Arguably we should only extol the virtues of a BMW we know to be truly better than its rivals. Here the humble Z4 takes on respected drop top rivals of its ilk and era – can it triumph despite being outgunned? Words: Simon Jackson. Photography: Dan Sherwood.
The Acid Test Z4 VS RIVALS
You pick up a copy of Drive-My/BMW-Section to read about BMWs, of that much we can be certain. However, despite the site’s unwavering mission to deliver unbiased verdicts on the marque’s cars both new and old, you might perhaps expect in our writing a certain degree of lean toward our favourite Bavarian brand. We do stress our independence of BMW AG in black and white in every single issue, and yet, as diehard enthusiasts of the brand, it’s likely true that we’d rather see a silver lining in any dark BMW cloud than to paint the cars we love in a bad light – providing a reliable opinion but balancing out any negatives by focusing on positives.
For us all this is made easer given that Drive-My/BMW is not a multi-marque publication, in these pages you won’t see the latest M car going up against its dedicated rivals from other manufacturers such as Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, or Audi (to name but a few) in a head-to-head shoot-out – and that is unlikely to change. Yet this got us thinking…
If we were to pitch a BMW of choice up against its genuine rivals with transparency, honesty and integrity to the fore, ditching any allegiance to BMW, what might the outcome look like? And that’s what gave birth to the somewhat unusual feature you see here, a test in which the humble BMW Z4 must go forth, outgunned by some margin, and considerably cheaper to buy than those with which it will be compared, to do battle. BMW honour, and the integrity of Drive-My site, could well be at stake here…
BMW Z4 E85
The BMW Z4 followed an established format when it was launched on the US market in 2002 ahead of its global launch in 2003. The Z cars of old such as the Z1, Z3 and Z8 had given us a firm idea of what to expect, sure, but in the E85 Roadster the game was moved on – significantly. Addressing several well established issues with the Z3 that came before it, Chris Bangle’s design offered more space and featured a new-design of soft top without a tonneau cover. Thanks to its exceptional rigidity (it was almost three times stiffer than the Z3) and lightweight nature – tipping the scales at 25 kilos less than the equivalent outgoing Z3 despite being a larger vehicle – this two-seater BMW was an excellent performer on the road. The E85 Z4 was unmistakably a driver’s car and a well resolved one at that.
Introduced with two M54 engine options topped by a revered 3.0i, its unmistakable long bonnet is, in this instance, home to the lower ranking 2.5-litre six-cylinder petrol engine producing 192hp. That puts it at a significant power disadvantage in today’s company, more than 40hp down on the Honda and over 80hp adrift of the Porsche – but we’ll get to that soon. Perhaps surprising is the performance on offer from the 2.5-litre M54 engine, punching above its weight. All of the units on offer in the Z4 are already tried and tested options from the E46 and E90 – a bonus then that in this installation then they are free from niggling issues. Most Z4s were specified with the excellent manual gearbox, the ‘sequential’ SMG transmission option being not as good as the SMG 2 from the E46 M3. Furthermore, the Z4 featured electric power steering, run-flat tyres, a manual gearbox (five-speed for 2.5i, six ratios in the 3.0i), and an electric power hood that could be raised or lowered in a respectable 10-seconds flat.
At launch the main criticism of the Z4 was concentrated on its steering system – an electric setup that naturally does not afford the same level of feel as a traditional hydraulic arrangement. Though light and quick lock-to-lock, dare we say most drivers would struggle to notice a problem were they not first alerted to it. The fitment of run-flats caused the usual set of issues, their loss curing a multitude of sins and therefore well advised. A snug interior with advanced ergonomics sits the driver low, fostering hard driving. Zero to 62mph is reached in 7.0-seconds flat, torque (181lb ft) is delivered at 3500rpm which makes it usable without requiring the driver to wring the car’s neck to use the pull of the engine.
