Now that winter weather has (finally) come to Michigan, it’s time to look forward to spring, when roadsters will emerge from their long hibernation to frolic along twisty two-lanes. Don’t have one, and feeling the urge? More than with a midsize sedan or a compact crossover, a roadster is a very personal choice, as the contenders—Audi TT, BMW Z4, Chevrolet Corvette, Mazda Miata, Mercedes SL and SLK, Nissan 370Z, Porsche Boxster—vary in configuration and character much more than those in high-volume segments. If you know what you want in a roadster, the choice should just about make itself. So, what might lead someone to opt for the BMW?
The Z4 is an oddball within the BMW line. While other BMWs are styled very similarly, often to a fault, the roadster is distinctly not like the others. No “same sausage, different lengths” here. Yes, there is more of a similarity than with the full-on retro Z3 that originated the model. But while secondary cues now resemble those of other BMWs, the Z4’s bulldog proportions remain those of a classic roadster. Though stopping well short of SLR excess, the hood might yet induce envy from John Holmes. In comparison, the hindquarters continue to appear disproportionately small. When up, the roof also appears undersized, even barely there, though the need to have it fit inside the compact trunk might have been as much of a factor as aesthetics.
Inside, the car is more typically BMW, including an inscrutable audio system, though some hints of the Z3 remain. From the low-mounted driver’s seat the long hood actually seems to rise up ahead of you, strongly affecting the driving experience. SUVs and even normal cars tower over you. You know you’re driving a sports car even when standing still. You don’t remotely get this in a 3-Series, or even in an otherwise similar SLK. Unlike in some roadsters, the header is not too low, and so does not uncomfortably impinge on the view forward.
There’s plenty of headroom. The seats provide good lateral support, but like the insufficiently cosseting standard seats in other BMWs are otherwise only marginally comfortable despite four-way power lumbar adjustments. Even with the top stowed there’s enough room in the boot for a Costco run (including a value pack of paper towels) or for a couple of weekender-sized duffel bags.
The Z4’s livability continues once underway. Noise levels are moderate, and the ride is quite livable (though it can get choppy across tar strips and expansion joints). This roadster is far from raw. If you want your BMW raw, find a Z3, preferably in M Roadster form.
But is it fun? After all, unless a roadster is fun to drive, then what’s the point? (Okay, some people buy these things just for styling and image, but I’d rather pretend otherwise.) The reviewed 2012 BMW Z4 is the sDrive28i. In case you don’t speak BMWese, this means it’s rear-wheel-drive (the Z4 isn’t available with all-wheel-drive, at least not yet) and powered by the equivalent of a 2.8-liter fuel-injected engine. Why the italicized bits? Like CPU manufacturers, BMW departed from a literal representation of key specs when this threatened to harm sales by making two engines seem either too close together or too far apart in performance potential. For 2012, the 2.8 is actually a new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine in place of last year’s 3.0-liter inline six. At its 5,000 rpm peak—a full 2,000 rpm short of the redline—the four puts out 240 horsepower. Like many current turbocharged engines, torque is electronically managed to yield a non-curve as flat as Kansas, with 260 pound-feet all the way from 1,250 to 4,800. Judging from the low power peak, there’s a lot of headroom remaining in this engine. BMW has tuned it to fill in for the workhorse six that previously powered its models’ lower trim levels, not to provide high rpm thrills. Aftermarket tuners will no doubt do what BMW hasn’t, and crank this engine past, perhaps well past, 280 horsepower.
And the driveability that was clearly a priority? I’ve often felt that even a decent six sounds and feels better than a very good four. But while the voice of BMW’s new four will never be mistaken for that of one of its trademark inline sixes, it doesn’t sound like the typical four-banger, either. Instead, perhaps because of the exhaust design for the twin-scroll turbocharger (with two cylinders feeding each “scroll”), it sounds surprisingly like a boxer up to about 4,000 rpm. Not as sophisticated as a six, but sporting and decidedly less pedestrian than a conventional four. I enjoyed listening to it. At higher rpm the engine actually does begin to sound something like a six. The conservative tuning, modest amount of boost, and twin-scroll design conspire to minimize boost lag, such that aside from the occasional whine the engine isn’t obviously boosted. In casual driving it performs very well, and should even be up to the task of motivating the quarter-ton-heavier 528i (whose 3,800 pounds I haven’t sampled yet).
Still, don’t let the early peak and broad plateau of the torque curve fool you. All of the engine torque might (or might not, given the loose connection BMW’s official specs can have with reality) be present at 1,250 rpm, but there’s still not much grunt down there. After all, power remains torque multiplied by engine speed, and just above idle there isn’t much of the last. To get real power out of the engine, wind it to 4,000 rpm, beyond which point it pulls satisfyingly hard. Just not for long. By 6,000 rpm the engine is running out of breath, and you might as well shift even though the engine remains smooth for another grand.
