Driving delight! The BMW Z roadsters go back 30 years but, as Shane O’ Donoghue discovers, the new Z4 is the most accomplished yet. Photos: Uwe Fischer and Bernhard Limberger.
The weight of expectation is a terrible thing, and BMW’s engineers and designers must feel more intense pressure than ever when they’re tasked with creating a new Z car. The first was the slightly zany, but utterly brilliant Z1 in 1988 (though that was far from the first BMW roadster).
Built in low numbers, the Z1 was succeeded by the Z3, an incredibly successful model that eventually morphed into the first-generation Z4, in 2002. Now, while the previous (second-generation) Z4 won’t go down in history itself as the most polished of BMW offerings, there’s a huge amount of excitement building around the launch of its replacement. Finally, the day has arrived to get behind the wheel of the new G29 Z4 for the first time.
“The keenest of readers will be dying to know if there’s an even faster Z4 M on the cards”
Not only that, but I’ve got the range-topping M40i to sample. Under the bonnet is a newly updated B58 straight-six, with higher fuel-injection pressure, better turbo response and lots more that’s new besides. It’s also been updated for emissions control – including a particulate filter – to conform to the latest legislation. Peak outputs are 340hp at 5,500- 6,500rpm and a stonking 369lb ft of torque, on tap from 1,600rpm all the way around to 4,500rpm.
This engine has never sounded better, either. Even in Comfort mode, on start-up, it makes a rousing noise, it rumbles suggestively at all times, with a distinctly audible turbocharger at low revs. But when you get a chance to explore the upper reaches of the rev counter, it accelerates hard for the (soft) speed limiter at 7,000rpm, with a manic howl that sounds anything but turbocharged.
“This Z4 is a true driver’s car, and it eclipses its predecessor with its involvement and competence”
It helps, of course, that your ears are allowed such unhindered access to the massive exhaust outlets at the back. This engine is reason enough to go for the Z4, making Porsche’s decision to drop six-cylinder powerplants from its 718 Cayman/Boxster range look, well, questionable at best.
Bolted to the back of the BMW’s engine is the latest development of the company’s lauded, eight-speed Steptronic Sport gearbox, with an M-specific calibration, gearchange paddles behind the steering wheel and even a launch-control function. Use that and the Z4 M40i will theoretically hit 62mph from rest in 4.6 seconds. It squirms around a lot in the process, as the wide rear tyres struggle to deal with the considerable torque, but it’s undoubtedly quick. Even more so when you’re on the move. You’re never in doubt that it’s a rear-wheel-drive sports car, though, as a little twitch from the tail is always only an ankle flex away, especially in the wet.
Saying that, with a bit of time at the wheel, you soon realise that the DSC stability and traction control system is incredibly fast-acting, keeping things neat, tidy and safe without any obvious bogging down of the engine. Press the DSC button once and it switches into ‘Traction’ mode, allowing more slip at the rear wheels before the electronics intervene. This is the ideal setting for a ‘spirited’ drive down a challenging road, as it lets the driver have more control over the car’s attitude, without completely removing the safety net.
Nonetheless, the Z4 M40i is hardly an oversteering, tyre-shredding mess when you turn DSC off completely. As standard, it gets an electronically-controlled M Sport differential, the settings of which are mapped to the driving modes. In Comfort, for example, it’s quite benign in operation and yaw (oversteer) is actively dampedout, to make the car easy to handle.
In Sport mode, it’s a little more aggressive while, in Sport Plus, the Z4 becomes distinctly ‘pointy’. That’s because the differential doesn’t only control the division of torque between the two rear wheels when under power; it also can lock to varying degrees at the entry of a corner, helping the nose dart in. Indeed, in Sport Plus mode, it seems that the more you squeeze on the power, the more the front tucks into a bend, giving the Z4 a deliciously agile and sporty character. If you provoke the chassis with a less-smooth application of the throttle, then the rear tyres’ grip is easily overcome, but that limit is clearly telegraphed, and it feels like a manageable transition rather than a knife-edge indicating the start of an underwear-troubling moment. Put simply, this Z4 is a true driver’s car, and it eclipses its predecessor with its involvement and competence. But it’s not only suitable for those with considerable amounts of high-performance driving under their belts.
The rest of the technical make-up supports all this with aplomb. The electric power steering has variable assistance and ratio, so that it feels wonderfully direct when you need it to, without nervousness on the motorway. My only gripe is that the steering wheel rim (lovely looking as it is) is so thick and padded that it insulates your hands from what’s going on underneath to a certain extent. The M Sport brakes have plenty of stopping power, a reassuringly firm pedal and showed no sign of fade after a long and fast downhill section of particularly tortuous road, attacked with enthusiasm. Adaptive M Sport suspension is standard on this model, too, making it 10mm lower than other Z4s, and adding electronically controlled dampers.
The characteristics of these change between the driving modes, as you’d expect, but this BMW also cleverly alters individual dampers in certain situations, for example, when turning into a corner, helping to keep the body movement in check without compromising on bump absorption.
Making all this possible is an incredibly stiff body structure; BMW claims that the Z4 is the most rigid-in-torsion roadster it has ever made, and that’s the key to its mix of everyday comfort and sporting prowess. It must be said that, in Comfort mode, it really is remarkably civilised and comfortable, even over poor road surfaces. Naturally, how quiet the car is depends on whether you have the roof up or down.
