Car reviews - BMW - Z4 - range
Performance, handling, refinement, comfort, iDrive Version 7.0, design, dash layout
Room for improvement
Fussy styling, Apple CarPlay costs extra after first year, still not supernaturally tactile or thrilling like a Boxster – or an MX-5
BMW re-enters the world of roadsters with its all-new – and much improved – Z4
10 May 2019
After a three-year hiatus in Australia, the BMW Z4 is back, attempting to breathe in some much-needed life into the moribund premium two-seater roadster market that the company helped to reinvent in the mid-’90s with the patchy original Z3.
Sharing much with latest 3 Series, and co-developed with Toyota’s new Supra, expectations are high for the classy newcomer, as it takes on a broad spectrum of rivals that include the Audi TT, Porsche Boxster and Alpine A110.
BMW and roadsters. Has it ever gone to plan?
The beautiful 328 of 1936 basked in racing glory but, well, the timing...
The exquisite 507 of 20 years later sold so poorly it almost sent the then obscure company to the wall.
When launched in 1989, the plastic Z1 with drop-down doors attracted much attention but only really appealed to kooky eccentrics.
The 1995 Z3 sold strongly but was ridiculed as too gutless and soft – the unhinged M Coupe/Roadster excepted.
And two generations of the 21st Century Z4 – though massively improved – were neither sharp enough to keep up with Boxsters and MX-5s nor refined enough to attract Audi TT and Mercedes SLK/SLC buyers seeking a grand tourer.
If nothing else, the propeller brand’s small ragtops certainly moved to the beat of their own drum.
So, how does the 2019 G29 Z4 shape up?
BMW appears to be moving in the right direction in terms of design, which – though fussy to some in the detailing – delivers on stance, proportion and presence.
Inside, things have really taken a big leap forward – even in the least expensive variant, the 20i, courtesy of a harmonious and inviting dashboard that’s as crisp and modern as those sharp exterior edges, yet without short-changing on practicality.
With familiarisation, the multimedia screen and iDrive controller work as well as they look.
What’s more, material and build quality are commensurate with the brand, there’s sufficient space and storage for everyday commuting, noise levels are commendably low, buffeting with the roof and windows down is also kept to a minimum, the seats are enveloping and supportive, and, best of all, the driving position is low, cosseting and anticipatory.
Which is what you want in a roadster, right?
We’re unsure about the aesthetics of the hexagonal digital instrumentation, which suits the 3 Series sedan better than a racy two-seater convertible, and left us longing for the elegant simplicity of an analogue pair of dials.
But, otherwise, the latest Z4’s warm, comfortable cabin is as cohesive as it is opulent. Equipment levels are almost generous. And the boot is surprisingly capacious for something so compact.
All three powertrain choices were driven at length on rural roads heading up from Melbourne to central Victoria, and all offer surprisingly different personalities that help justify the $20K-apiece gap dividing them.
The 145kW/320Nm 20i is smooth and eager from the moment the accelerator pedal is pressed, no small thanks to ZF’s always-alert eight-speed auto, but does need a fairly determined right-foot flex, the gear shifter pushed to the left into Drive Sport, and Sport mode activated for it to overcome its substantial mass to really hustle along.
The powertrain sings and zings as the revs soar north of 6000rpm, adding a further sense of spirited determination. In isolation, this all ought to be enough for most Z4 buyers.
Except… the 190kW/400Nm 30i with a tuned version of the 20i’s 2.0-litre turbo is altogether punchier as well as perkier right from the get-go, and substantially more responsive in the mid ranges, to feel like a significantly speedier machine across the whole performance spectrum.
Out on the country roads, there’s the instant shove you want in order to power your way out of places that the entry-level variant simply cannot match.
Yet neither four-pot turbo can match the machined, mellifluous muscle of the BMW inline six that’s been breathed upon by the M Division magicians.
Also using forced induction to help keep things moving quickly, the 250kW/500Nm M40i is rousingly fast off the line, breaking rear-end traction in our wet conditions with utter ease, while urgently racing towards redline in no time at all.
This is the Z4 with the oomph and action to really deliver on the BMW roadster promise. It is exceptionally quick point-to-point. Real Boxster-bothering bang.
But can the all-new CHAR chassis keep up with the Porsches of this world once the turns and tight twisties start?
Very likely and most probably, we say at this point, thanks in part to sharp steering that’s as precise as it is fast and handling balance and poise that’s both entertainingly agile and reassuringly planted at speed.
This is particularly so in the 30i, which is a handy 130kg lighter than the M40i but with most of the latter’s M Division tuning for crisper cornering alacrity and a tellingly less nose-heavy feel.
Furthermore, the Z4’s unflinching roadholding grip can be prised loose if you’re game enough to dial down the traction assistance, with some real tail-out fun shenanigans – though it’s worth mentioning that all the Z4s we drove were fitted with the optional electronic M Sport limited-slip diff (it’s only standard in the M40i), adding to the pleasure.
Note, too, that the Bimmer’s brakes wash away excess velocities with effortless, welcoming ease. That the adaptive dampers (optional on the 20i) dealt so deftly with road bumps and ruts, for a comfy and relatively peaceful ride, reveals a chassis that’s almost as refined as the engines and interior.
Nobody could ever say that about the previous iterations.
So far, so good. The latest Z4’s talents now clearly extend to include everything from newfound athleticism to luxury refinement. Mercedes and Audi had better start panicking.
But has the almost otherworldly dynamic tactility and lightness of touch that makes the Boxster and MX-5 feel like they’re an extension of your own body exist in the BMW roadster?
No. Not even close.
The steering is a tad too muted in feedback, there’s too much weight and the whole car seems just too wide for that level of dynamic delicacy.
In other words, the Z4 still feels like a shorter, lighter sedan-based two-seater convertible – and one of the best to boot too, it must be said – rather than a precision instrument that defines the world’s best sportscars.
In BMW’s defence, providing the G29 with a broader bandwidth of talent than all of its mass-production predecessors was clearly the goal here, so in that light, the latest Z4 offers everything a buyer of a luxury two-seater roadster could desire.
There are no duds in the range while spending more will certainly net you more. The M40i is quite the compelling experience.
Seems things have finally gone to plan for the Bavarians after all.
Model release date: 1 May 2019
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