Why we’re running it: The sporting appeal of BMW’s roadster has diminished over generations. We want to find out if it’s back
Life with a BMW Z4: Month 1
A trip to Goodwood highlights the Z4’s strengths – 14th August 2019
I managed to snatch the Z4’s keys for a (mostly) sunny weekend at last month’s Goodwood Festival of Speed. My thinking was that if I was going to be stuck in the festival’s usual morning traffic queues, I’d rather be doing so with the roof down and limitless amounts of vitamin D coursing through me.
As it turned out, I managed to dodge the worst of the snarl-ups so could enjoy the twistier route down and then back from the West Sussex event. In theory, then, this should have been a report where I revel in the latest Z4’s new-found lightness and agility, its rear-wheel-drive balance and its sports car qualities that make the mechanically similar Toyota Supra such a riot.
Instead, I found myself more satisfied with the refinement and comfort it offers. Whether that’s a good thing is up for debate, but to me, it is the Z4’s stand-out quality.
Much of the route from West Berkshire to Goodwood is fast dual carriageway. But the Z4’s design (along with a wind deflector as part of the Comfort Plus package) seems to deflect wind rather well with the windows up, meaning you no longer have to pretend to enjoy long roof-down motorway journeys that seem like a good idea at first.
Listening to music at such speeds is no hardship, either, thanks to the Harman Kardon audio. The US firm tells us the main focus when tuning the system was how it performs with the roof down and its ability to remain clear and crisp even at high volumes reflects that.
Just as impressive is the roof-up serenity. It’s not a Rolls-Royce, but it insulates you from passing trucks and city chaos pretty effectively for a roadster. The downside of this is that a rattle seems to have appeared in either the door or bottom edge of the roof mechanism and the absence of road din is exacerbating it somewhat.
It’s unfortunate, because the rest of the Z4 seems built to last. The interior is a little more minimalist and driver-focused than the company’s larger models but is no less plush, comfortable and tech-laden. My 6ft 2in frame is often a bit much for some two-seat roadsters. But there’s ample head and, particularly, leg room for me to stretch out and, unlike in a Mazda MX-5, settle down for whatever the A3 and M3 could throw at me. A couple of large weekend bags will sit with space to spare in the boot, too.
The weekend behind the wheel also uncovered the merits of our sDrive 30i’s four-cylinder engine. A detuned version of the unit found in the new BMW M135i, it so far seems to provide the perfect middle ground between performance, real-world efficiency and cost. A more hurried jaunt down to Goodwood saw mpg in the mid-30s, but that was coaxed up to and beyond 40 on the more leisurely, roof-down cruise back.
I bemoan the loss of more mainstream six-pot engine options as much as anyone, but in a car as nimble as the Z4, the lighter front end is welcome – and the four-pot doesn’t sound too bad when extended. A comparison between this and the full-fat M40i model would still be welcome, though, to see if its engine character wins out.
Cruising comfort Excellent wind deflection means high speeds with the roof down are still comfortable and the interior is roomy and the seats well shaped.
Rattly door Clunking sound in the door has been noticed by some but not all who’ve driven it. We suspect it’s a quirk of an early production car.
App looks familiar… – 24th July 2019
BMW’s infotainment system in the Z4 doesn’t work with Apple CarPlay, instead requiring you to download a bespoke app. When I plugged in my iPhone lately, it offered to find one in the App Store for me – but came up with two suggestions: BMW’s app and one for the Toyota Supra. It’s a reminder the cars share more than just mechanical components…
An open-top sports car joins our fleet just in time for summer. First stop, rainy Wales – 17th July 2019
Conjure any image of a weekend of carefree coastal cruising in a stylish two-seat soft-top, and it will contrast sharply with the reality I was faced with soon after picking up the keys to our new long-termer: a snaking line of barely moving rush-hour traffic on a busy Friday evening, mixed with flashing overhead gantries warning of accidents and road closures on the M4 ahead. This wasn’t part of the plan…
Said plan was hatched by editor Mark Tisshaw after securing a BMW Z4 for our long-term fleet for the summer. Usually when we have a two-seat sports car on our fleet, its lucky custodian spends much of their working week fielding requests and pleas from colleagues to borrow it for the weekend. So Tisshaw suggested divvying up the weekends the Z4 would be with us among Team Autocar. To get the car for a particular weekend, you just needed to be doing something suitably interesting.
Having driven a prototype version of the fourth-generation Z4 in France last year, I was eager to find out how the finished version compared, so wanted to bag it for the first weekend. That happened to be the date of the Swansea Half Marathon, in my grandmother’s hometown, so I pitched taking the Z4 to South Wales, via my hometown on the coast of Somerset. It was the chance to try the Z4 on motorways and scenic Welsh roads, with a bit of summertime coastal cruising mixed in. The only snag was the need to run 13.1 miles while in Wales – but that was a problem for later, because for now I was at the head of the line for the Z4.