BMW has binned the previous Z4’s folding hardtop design for a lighter and simpler fabric option, helping to bring overall weight down, but also lowering the centre of gravity of the car. There is some wind roar over the fabric at higher speeds, when the roof is up, but it’s fairly snug with it in place. Lowered, there’s a remarkable amount of buffeting in the cabin unless you put up the side windows and ensure the (rather flimsy) plastic wind deflector is in place between the stylised roll hoops behind the seats. The new roof also takes up a lot less space. It quietly folds away or rises back into place in just 10 seconds, and the operation can be carried out by holding the switch on the centre console (at speeds of up to 31mph), or by using the key fob when you’re outside the car. It’s black as standard, but can be had in Anthracite with silver effect as an option.
Boot space is unaffected by the roof, at 281 litres, which is some 50% more than in the previous Z4. There’s some additional storage in the cabin, but it’s not extensive. Unusually for a new generation of model, BMW reduced the wheelbase in the Z4 (in the name of agility), while significantly increasing the track widths, so it’s no more spacious than the old car. It is, however, more luxurious and high-tech. You sit low on sports seats covered in supple leather, and there’s plenty of adjustment to the driving position. The chunky new gear shifter sits in a particularly neat cluster of buttons and controls, encompassing the iDrive rotary wheel, the parking brake and roof switches, the driving mode buttons and even the classy metallic engine start/ stop control. This is surrounded by a tactile, recessed slab of textured material with covered storage fore and aft. It looks neat and everything feels good to the touch.
The 2019 BMW Z4 M40i G29 model comes as standard with a version of the new BMW Live Cockpit Professional set-up, this time using 10.25in displays for both the instrument cluster and the centrally-mounted touchscreen. It all looks great, with modern and sharp graphics, quick response to touch on the centre display, and the option to continue to use the excellent rotary controller for everything. It’s worth investing in the head-up display, though, as the instruments aren’t as clear as simple round ones at a glance, as pretty as they are.
Externally, the M40i grabs your attention with its all-square stance and Cerium Grey highlights that mark it out as an M Performance Vehicle (although these are invisible next to the Frozen Grey paintwork of the test car). The test car here also features optional, 19in, bi-colour rims, where 18s are the standard fit on this model (other versions in the range get 17s). All cars feature mixed size tyres, incidentally, indicating that BMW was rather serious about their effect on the Z4’s dynamics.
Just as eye-catching are the ‘air breathers’ behind the front wheels, which are far more prominent and muscular in reality than the photographs here convey. Up front, there’s a new take on the traditional BMW kidney grille, too, featuring an unusual, three-dimensional mesh, while the high-tech LED lights either side stack the lamps vertically, which is quite a departure for BMW. The rear view is less divisive in its appeal, with bulging flanks, big exhaust outlets, a serious-looking aerodynamic diffuser and lovely LED lights.
And while the keenest of readers will be dying to know if there’s an even faster Z4 M on the cards (“I don’t know”, is the truthful answer, but the chassis certainly feels like it could take more power), many more will be wondering if the Z4’s abilities will be available at a more modest entry cost than the £49,050 starting price of the M40i? At the model’s UK launch in March, there will also be two turbocharged four-cylinder versions to choose from, the sDrive20i and sDrive30i. In spite of the naming, they both use variants of the same 2.0-litre petrol engine, producing 197 and 258hp, respectively. The slower car – costing from £36,990 on-the-road – is no slouch, achieving 0-62mph in 6.6 seconds and a top speed of 149mph. The sDrive40i starts at £40,690, needs a 155mph limiter and completes 0-62mph in 5.4 seconds.
Compare the raw stats of the sDrive30i with those of the M40i (also limited to 155mph, remember) and you might draw the conclusion that the range-topper isn’t necessary but, at £49,050, it not only comes with a more alluring soundtrack and extra chassis gubbins, it gets considerably more equipment. So, until I get to test the cheaper cars for myself, I reckon that the M40i really does justify the premium. Regardless, there’s less expectation on the shoulders of the lesser models in the range, but you can be sure they’ll overdeliver, as BMW has developed its most polished Z model yet.
|MODEL||2019 BMW Z4 sDrive20i G29||2019 BMW Z4 sDrive30i G29||2019 BMW Z4 M40i G29|
|TOP SPEED (mph):||149||155||155|
There’s a new take on the traditional BMW kidney grille, featuring an unusual, three-dimensional mesh. The high-tech LED headlights are stacked vertically, which is quite a departure for BMW.
The eye-catching ‘air breathers’ behind the front wheels are far more prominent and muscular in reality than they appear in these photographs.
The 2019 BMW Z4 M40i 29 comes with a version of the new Live Cockpit Professional set-up as standard, using 10.25in displays for both the instrument cluster and the centrally-mounted touchscreen.
BMW has binned the previous Z4’s folding hardtop design in favour of a lighter, simpler fabric option, which saves weight and lowers the car’s centre of gravity.
The chunky new gear shifter sits in a particularly neat cluster of buttons and controls, encompassing the iDrive rotary wheel, the parking brake and roof switches, the driving mode buttons and a classy, metallic engine start/stop control.
Put simply, this 2019 BMW Z4 is a true driver’s car, and it eclipses its predecessor with its involvement and competence.
“The more you squeeze on the power, the more the front tucks into a bend, giving the Z4 a deliciously agile and sporty character”