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    Second Thoughts / Bidding a fond farewell to the Z4

    The latest generation Z4 has quietly ended production but will the history books look kindly on the sexy Roadster? Time for a re-evaluation perhaps… Words: Bob Harper. Photography: Gus Gregory.

    A fond farewell to the misunderstood E89 generation Z4.

    Over the years BMW’s Zed cars have had a little bit of a rocky relationship with the motoring press and while those actually buying BMW’s range of Roadsters have always seemed very keen on them the somewhat less than glowing press reports have tainted the reputation of many a Zed. It started so well, too, with the now iconic Z1 – a bespoke machine that looked like no other BMW – before or since – and while it might have been a limited production test bed for BMW’s Technik department it was met with almost universal praise. Those dropdown doors were pretty neat and its chassis was an absolute revelation and more or less the only mutterings from the press were directed at the fact that the chassis could cope with far more power than the E30 325i’s engine could muster.

    In a way, perhaps, the Z1 set the tone for subsequent views on BMW Zeds – it set a pretty high bar for the cars that were to follow. The Z3 that arrived in the mid-1990s had an inordinately long gestation period and when it did arrive it didn’t receive universal praise. Sure, it looked good, but after the Z1’s stunning underpinnings the Z3 made do with an old E30 chassis and initially there was only a relatively wheezy four-cylinder engine under the bonnet. Owners absolutely loved the Z3, the press on the other hand were generally less kind, and with machinery like Mazda’s MX-5 showing what could be achieved with a cheeky little Roadster the Z3 looked and felt a little old hat.

    All that was to change with the Z4 though. It hit the streets in 2003 and must be one of the finest examples of Chris Bangle’s ‘flame-surfacing’ school of design. It still looks pretty fresh today and in rangetopping 3.0i launch form it was also pretty rapid.

    There were some mixed messages from #BMW at its launch, though, particularly the assertion that there would be no Coupé, M model or four-cylinder Z4s (all subsequently arrived in the showrooms), and while the Z4 might have had all the right ingredients it was almost as if BMW had got the blend just a little off. Don’t get me wrong – it was a fine car and I spent many happy hours at the wheel of the E85 generation of Z4 – but there was always a thorn in the side of the Z4 as it was Porsche Boxster-shaped.

    The two cars were natural rivals even if Stuttgart’s offing was a little more expensive, but in terms of driving dynamics the Boxster had the BMW licked.

    Which brings us to the most recent Zed, the E89 Roadster you can see here, and despite the fact that it still looks fresh and modern and very pretty to my eyes it’s already ended its production run. How did that happen? It seems like only yesterday that it was being launched under a retractable folding hard-top fanfare. Yes, that was perhaps the biggest news for the E89 Z4 – no longer would it have a simple fabric hood – instead featuring a Mercedes SLK-esque folding hard-top. And it was the buyer of the SLK and the Audi TT that were the new Z4’s target audience with BMW aiming to produce a slightly less sporting but more refined Roadster – it was what its customers wanted, said BMW, after consulting with buyers of the previous generation of Z4. If you read between the lines of the press pack it was almost as if BMW was saying that it had tried to build a Boxster-beater, discovered it couldn’t so it went for a different demographic with its next Z4.

    Initially there were three models to choose from, all under the sDrive banner – 23i, 30i and 35i – with the two former models using different versions of BMW’s sublime naturally-aspirated 3.0-litre straight-six while the 35i packed a 306hp turbocharged punch from its 335i-derived powerplant. As with the E85 BMW was adamant that there would be no four-cylinder model, no coupé and no M Power model. This time it kept good on its promise on two out of three of those pledges as an four-pot did eventually arrive as BMW moved away from the naturally aspirated ‘six to turbocharged ‘fours.

    Having said there was no M model, the machine we have in front of us here today was as close as BMW came to endowing the Zed with M Power as this is the range-topping 35iS that made its debut in 2010. It was tantalisingly close to being an M as it featured the 340hp engine from the 1M Coupé coupled to a DCT transmission and blistering straightline grunt – 0-62mph was knocked off in a very M-like 4.8 seconds. Its vital stats and almost-an-Mpowerplant seduced me into thinking this would be a real ripsnorting performer but when I returned from driving the 35iS for the very first time I felt that while the engine and drivetrain were sublime there was definitely something missing in the chassis stakes. Time for a revaluation then.

    I’ll make no bones about the fact that I love the way the Z4 looks – sharp styling, classic BMW Roadster proportions and bucket loads of presence. The front end has something of a Great White shark about it, making the previous model look soft and apologetic. It also looks good with the roof in place as it reaches far back along the rear deck to almost give it a coupé silhouette.

    Inside, the premium quality feel goes a step further with excellent materials and superb fit and finish. There are some pleasant swoops and shapes to the dash and centre console while the design is modern, fresh and ergonomically sound. As you’d expect from a BMW, the minor controls all work very well with a deliberate action, although it has to be said that the heating and ventilation controls take a little getting used to as they’re unlike just about any other BMW you’d care to mention with their round dials and combination of rotary knobs and push buttons.

    There’s significantly more room in this model than the E85 generation and there’s a modicum of more space for oddments, too. Overall, it’s a fine cabin, a great place in which to spend time, and perfectly in tune with the Z4’s new found touring credentials.

