to an event that marked the start of designing the new Z4. "To kick off the project we actually had a really fun day driving old Z cars. We drove the Z1 around, Z3, Z8. I drove my Z4, as well, to the meet-up."
But BMW's brief to its designers wasn't to look backwards. "There is a subtle nod to past Z cars," says Luk of the new Z4, "but the overall push was to look forward."
"This car is really diving to the front. It's really sort of attacking the road." It's an effect that springs from the subtly twisting lines emerging from the air breather aft of the front wheelarch. This "drives the whole sculpture" according to Luk, at the same time as giving the new Z4 a visual identity that's distinct from earlier models.
Still, Luk says there's a little of BMW's 2000 Z8 in the new Z4. "On the front end you see that the lights are pretty high up, and the kidney grilles are low and wide," he explains, holding up a model of the Z8 to illustrate the point, then switching to a sketch of the Z4. "And that's the same case here, in a very different sort of execution." He also admits that the mesh grille of the pre-WW2 328 Mille Miglia racer provided inspiration for the three-dimensional honeycomb grille-fill of the new Z4.
Throughout the video call interview with Luk, the young Aussie bubbles with enthusiasm. Sports cars are like that. Designing them, driving them, dreaming about them makes life more, well, lively...
THE WHEELS VERDICT
Welcome back Z4! After a two-year break from proper soft-top sports car production, the third-generation of BMW's roadster is ready at last. At least in top M40i form (the only variant BMW brought to the international launch in Portugal), the Z4 is an exciting and involving drive. Performance and polish of its drivetrain are outstanding. It's dynamically accomplished, too. Exterior design has character, and the interior is nicely crafted and well equipped.
PLUS: Engine; auto; handling; quick soft-top; useful boot
MINUS: Firm ride in Comfort; too-fat steering wheel; restricted roof-up vision
Model: BMW Z4 M40i
Engine: 2998cc in-line 6, dohc, 24v, turbo
Max power: 250kW at 5000-6500rpm
Max torque: 500Nm at 1600-4500rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Weight: 1610kg (EU kerb)
0-100km/h: 4.6 sec (claimed)
Fuel economy: 7.4L/100km (EU Combined)
Price: $125,000 (estimated)
On sale: Late Q1 2019