BMW Z4 2.5i E85
ENGINE: 2.5-litre front-mounted in-line six
MAX POWER: 192bhp @ 6000rpm
MAX TORQUE: 181lb ft @ 3500rpm
TOP SPEED: 146mph
EMISSIONS: 216g/km (NEDC)
WEIGHT (EU): 1260kg
PRICE NOW: From £3000
A snug interior with advanced ergonomics sits the driver low, fostering hard driving
Nancy Davis – BMW
“I came to my Z4 from a Fiat Barchetta, though I tested an Alfa Romeo Spider before buying the BMW. To me, the Z4 is the perfect blend of performance, style and comfort, wrapped in a totally accessible package I can make the most of everyday, no matter the weather. The seating position is low, which suits me, and there’s a decent amount of luggage space in the boot for weekend getaways, as well as for daily commuting to the office and back.
“I bought the car from its first owner in 2006 and, touch wood, it has served me incredibly well. I’m aware of the quality of Porsche sports cars, not least because my husband drives a 996 generation Porsche 911, but other than tyres and regular servicing, my Z4 hasn’t wanted for anything in fourteen years of ownership. Roof down, open road and the purr of that inline-six – it’s an exciting car to drive.”
PORSCHE BOXSTER S 987
Like the aforementioned Z4, the Boxster in this particular competition was also Porsche’s second consecutive stab at the roadster format. In the same way that the Z4 was a large step forwards in comparison with the Z3, the 987 Boxster was a giant leap from the 986 before it – 80 percent of the car was new. The newly-launched Carrera GT had an infl uence on looks, but the new Boxster of 2004 took more than half of its DNA from the 997 generation Porsche 911. At launch it came with a 240hp 2.7-litre flat-six entry-level offering, and a 3.2-litre S (280hp) engine – the 2.7 came with a 5-speed manual (6-speed optional) while the S featured six ratios as standard – the 5-speed Tiptronic on first-generation cars is best avoided, this was replaced by a PDK (direct shift) automatic in the second generation car (from 2009 on).
Perhaps the best feature of the 987 Boxster roadster, like its Cayman coupé relation, were driving thrills, that’s thanks in no small part to near perfect weight distribution (47 percent front, 53 percent rear) enabled by its mid-engined layout.
Surprisingly practical, everyday usability and driveability allowed the junior 911 to provide a class leading package with handling prowess of particular note. The Boxster’s electrically operated soft top convertible roof could be opened in 12 seconds. The version we have here is the 987 S – capable of reaching 62mph in just 5.5-seconds, its 236lb ft of torque is delivered further up the rev range than the Z4’s at 4700- 6000rpm, but ultimately it’s no slouch at all – despite being the heaviest car here by some margin at 1345kgs.
The styling, engine performance and handling were on point here, then, but what about the rest? As big a part of that perceived leap forward between 986 and 987 Boxster came from the car’s inners. Inside the 987 feels hugely more advanced than the 986 before it, like the Z4 the driving position is low slung – just as it should be in a sports car like this – but the switchgear and ergonomics certainly belie the 987’s age. While not overly lavish, things haven’t dated too badly inside, though potential purchasers should keep in mind that few 987 Boxsters were well specified – in particular the entry-level models, meaning toys are few and far between above and beyond the standard issue Porsche fare such PSM (Porsche Stability Management). That makes this S variant, which naturally comes with a greater specification, all the more desirable.
Porsche Boxster S 987
ENGINE: 3.2-litre mid-mounted flat-six
MAX POWER: 280hp 6200rpm
MAX TORQUE: 236lb ft @ 4700-6000rpm
TOP SPEED: 166mph
EMISSIONS: 248g/km (NEDC)
PRICE NOW: From £10,000
Chris Page – Porsche
“I fancied a change of drop top after Mazda MX-5 ownership. A mate of mine owns a Porsche and suggested I consider the Boxster.
A local car dealer had this 2005
Basalt Black 987 S on display in his showroom and I was blown away by just how much car I could get for my money. As someone who regularly spends weekends away, luggage space was a key concern, but the Boxster’s mid-engine layout affords me decent boot space at the rear as well as at the front.