When our testers got their hands on the Z4, they determined it made for a stylish and comfortable cruiser while not quite the driving machine you’d hope for from a BMW sports car. While a little disappointing to hear, it seemed that refined usability of the Z4 might showcase itself better over an extended long-term test. So we opted for the sDrive 30i M Sport spec that perhaps best exemplifies such usage, with its 255bhp 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine.
Our car’s £41,450 base price includes M Sport bodykit, wheels and seats, a black leather interior and the rather stylish San Francisco Red paint. On top were added the £1800 Technology pack (which comes with parking assistant, a head-up display and Harman Kardon audio system), the £1700 Comfort Plus pack (including a heated steering wheel, wind deflector and electric seats) and, perhaps most important, the £1950 M Sport Plus pack (which adds 19in alloys, an M Sport differential and adaptive sport suspension). Add in registration fees, and the on-the-road cost of our Z4 rises to £46,900. Quite a lot for a two-seater, that.
Mind you, it certainly looks the part (few cars I’ve driven lately have drawn as many admiring comments) and you also get a lot more than you did before: this is a substantially bigger car than previous-generation Z4s, as a chance encounter with one in a Swansea car park showed. The extra size is particularly useful when loading a weekend’s worth of stuff into the boot, which rivals that of a family hatch for size.
The cabin is just as spacious and a comfortable place to spend time, reclined in the cosseting leather M Sport driver’s seat. Which is just as well, because it wasn’t that long after settling in and pointing it in the direction of Somerset that things all began to go a bit wrong.
News of the aforementioned M4 closure came just as I was pulling onto it from the A329 (M) near Bracknell (or Barcknell, according to BMW’s sat-nav…). Progress quickly ground to a halt. Thankfully, the road wasn’t shut for long, but the resulting extra traffic meant about an hour of stop/start crawling alongside idling lorries. To keep their exhaust fumes out, I kept the roof closed, and once up to speed, it was impressive how quiet the cabin was. The refinement for a soft-top was hugely impressive.
While Friday night was a slog, a few family visits in Somerset on Saturday morning provided the chance to try the Z4 as nature intended: on country roads with the top down. It confirmed this was a car made for cruising, rather than pushing to the limit: not least because a brief trial of the Sport Plus drive mode proved it to be on the firm side for British roads, even a blast down a smooth section of the M5. More notable was how calm things remained in the cabin with the roof down at speed.
And so on to Wales. Well, eventually. The Highways Agency had decided to shut the Severn Bridge for maintenance, while also closing the M49 access road to the Second Severn Crossing. On a June weekend with plenty of holiday traffic heading south, the inevitable result was more traffic jams.
Still, eventually bridges were crossed, motorways were traversed, and Wales was reached. And it was worth it: few drives around Swansea Bay have been as enjoyable as in a Z4, top down, on a sunny afternoon. Certainly, that was more enjoyable (and less sweaty) than Sunday morning’s run down the same road during the half-marathon, not least because the sun had been replaced by grey cloud and a bracing headwind.
And, this being Wales and all, the rain – and lots of it – arrived just in time for the motorway drive home. The torrential downpour put paid to my plan to really test the Z4’s roof-down refinement by traversing the Second Severn Crossing topless (so to speak), but it showcased a different talent: in miserable conditions a soft-top absolutely wasn’t designed for, the Z4 remained hugely comfortable and assured. As an added bonus, even with my aching legs, the Z4 remained comfortable for another longer-than-anticipated journey.
First impressions, then, are that the new Z4 is a two-seater that requires fewer compromises than many to live with – even when traffic, roadworks and the weather conspire against it.
We’ve got plenty more weekends with the Z4. Hopefully, my colleagues will have more luck and get to try it in the conditions for which it’s really intended. And, if they don’t, I’m already thinking hard of ways to get my name back near the top of the list. Anyone know any good half-marathons in the south of France?
I have vivid memories of the original Z4 3.0i my dad owned for a handful of summers. The fantastic noise made by the straight six led to more than a few top-down drives in less than ideal conditions – something I can’t see the new Z4’s four-pot doing. An open-top BMW should sound as good as it looks – perhaps exhaust tuning and some in-cabin sound augmentation will be enough to have our team braving the elements.
BMW Z4 sDrive30i M Sport specification
Specs: Price New £41,450 Price as tested £46,900 Options Technology package £1800, Comfort Plus package £1700, M Sport Plus package £1950
Test Data: Engine 4-cyls, 1998cc, turbocharged petrol Power 254bhp Torque 295lb ft Kerb weight 1430kg Gearbox 8-spd automatic Top speed 155mph 0-62mph 5.2sec Fuel economy 46mpg CO2 139g/km Faults None Expenses None