By on September 14, 2009

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.

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39 Comments on “Nearly New Germans Comparo: Second Place: BMW Z4M Roadster...”

  • avatar

    The M cars are neat. No question. But to me, you can always find components on an M3 that originally went into a low-level Euro 316 or whatever. You don’t get that with the Porsche – every piece on the Cayman was designed for a Porsche, with high attention to weight. It’s fun to examine the Porsches and check out the engineering behind them.

  • avatar

    The Z4 had to take the price as the most phallic car out there since the C3 Corvette…

  • avatar

    This is what peerless styling looks like?

    And Ingvar–the Z4 and C3 Corvette are a distant third and second behind the Mercedes SLR in their homage to the male member.

    My favorite bit about these cars is the driving position, because it makes driving them different than driving just about anything else.

    My least favorite is the steering, especially on the regular Z4 pre-refresh.

    Following Wilkinson’s article on self-destructing Boxer engines I began a serious effort to provide reliability stats on the Porsche and its competitors. We should start having some reliability stats for the Boxster, Z3, Z4, and TT in November. The more owners participate, the better the information we can provide.

  • avatar

    Legendary straight six, amazing handling, and peerless styling.

    I’ll pass on the Z4, thanks.


  • avatar

    @Michael Karesh:

    I’ll have to give that one to you. The SLR does look like it suffers from a constant erection.

  • avatar

    It’s an awesome car, the Z4, it appeals to me much more than the SLK and TT. But this roadster should be compared with the Boxter, or the coupe with the Cayman. Structural rigidity matters.

    In general, I guess the Porsche still wins out, but OTOH the BMW is more lively and probably available for less money (In Europe at least).

    I don’t know about your beef with BMW brakes, in tests that I’ve read, usually against the other Germans, BMW is always right up there, if not winning in brake distance…I guess the breaking experience is also subjective to some extend.

  • avatar

    I’m not sure why this was done as a comparo rather than as just two independent reviews. The result from Baruth is as predictable as can be, while the review portions are always worth reading. If a comparo were necessary, I’d be curious how he would rationalize the Boxster over the S2000, though I have not doubt a way would be found.

    I am glad he calls out the rest of the BMW Z collection for what it is; even the gorgeous Z8 lacks the proper sporting nature of the competition. I don’t get what world people live in who call Bimmers Ultimate Driving Machines.

    As someone who sometimes wears spiky hair (but doesn’t drive any german vehicle), I’ll have to protest that spiky-haired douchebag contingent are far less annoying to me than the gray-on-white cloth-baseball-cap contingent who seems to come glued behind every Porsche convertible ever built. I wonder if the caps are, in proper Porsche fashion, a $1K option…

  • avatar
    Mirko Reinhardt

    @highrpm :
    The M cars are neat. No question. But to me, you can always find components on an M3 that originally went into a low-level Euro 316 or whatever. You don’t get that with the Porsche

    The indicator stalk in the 997 looks and feels like the one in an A3 Golf. Could be coincidence, but I doubt it.

  • avatar

    Z4 styling is meh, the slight bulge upwards of the hood just makes it look soft and odd, the droopy headlights adding to the whole melted pastiche, the rear trunk hump looking awkward. It looks like someone was making a baguette and chopped it in half.

    @imag – the S2000 high revving engine is exhausting, the styling looks like a slightly less bulbous Miata (admittedly purpose driven and miles better than the Z4, but not particularly exciting), and it isn’t german, so there you go. The more interesting cross-country comparo to my mind would be a new 2010 370z versus a used Boxster of similar price.

  • avatar

    I drove what may be the ultimate evolution of the Z4M:
    About 500 pounds lighter (all carbon fiber body), coil over suspension, insanely grippy Pilot Sport Cups, and they fixed the styling “errors” in the original Z4M Coupe. Man what a great drive. Having driven the Cayman S, the Cayman is much easier to drive, but this was much more exciting and interesting.

    And I take exception to the spiky-haired douchebag in M3 comment, especially since a Porsche driver should certainly not be the one casting stones! From my experience the E46 and E36 M3 drivers are on the whole a solid group of gearheads.