“I don’t use the car daily, but I have covered more than 18,000- miles in seven years. The manual gearbox and sharp handling have made every one of these miles a joy. It’s not a car you need to drive fast to experience its quality, either. B-roads and tight turns are all that’s required to demonstrate the car’s excellent handling abilities.”
Honda S2000 AP2
The S2000 was Honda’s 50th birthday present to itself, intended to rival the likes of the BMW and Porsche here, it’s no stretch to say that the Japanese brand had a lot to prove in this company of high regard. It’s worth noting that the Honda’s design is in fact the oldest here by a handful of years and that makes it all the more impressive. Launched in 1999 it took the simplistic roadster formula and polished it up to new levels. Honda’s motorsport team assisted in creating the High X-Bone chassis design, eradicating scuttle shake with the somewhat radical monocoque chassis and body proposal crafted from steel. The framework provided the rigidity of a coupé in a roadster body – that was extraordinary at the time. But any conversation about the S2000 must quickly transpose to the subject of its crowning glory – the F20C engine.
Like its rivals here, the S2000 also shuns the use of a turbocharger, opting instead for the naturally aspirated approach – a 241hp 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine revving to 9000rpm runs the show. Despite being two cylinders down on its competition the S2000 boasts more power and torque than the BMW. The 2.0-litre VTEC engine really does sit at the heart of the Honda’s story, though as is the case with all VTEC engines with their variable valve timing, the mill needs to be worked pretty damn hard to extract its full potential. The simple fact is that revving to 9k in every gear won’t suit all drivers. The engine itself is mounted as far back into the ‘bay as possible, making this something of a front/mid-engined prospect in reality, assisting weight distribution and handling. All the same S2000s fast developed a fierce reputation for biting the unsuspecting. I recall the story of a colleague putting an early press car backwards into a ditch out of a slippery roundabout. His passenger ran to the nearest petrol station for a disposable camera in order to capture his shame for posterity. How did we survive in a world without smartphones? Later S2000s were gifted rear-end revisions to make handling more user-friendly.
The customary dash from a standstill to 62mph is achieved in 6.2-seconds by the Honda, making this the second quickest car here. Shifting through its six-speed gate is recorded in automotive folklore as being one of life’s simple pleasures. But the interior is not this car’s strong suit for it does little to dispel the myth about Japanese cars using large swathes of plastic – there’s nothing to rival our two premium alternatives here in this regard.
The car in our pictures is a UK-only Edition 100 model, released to mark the end of S2000 production in 2009. Like its namesakes, chassis number 36 gets a removable hardtop, Graphite Grey wheels, Black badging and numbered kick plates together with a Red and Black interior plus a unique gearknob.
Honda S2000 AP2
ENGINE: 2.0-litre front/mid-mounted four-cylinder
MAX POWER: 2241hp @ 8300rpm
MAX TORQUE: 208lb ft @ 7500rpm
TOP SPEED: 150mph
EMISSIONS: 235g/km (NEDC)
PRICE NOW: From £6000
Neil Furber – Honda
“I bought my second-generation S2000 in 2010 after enjoyable time spent in a Mazda MX-5. The Honda had always excited me and ownership has been everything I’d hoped for and much more. No matter what might come and go from my driveway over the coming years, the Honda will remain my ‘forever car’.
“I honestly believe it offers all the performance you’d ever expect from a road-going sports car, but you need to learn how to extract the best from the VTEC engine, which involves driving in the upper rev range and not being afraid to go close to the redline. The model also impresses with its superb gear shifting and it is happy to be used in calmer driving conditions. The Honda is certainly less forgiving than an MX-5, but it’s far more rewarding.”