    Whereas the previous model was stiffly sprung and edgy when driven hard, this generation was engineered to offer a much more refined driving experience. It was a step change that sat very well with the more spacious cabin and larger dimensions, confirming BMW had GT, rather than more overtly sporting aspirations for this car. That would explain the comfortable ride, the engine pulling barely 2500rpm at motorway speeds and the clever folding hard-top roof. That roof is a two-piece unit, operated electrohydraulically in 20 seconds and while it offers great all-season use it did significantly eat a big chunk of the generous boot space with it stowed.

    As a cruiser the Z4 really was an excellent piece of kit but despite going softer with the E89, BMW still very much talked about this car in sporting terms so we need to see what happens when you tackle some challenging roads.

    Build the pace up gently. The roof is down and the sun is beaming. It might be cold outside but with the heater and bum-warmers cranked up the cockpit is nice and snug. With each up-change of the dual-clutch gearbox, the exhaust blasts out a glorious parp, howling as the revs rise. At six-tenths pace and with those factors in place, the Z4 makes for an ideal companion, a fine tool for reminding yourself of the joys of relaxed motoring.

    The Z4 has both Adaptive M Sport suspension and #Dynamic-Drive control and we opt for Sport Plus and manual mode on the #DCT ‘box for a spirited drive. On tricky roads, the steering wheel paddles are very welcome indeed, allowing you to change gear without taking your hands off the wheel. Ultimately, they help you to concentrate on lines, braking points and turn-in speeds, allowing you to carry more pace than a Hpattern manual would. The speed of the changes both up and down the ‘box also allows you to make rapid fire decisions as the corners approach ever faster, so you never find yourself out of the power band. Through the corners the steering takes on a weighting that feels pretty good, allowing you to place the car smartly, but there aren’t quite the levels of feedback we’d like from a truly sporting machine. With that long bonnet slung out in front of you the front end can feel a long way away. Quick direction changes reveal inertia to the front end, which just needs a moment to settle before committing to the next steering input. That makes for a degree of lethargy that inhibits your ultimate pace a touch, and encourages you to back off a little to avoid demanding too much of the car, and to allow you to keep things tidy.

    In full attack mode, the Z4 begins to reveal its mass, with its hefty 1580kg kerb weight causing the body to lurch into corners. There is plenty of grip from the front end though, and the rear will step aside slightly under power to help keep the nose in check through the corner exit. The seats offer plenty of torso support, but the thigh support is lacking. That means you find yourself forcing your knees against the door and centre console, which will have them aching before long.

    This engine is a familiar one, and it suits the Z4 very well. The twin-turbos give it a very useful spread of power and torque, but it’s the lowdown delivery of twist that’s most welcome. It punts the Z4 down a road very quickly indeed from low revs, but doesn’t respond to a hammering like a naturally aspirated unit would. If driven with some care, you can even squeeze close to 30mpg from it.

    Dynamically the Z4 might not be the last word in pin-sharp handling, but that’s almost forgetting that this generation of Z4 was never meant to be an out-and- out sports car. Treat it more in the manner in which #BMW intended as a sporting #Roadster with GT pretensions and you’ll get on far better with the Z4 than if you drive it everywhere with your pants on fire. It doesn’t take long to work out that the Z4 doesn’t respond to a full-on thrashing, so by working it to eight-tenths and by driving smoothly, it flows down the road at impressive pace with composure. Sure, some other cars thrive on those further two-tenths of effort and commitment, and would tackle each corner slightly faster, but they wouldn’t offer anywhere near the same levels of comfort and refinement for the rest of the time.

    If you’re happy to accept that then the Z4 is a stunning piece of kit. It looks utterly beguiling even now after it’s been with us for seven years and with a superb cockpit and build quality it’s an excellent second-hand proposition today. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need to buy the range-topper – great though it is – as if you accept you’re not going to be driving it at ten-tenths the whole time one of the lower-powered machines should do just as well. The four-cylinder cars are good, but we’d probably opt for one of the normally aspirated straight-sixes. Plenty of pace and a stunning soundtrack – what’s not to like? For many buyers the original Z4 used to be too hard, too small and too snappy, the E89 is an altogether more refined Roadster, and offers a depth of talent that wasn’t equalled in its class. The only question that remains is to wonder in which direction BMW will go with the next Z4? We can’t wait to find out.

    THANKS: Vines of Gatwick for the loan of its pristine Z4
    Tel: 01293 611117
    Web: www.vinesofgatwickbmw.co.uk



    TECHNICAL DATA #BMW-E89 / #BMW-Z4-sDrive35iS / #BMW-Z4-sDrive35iS-E89 / #BMW-Z4-E89 / #BMW-Z4 / #BMW / #BMW-Z-Series / #BMW-Z-Series-E89 /

    ENGINE: Straight-six, twin-turbo, 24-valve
    CAPACITY: 2979cc
    MAX POWER: 340hp @ 5900rpm
    MAX TORQUE: 332lb ft @ 1500rpm
    0-62MPH: 4.8 seconds
    TOP SPEED: 155mph (limited)
    ECONOMY: 31.4mpg
    EMISSIONS: 210g/km
    WEIGHT: 1580kg
    PRICE (OTR): £44,220 / $59,250 ( #2010 UK / USA)

    The Z4’s cockpit was excellent although heater controls and electronic handbrake took a little getting used to.

    Working it to eight-tenths and by driving smoothly, it flows down the road at impressive pace with composure.
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