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Car reviews - BMW - Z4 - sDrive35is

Our Opinion

We like
Strong engine, great exhaust note, stand-out styling, fast-shifting gearbox
Room for improvement
Handling not as sharp as expected, electric-assisted steering still lacks feel, suspension/body doesn’t cope well with bumpy roads

20 Aug 2010

THE fact that the Z4 sDrive35is can match an M3 in straight line sprint sets up a natural expectation that it will be similar in other ways.

That turns out not to be. Not that the hot Z4 is a bad car it just isn’t an M car.

It is also a different proposition to the Z4 M of the previous generation, which shared the red-hot M3 engine, hydraulic steering (not electric) and regular tyres (not run-flats).

This time around there will be no M version of the Z4 the sDrive35is is as extreme as it gets.

The new hot Z4 has fantastically bold styling, tonnes of torque and sounds great, but doesn’t come close to matching the tremendous handling, the super-sharp steering and the overall terrific balance of the M3.

So let’s forget any M cars and just consider the Z4 sDrive35is as a slightly more powerful version of the Z4, slotting in above the sDrive35i.

It is easy to be confused by BMW’s ridiculous naming system. Apparently the sDrive part of the title means that the vehicle is rear-drive and differentiates these models from the xDrive all-wheel-drives.

The sDrive35i model is similar to the new sDrive35is, but the latter model gets the more potent engine tune, minor interior and exterior tweaks and the M division adaptive damping.

You’d have to be a bit of a tragic to pick this from the next Z4 model down, as then only clues are different wheels, different grille pattern, a lower lip for the front bumper and a plastic diffuser at the bottom of the rear bumper.

That is no big deal though, because many people believe the Z4 already looks fantastic – so dramatic, with its wild lines and almost cartoon-like silhouette.

The BMW roadster looks even more expensive than it is, which is quite something.

BMW has lifted the interior slightly with the aluminium trim, but it was already a great place to be. The design has a classy look, treading the line between classic and modern styles.

Things like the leather-trimmed dash and centre console, the leather sports seats (with heating function) and the premium satellite navigation all make it clear you are driving a luxury car.

The hot Z4 also has a chunky sports steering wheel, which is spoiled by chunky chrome-finished plastic paddles that could well feature on a Logitech steering with a PlayStation3.

The main thing that will attract buyers to this version of the Z4 is the engine and the suspension/handling.

How do they stack up? Your view on the suspension/handling will be affected by where you are driving and what you expect from it.

And the engine? Well, it is brilliant.

It might be being phased out, but there is certainly nothing wrong with it.

The twin turbo six is not only super-smooth, but churns out all the urge you could ask for all the way through the rev range.

It is not a low-down turbo unit that runs out of puff higher up in the rev range. There is still lots of punch on offer past 6000rpm, so it is a lot of fun to play with.

BMW says the overboost function, which frees up an extra 50Nm of torque for short bursts, is especially effective from 80km/h to past 100km/h and that seems to be the case.

The Z4 certainly had no problem dispatching slower traffic on the national launch in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland yesterday.

BMW has delivered on the promise that this Z4 will sound sporty, sounding throaty all the time, but drop the metal roof and your ears are treated to a wonderful note.

The sound of the last generation Z4 M could send a tingle through your body with its naturally aspirated mixture of intake rush and exhaust howl. This Z4 has a more lazy sound, dominated by an exhaust tone that is deep and meaty.

It also emits a sporty sound with each gear change (in the Sport modes), a kind of pop that sounds like excess fuel being burned.

The dual-clutch transmission worked extremely well in automatic mode on our drive program. That said, these systems can sometimes get caught out in stop-start traffic, of which we naturally didn’t experience much on our drive.

It is also a treat in manual mode, especially when Sport or Sport Plus is selected, making the transmission shift faster as well as altering the suspension, firming up the steering and sharpening the throttle response.

Despite delivering super-fast shifts, those gearshift paddles are not intuitive, and have been replaced on other BMW models.

The Z4’s suspension can work well, especially around town and on relatively good surfaces. In Normal mode, the set-up provides a great level of comfort, especially around town traffic.

The suspension and run-flat tyres (with hard tyre walls) don’t fare as well on bumpy country roads. The car can be upset by some imperfect surfaces and deal well with others.

Its body flex, which is more noticeable with the roof off, does not help as it bops around over bumpy roads.

A fair degree of body roll is evident, even in Sport Plus mode, which also eats into your confidence in the bends. The front of the Z4 pushed on a bit, losing front end grip earlier than expected.

The design of the Z4, where the driver sits well back and low down, staring out over a long bonnet, also means the front corners of the car are difficult to ascertain.

The electric steering doesn’t help because it doesn’t really offer much feel and you feel a bit detached from the action.

This is not to say the Z4 isn’t fun to drive, it just isn’t all that great when pushed hard.

It is still fun just soaking up the sun while enjoying the engine’s performance.

But given the choice between a Porsche Boxter S, a Mercedes SLK 350 and the BMW for a dash along a winding bumpy road, we would snatch the Porsche keys in an instant and probably even take the Mercedes next.

That said, if we were doing most of our driving in the city and wanted to stand-out and go for the occasional blast in the country, the Z4 sDrive35is would suddenly appear a lot better.

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