Actually, you’ll want to shift the six-speed manual transmission. The shifter’s moderate throws terminate in each gear with a mechanical yet suitably refined snick. My only complaint: it can be difficult to rush a downshift into second, as reverse is to the left of first. Slam the lever all the way to the left and there’s no gear to pull back into. With a little finesse this problem is avoided. First gear is very short, so that 4,000 rpm kickoff is readily attained from a dead stop.
Okay, I have a second complaint. The four-mit-stick powertrain is accompanied by an automatic stop/start system. Shift into neutral and release the clutch, and the engine automatically cuts off. Depress the clutch and it automatically restarts. Saves fuel, so what’s not to love? Well, this particular implementation isn’t nearly as seamless as that in the typical hybrid, perhaps because there’s no big electric motor to smooth the transitions. You’re very aware when the engine cuts off and when it restarts, with the former feeling like you’ve somehow stalled the engine.
And fuel economy? Last year’s sDrive30i managed EPA ratings of 18 city, 28 highway. The new four easily bests these numbers, with 22 in the city and 34 on the highway (24/33 with the eight-speed automatic). During my week with the car the trip computer reported mid-20s in casual suburban driving and high-20s on the highway. Thirty-four didn’t happen, but perhaps I had a headwind.
If you’re not a poser, then your priority in buying a sports car is handling. Here the Z4 partly delights, partly disappoints, depending on the end of the car in question. The rear end delights. It’s lively without being too lively, always ready to dance, with progressive, easily-modulated oversteer just a dip of the right foot away. The car’s layout and driving position provide the sensation that the car is pivoting directly beneath your ass, which you simply cannot get even in the best sport sedans.
By process of elimination, you’ve by now gathered that the front end disappoints. It’s not bad, and certainly contributes to balanced, stable, predictable handling. But, especially compared to the tail end, it’s dull. The steering is nicely weighted, but otherwise dead. It doesn’t help that the steering wheel is far too thickly padded. Any feedback that has made its way along the steering column meets an untimely end just short of your fingertips. You’ll experience a more engaging tiller in a Toyota Yaris.
Aside from adding a couple hundred agility-killing pounds, fancy folding hard tops are expensive. The 2012 BMW Z4 starts at $49,525. Add Premium and Sport packages, as on the tested car, opt for metallic paint, and you’re looking at a $55,675 MSRP. In it’s final year a similarly-equipped first-generation Z4 would have set you back $12,000 less. About $2,600 of the difference can be chalked up to the new car’s additional feature content, based on TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool. Inflation has added about the same. The remaining $7,000 or so? That would be the top.
Of course, a Mercedes-Benz SLK introduced such a top to the segment, so it’s similarly blessed and burdened. Unfortunately, a direct comparison isn’t possible, as the 2012 SLK is available with neither a sub-300-horsepower engine nor a stick. But even with its standard 302-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 and seven-speed automatic, the Benz lists for only about a grand more, undercutting the Z4 sDrive35i with which it directly competes. In defense of the BMW, the Mercedes isn’t quite as large and, due to the presence of the SL, isn’t trying to serve as broad a swath of the roadster market. Put another way, the BMW is positioned a little higher up the automotive food chain. Similarly equip a base Porsche Boxster, and you’ll also end up at a surprisingly similar bottom line. No fancy folding hard top on the Porsche, but much better steering.
Why, exactly, did BMW fit the Z4 with a hard top? A hard top, with its weight, cost, and complexity penalties, makes most sense for a year-round daily use car. Judging from the average odometer readings reported through TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey, most first-generation Z4s were bought as weekend cars—the average example is driven about 6,000 miles a year (meaning for every car driven the typical 12,000+, there are one or two others that don’t often leave the garage). Has the hard top broadened the appeal of the Z4, retaining the original group of buyers while adding more who buy the car as a daily driver? With sales stumbling along at 300 a month, this gambit doesn’t appear to have worked. More likely, the original group is turned off by the disadvantages of a hard top (despite the continuing advantage of the Z4’s driving position and suspension), while the car’s otherwise roadster level of functionality continues to limit its appeal to the second.
The new turbocharged four sounds good and works quite well in the Z4, conspiring with the rear suspension to make it a fun car to drive. But with 200 fewer pounds to motivate (and a price $7,000 lower) the four would work even better, and the car would be even more fun (especially if quicker, more communicative steering were part of the package). A solution could be on the way. Even if the Z4 continues to straddle the fence between roadster and boulevardier, the long-rumored Z2 might have the Z3’s tighter focus, with the rest of the car built around the distinctive experience provided by a center of rotation directly beneath the driver and the view over that long hood. But what if you happen to be seeking a fence straddler that works fairly well in both modes, that provides classic roadster proportions and seating position without classic roadster punishment? Then BMW already has your car.
BMW provided the car with insurance and a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.