Once upon a time, in the free-wheeling era where Herr Bertel Schmitt was busy hiring rogue helicopter pilots and causing untold mischief in the European auto-advertising business, the major players in the German market each knew how to stick to their knitting. Mercedes-Benz built staid automobiles for taxi drivers and decent people. BMW offered a limited range of square-and-sporty sedans, Audi built avant-garde streamliners for the traction-avant set. Porsche, meanwhile, held an unspoken but very real franchise as the only volume producer of German sports cars.
This cozy arrangement led to all sorts of cooperation between Porsche and its bigger brothers. In the United States, Porsche shared a marketing channel with Audi. It assembled the Mercedes-Benz 500E and Audi RS2. BMW provided the original body stampings for the first-gen Boxster, while Mercedes reportedly continues to provide base castings for watercooled Porsche sixes.
By the early Nineties, however, BMW and Mercedes were both determined to break the gentleman’s agreement and take a shot at the relatively tiny sports car market. The resulting products, badged “Z3” and “SLK,” were, frankly, just this side of abysmal. Both were parts-bin specials with awkward proportions, and neither was even close to being a match for the sublime 1997 Boxster 2.5.
Today, in 2009, it is well understood that BMW and Mercedes cannot successfully compete against the Boxster and Cayman. The new-gen Z4 is a massive, heavy contraption which resembles a Lexus SC 430 in concept and execution, while the current SLK has been halfheartedly revised and stuffed full of automatic transmissions. Yet there was a brief, shining moment where BMW took a full-strength swing at the Boxster S. The Z4 M, which combines the roadster body with BMW’s iconic S54 straight-six and the M Division’s best attempts at chassis tuning, was this moment.
Earlier this year, I once again found myself with the folks at Performance Rentals, running their perfectly-prepared red Z4M against their equally spotless Porsche Cayman S. Although I am a multiple-Porsche owner and unapologetic Weissach bigot, I have always found the M variants of the Z4 to be uniquely compelling. The now-discontinued, high-revving BMW six is characterful and muscular in exactly the way that Porsche’s watercooled sixes are not. The droptop Bimmer platform should also be the perfect antidote for my growing exasperation with the E46 M3, its “German Trans Am” vibe, and the army of spiked-hair, unbuttoned-shirt douchebags who make up the bulk of the M3 owner community.
The Z4 is a bit of an experience even when standing still. The bonnet is cartoonishly long, while the interior is inexcusably cramped. It’s not a small car, particularly compared to a Cayman, but BMW has only managed to provide two rather narrow pockets for the driver and passenger. There’s a self-conscious artistry to the dashboard arrangement and the ostentatious simplicity of the controls. It’s an odd mix of vintage seating position and postmodern aesthetics, but the overall message is plain: this is not a regular 3-Series convertible. It’s a “sports car” in the classic sense.
The 340-horsepower “S54” six-cylinder occasionally feels just a bit overmatched in the standard M3, particularly below 5000 rpm, but in this marginally lighter roadster, the engine absolutely shines. It’s strong from everywhere on the dial and the shifter is notchy but positive. Down a series of descending, high-speed sweepers, I’m alternately punching the brake and throttle in decidedly unsympathetic, two-footed fashion. As with most Bavarian Motor Works products, the sliding-caliper stoppers are below-par, a tradition that has continued up to the current V-8-powered M3.
The Z4’s seating position is reminiscent of nothing so much as a Lotus Seven. As in the Seven, the a bit of mental adjustment’s required to understand how sitting nearly over the rear axle affects one’s perception of the handling. Understeer seems exaggerated, and the car’s rear end seems unusually sensitive to throttle position. For that reason, it isn’t a particularly confidence-inspiring car at speed.
The auto media as a whole has indicated that the Z4M is slower than an E46 M3 around a road course; I’m not sure I am ready to buy that. Certainly the big coupe is easier to drive, but the Z4M weighs less, has the same rubber under the chassis, and features approximately the same suspension design. It should be faster than an M3 in skilled hands.
The Bimmer’s performance report card has a few black marks on it, however. The steering hides too many of the road’s messages, the suspension fails to keep both rear wheels square to the road in fast transitions, and for the fifty-thousand-dollar-plus MSRP there should really be a better set of calipers on all four wheels. BMW started with an all-star cast of components here: a legendary engine, a modern chassis, peerless styling. But the result is, regrettably, less than the sum of its parts. As such, it must inevitably lose to a car which is so much more than its spec sheet suggests. Review to follow.