Despite constant evolution, the BMW Z4 has always been something of an enigma. Quality issues, cabin constraints, questionable styling, not-quite-there handling, dubious tire choices and premium pricing have all bedeviled the sports car—although not all at the same time. Far be it for me to suggest that this lack of synthesis had anything to do with production in South Carolina. But it is strange—and a little reassuring—to know that this next gen Z4 is made in Regensburg, Germany. Less comforting to those of a sporting bent: it’s grown in width, length, wheelbase and weight. Once again, Mazda Miata lovers looking to upgrade need not apply.
The new BMW Z4 sDrive35i’s design is like something I might have doodled as a twelve year old daydreaming in class. Whether the folding hardtop’s up or down, the two seat Bimmer has that long, low-slung phallic look favored by pre-pubescent boys. Now that I’m on the wrong side of 50, I can’t quite get my Camaro thing happening; the new Z4 seems a bit cartoonish, more Roger Rabbit than Speed Racer. While the Z4 is less awkward than the car it replaces, the design is still too exaggerated for its diminutive dimensions.
The new Z4′s interior is more of the same and then some, with lots of sparkly jewelry to distract your eye from the driving chores. It’s elegant, but overdone. I’d advise avoiding the temptation of the Ivory White Nappa Leather interior, which hurts your eyes even as it plunders your pocketbook ($2,050). The dealer had to inspect my pants to make sure I would leave no colors or stains behind on what was rapidly becoming an Ivory Gray interior.
Consistent with BMW’s mission to transform familiar controls into fashionably indecipherable and non-intuitive switchgear, I give you the Z4′s HVAC system. There are a total of four large dials: two separate temperature controls for the driver and passenger, one for fan speed and another air distribution. Now for the punch line. Two of the dials are really buttons organized in a rotary manner. The subliminal message from the engineers in Munich: “You complained so much about iDrive we decided to make things even harder for you. Next time, just love what we give you or we will graft more weird stuff onto and into our designs.”
When I heard that the test vehicle was equipped with a seven-speed dual clutch transmission, I expected to find a tranny similar to the wikkid system on the M3. Instead, I was greeted by the Nokia cell phone automatic transmission stalk now proliferating across the BMW line. While there’s no separate control for the shift times as in the M3, the Z4 sDrive35i’s throttle mapping can be controlled by toggling between normal-sport-really-sport-plus modes. Compared with the M3’s DCT box, the Z4 sDrive35i’s transmission feels decidedly dumbed down. Despite all the power under foot, I never thought I was driving anything more (or less) than an automatic transmission.
Once I got past these effronteries, I found progress quite pleasant, albeit antiseptic and uninvolving. The seats were roomy and comfortable with adequate support during frisky maneuvers. Visibility is much improved versus the prior ragtop, but there is still large blind spot at 135 degrees. The long front end is invisible from the driver’s seat—a huge mistake from a “it was worth it” point of view. The unseen snout’s sure to be the eventual brunt of some parking lot abutment.
The Z4 sDrive35i’s twin-turbo inline six is well suited to the Z4′s chassis. It motivates the 3,500 pounds very quickly, with very little turbo lag. The handling, braking and steering are all up to BMW’s usual high standards. Bonus! The car’s turn-in’s quite eager. Some reviewers have complained that the Z4′s pivot point seems too far ahead of the driver, making it harder to judge the apex while cornering. I disagree, perhaps because I grew up loving the Triumph TR3. But there’s no question the Z4 lacks an important ingredient: fun. Or SL-like comfort; the rigidity of the retractable hardtop improves the ride quality, but the [optional] 19″ wheels, sub-100″ wheelbase and [standard fit] run flats take their toll. As did the leather piece that squeaked throughout my test drive.
I like the new Z4 enough to date one, but I wouldn’t marry it. The look is too precious for me; I’d feel obligated to make an effort to dress nicer and wash behind my ears. The performance is excellent— but not inspirational. The really bad news: a price tag which easily reaches into the $60’s. I can think of plenty of rousing vehicles which capture my attention for less money, promise more involvement and demand less of my fashion sense.