Admittedly this is rather unusual territory for Drive-My and some might argue an unfair fight. Compared with the 987 Boxster S both the BMW and Honda run a sizable power deficit, indeed they might be better equipped were they up against the entry-level 240hp 2.7-litre 987 Boxster. So, we’ll have to make some allowances here. While the Porsche is undoubtedly the most refined of the three, with its fi nely balanced chassis, sonorous flat-six engine and premium interior, it is also by far the most expensive option with prices starting at no less than £10,000 for the S model, £8000 for a 2.7-litre model. Nonetheless it is an impressive package, one that is tough to ignore.
The Honda certainly punches above its weight in the real world. Its Jekyll and Hyde engine will split opinion, not everyone will want to scream around on the redline but those who do will be rewarded handsomely. As an overall package the car hasn’t aged as nicely as its rivals in our opinion, the touch points and materials let it down as, while hard wearing, they lack a premium feel in this company. Having said that one of these could be yours for £6000, which starts to put the S2000’s argument into focus. However, we can’t escape the feeling that, of this trio, the Honda’s appeal is likely to be limited to those searching for a truly focused driving machine.
Finally, to the BMW. The least powerful car here, and the cheapest option (£3000 buys you an early Z4 these days), it was always going to be the underdog. And yet it offers the premium feel of the Porsche and the reliability of the Honda. Its driving experience might be lacking the balanced finesse of the Porsche on a granular level, its engine might not be quite as rewarding as that screaming VTEC mill when you strike it just right, but it offers a best of both worlds (or the best of three worlds) most of the time. It’s the option best occupying a happy medium, sitting somewhere in the middle of these two opponents. We promised an unbiased opinion and we stand by that – our money would be spent on the BMW, what about yours?
I would say that ride quality is best on the Boxster, and it has the best engine (assuming it stays together), the Z4 only really flows with the bigger engines – the 3-litre is a good drive but urban wisdom says it is not easy to find an E85 with that engine.
The Honda is a great all-rounder with very high build quality, but the first ones were famously nervous. On a track they are amazing and run an older Porsche 911 very hard, but you need the space to unleash those revs: the power is high up so they are not as easy to click with as a Boxster S or a Z4 on a thrash across the Peaks.
All three cars here offer the roof down sensation of air and speed that the bikers amongst us love: the Boxster shows its class with every single interaction whereas the S2000 shows its class in a surprising way (“I’m surprised that car feels so good given it’s a Honda” etc). The BMW falls behind both in terms of interior feel I think…
If one had ten grand to spend on a roadster to mothball, the Honda would get it. Low mileage examples start at £8000 and you are not buying much of a Boxster for that. If you wanted a car for weekend drives – wife or no wife – then it’s the Z4, it is just visceral and a tight one feels like a soft top E36 M3, but with 200 kilos less attached to the throttle. If I was buying a daily driver with no dogs or kids to move, it’d be a Boxster for sure so long as the engine is good.
If one of our triumvirate could be described as scalpel-sharp it’s the Porsche Boxster. Its flat-six is plenty powerful and becomes noticeably more muscular from about 4000rpm, but it’s the Boxster’s innate handling delicacy and steering precision that really impresses. It has a natural tendency to understeer but its cornering attitude can be finely honed and balanced by the throttle making it an innately satisfying driver’s car.
However, if your version of automotive nirvana contains a naturally aspirated screamer allied to one of the slickest six-speed manuals ever created then the Honda S2000 could be for you. The engine’s a gem with a stratospheric redline, but if you want to enjoy the performance you really need to get it singing – it is very flat below 5000rpm. The flip side of the coin is its slightly lacklustre steering that’s lacking in precision, and a rear end that can be a little wayward at the limit – especially in the earlier cars.
To extract the best from the BMW Z4 you need to avoid the largest alloys and ditch the runflat rubber, and if you do just that you’ll find a sweet riding Roadster that’s also very rewarding to drive. The sonorous straight-six in the Z4 is a peach and, while the electric power steering is lacking in feel, it is both precise and direct. It offers a great handling balance with excellent grip and can cover ground at a quite indecent pace while remaining composed at the limit.