First and foremost, the BMW Z4 is a blast to drive, with sharp handling that is the match for anything on the road. Yet the ride is compliant in base models. The Sport Package option sharpens handling further, though at the expense of ride quality.
The Z4 comes as either a traditional roadster with a convertible cloth top or as a hardtop coupe with a graceful fastback body and a larger cargo area. The Z4 Roadsters offer manual and power soft tops, and both are easy to operate. Inside the Z4 it's comfortable and everything is well-assembled though there is not a lot of places for belongings.
The Z4 is powered by a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engines provide smooth, ample power. It comes in two states of tune, the 3.0i and the more powerful 3.0si.
The high-performance M Coupe and M Roadster versions of the Z4 boast even more power and sharper handling. They are exciting to drive, though they can become harsh on rough roads.
The daring styling introduced with the 2003 Z4 was mildly updated for 2006, when BMW introduced new engine choices, the hatchback coupe, and a high-performance M model. Changes since have been minimal. For 2008, 18-inch wheels come on all Sport Package models.
BMW Z4 3.0i Roadster ($36,400); 3.0si Coupe ($40,400), 3.0si Roadster ($42,400); M Coupe ($50,400), M Roadster ($52,400)
Despite the lukewarm reaction to the roadster, the coupe drew universal praise for its sleek lines when it followed in 2006. Drive a Z4 roadster today and few will notice. Drive a Z4 coupe and you're certain to get the thumb's up from admiring onlookers.
With either body style, the hood is stylishly long, the deck is notably short and uplifted, and the sides look like a cake created by a pastry chef who got carried away with his icing spatula. It's convex playing off concave, according to BMW. The nose is quite attractive, unfortunately ruined by the license plate smack-dab in the middle of it all. The front air dam offers little ground clearance, not enough to clear a standard sidewalk curb, so be careful when head-in parking. The traditional BMW twin kidney grille and the exotic headlamps work well together. The fenders are smoothly bulged, and BMW's various wheel choices look terrific.
The coupe's roofline flows into the tail with muscular grace. The center of the roof is recessed to hint at a twin cockpit in proper sports car fashion. Coupled with the Z4's already low and wide stance, there's no mistaking it: This car is sexy.
The roadster's two roll bars are covered by gray plastic that has a seam and, unfortunately, looks cheap. The plastic disguises what must be sturdy function; the bars are fixed, and they are strengthened by being attached to a common bulkhead. The Z4 roadster has earned a five-star rollover rating from the federal government (NHTSA).
Once inside, however, you are surrounded by BMW solidity and style. The door closes with a thunk and the interior materials are sturdy and attractive. The simple dash layout places all controls at your fingertips. While any Z4 with leather upholstery can be outfitted with wood trim for no extra cost, some may prefer the real brushed aluminum trim that's standard in more up-level Z4s. It seems sportier.
The seats are excellent. Contoured for sporty driving, they also offer long-trip comfort. We did some hard cornering, and appreciated the pad against the transmission tunnel for that body-contact spot. We wish there were a similar pad for the left knee against the door, but there's a good dead pedal for support.
The aluminum-spoke steering wheel is nice, an appropriate size for spirited cornering, and has buttons for the sound system and cruise control. The optional on-board computer provides information through a digital readout, your choice among temperature, fuel mileage, average speed since the last setting, or miles to empty. The latter is the only one that means much.
Unfortunately, BMW has skimped on storage space for small items. There's a decent-sized compartment between the seatbacks, but it's hard to safely access while driving because you need to either swivel in your seat or be double-jointed. BMW provides small door pockets and an ashtray-sized cubby in front of the shifter. For those who want more storage possibilities, four tight nets for maps and papers come with the Premium package.
The Z4 coupe's body styling is more than just attractive. Its hatchback design allows for 12.0 cubic feet of cargo volume, a little less than an average midsize sedan. So, yes, you can load the clubs in back and drive out to the golf course, looking for twisty roads along the way. Unfortunately, you lose almost 2 cubic feet when you deploy the security cover. And there is one other drawback to the coupe body: The rear roof pillars create a large blind spot to the right rear. But then the blind spot is bigger in the roadster when the top is up.
Coupes offer a relatively quiet cabin. The engines are subdued at normal driving speeds, and only the M's high-performance unit gets very loud under heavy acceleration. Wind noise is well checked, but road noise is noticeable.
In the roadster, wind-buffeting with the top down isn't a problem, even at high speeds. With the top up, the Z4 is quiet for a sports car. With it down, of course, you are susceptible to the sounds of your surroundings.
Our Z4 3.0si coupe was equipped with the optional Sport package, which adds a firmer suspension, a 0.6-inch lower ride height, 18-inch run-flat tires instead of standard 17s, and a Dynamic Driving Control (Sport) console button.
The 3.0si's 24-valve inline-6 is bliss, crooning its way into your heart. With 255 horsepower, it's spritely away from a stop, but it really shines at higher revs. Making that pass at 65 mph is a piece of cake and it usually doesn't even require a downshift. The 3.0si is capable of a 5.6-secoond 0 to 60 mph sprint. Hitting the Dynamic Driving Control's Sport button quickens throttle response, making the Z4 even more responsive.
The 3.2-liter engine in the M models has similar characteristics, but it makes a more gravelly sound. It doesn't knock you back in your seat off the line, but it does build power with confidence and has more performance potential than its 3.0-liter counterparts. A Z4 M is capable of a 4.9-second 0-60 run.
We haven't driven a Z4 with the base engine.
The six-speed manual gearbox is a pleasure to operate with any engine. M models have shorter, sportier gearshift throws, but all manual-equipped Z4s provide silky-smooth shifts. With the Sport package, hitting the Sport button can cause the engine to wind up, then bog, especially when the engine is cold. We've experienced this minor annoyance with other manual-shift BMWs. It can be rectified by letting the car warm up or applying more precise throttle pressure.
Any Z4 grips the road like a shy toddler clings to its parents on the first day of preschool. The body remains flat in corners. The only thing making you lean one way or the other is the inertia brought about by speeding up instead of slowing down for turns. Steering is quick, weighty, and precise. The car goes exactly where you put it. In a Z4, clover-leaf on-ramps are your best friends. Coupes are rock-solid, and we detected little, if any, cowl shake in the roadsters.
We had an opportunity to drive both the 3.0si coupe and M roadster on a racetrack, and we couldn't have been more pleased. In a high-speed environment, the steering feel was reassuring, the grip was tenacious, and the car was steady at high speeds. The vented disc brakes, with ABS, front-rear proportioning and electronic brake assist, were typically BMW-brilliant. We managed to heat them up, but they only smelled, they didn't fade. The Z4 has more handling capability than 99.9 percent of its owners will ever use.
Supreme handling usually comes with a ride penalty. While that's not the case for base models with their 17-inch wheels, the sport suspensions on the M and Sport Package 3-liters are not smooth cruisers. While these suspensions iron out small road imperfections, broken or uneven pavement causes a lot of up-and-down motions, and sharp bumps can jolt. We suggest taking an M or Sport Package 3.0 out on the bumpiest roads you normally encounter before you buy. If you live in California, this might not be a problem, but Midwesterners might find they prefer the softer settings of a base model.
With the manual transmission, the 3.0i and 3.0si are rated at 18 mpg city and 28 highway; with the automatic they get 19/28. The M model has an EPA fuel economy rating of 16/24 mpg and is subject to a $1,000 Gas-Guzzler tax. All Z4s use premium-grade fuel.
The BMW Z4 is one of the finest sports cars on the market. It offers the open-air fun of a roadster as well as the rigidity and utility of a hatchback coupe. Models range from a fun and affordable roadster to an all-out high-performance sports car. If you're shopping for a second car that can provide some weekend excitement, make sure to put the Z4 on your list.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses reported from the Columbia River Gorge; with Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.