  • avatar
    Kristjan Ambroz

    If you actually examine your Porsche carefully, you will find plenty of components stamped with the VW or Audi logos, not at all unique to the brand (not necessarily all in the latest iterations but parts from the VW Polo, Audi 100 and several others feature quite prominently, often even after they have been replaced with newer, nicer ones on the poorer relations). So no different from a lowly 316i, really.

  • avatar

    I find the new Z4 better looking than the old one whic was in itself an improvement over the Z3. Having said that –

    I think I’d take a 3 Series M convertible over any of them any day.

  • avatar

    Here’s the problem. I am, at times, a spiky-haired douchebag. I drive an e38, as I have to pay for my own cars, but I like the perception that comes with a majority of BMW fans. It means I can laugh at the bigots who refute the cars on principle, and the idiots who pay full sticker to use 30% of the car’s potential for 3 years, then pass it on to me when I’ve decided the depreciation has killed someone else enough.

    I realllllllly want either a used Cayman, or a Z4. But I can’t even consider the Cayman right now because all the old ones have engines that may explode and be more than I pay for the car to fix. No such problems with a properly maintained z4. Which is the better sports car? I’ve driven both, and I love both. But when I have to spend my money at the end of the day, I have to spend it on something that is (and I don’t feel like arguing this point, just take it as fact) cheaper to maintain. I spend WAYYYY less keeping up my 38 at the dealer than my friends with boxsters.

  • avatar

    akatsuki: German is a good thing? The thing that saved Porsche was hiring engineers from Toyota to get their manufacturing, process, and design in order. Or am I just missing the joke.

    I went to look at the Cayman when I got my 370, and I expected the interior bits to be much more Teutonic. They were pretty cheesy and… well… Japanese. I have to say I expected a higher quality feel to match the reputation.

    I was going to say that the S2K is a true sports car, but I actually feel like it’s got a bit to much lux to call it that. If you find it exhausting, perhaps the newest Z4 is more your style (sorry, couldn’t help it).

  • avatar

    @ highrpm:

    “every piece on the Cayman was designed for a Porsche”

    We’ll see how that stands up to the VW takeover of Porsche, though I’ll admit it was nice while it lasted.

    I haven’t driven the Z4M only a 3.0, but I thought it was a fun car, pleasingly stiff and nimble. That said, it was no comparison to the 1999 Boxster I drove. That is still the best car I have ever driven, hands down. I remember Gillespie decribing the steering as telepathic, and understanding instantly what he meant. Too bad about the potentially exploding engines though. I’m going to go for the sure exploding engine and get a Ferrari F355 instead.

  • avatar

    @imag: My brother runs an S2000CR on the SCCA Solo National circuit and just finished 27th of 58 at the Solo National Championships.

    For street use, I would prefer pretty much any Boxster made to any S2K made. For track use, I would rather have an S2000 than a non-direct-injected smallbore Boxster. The new DI Boxster is preferable to the S2K, which is no surprise since the Boxster has had three major revisions over the course of the S2K’s lifetime.

    @akatsuki: Ask and you shall receive. I own a 2004 Boxster S Anniversary Edition and have a 370Z press car coming in a few weeks. We will run them head-to-head somewhere.

  • avatar

    Eight or nine years ago, the fan mags had all these tests of the Boxster, TT, SLK and Z3/4, but they also included the S2000, which always routinely trounced the Germans.

    Then, a couple of years later, suddenly the S2000 was nowhere to be found in these comparos. I always wondered how much extra advertising the Germans had to buy to boot out the superior Honda.

  • avatar

    Baruth: nice answer – thanks. And I agree with what you allude to: Honda should have kept updating the S2K rather than letting it die on the vine.

    I look forward to your take on the 370 (no matter the result).

  • avatar

    While I agree the Z3 and SLK were not majorly impressive, I have a special place for the MZ3 coupe…probably because I own one. I think the MZ4 coupe was one of the best kept secrets from BMW as of recent. For one thing its torisonal rigidity is at 32,000 nm per degree! You really can feel how solid that structure is in a quick drive. I presume that may be one of the reasons they have been popular platforms for race cars in Germany.

    The MZ4 roadster is half the coupe in rigidity, which isn’t too bad considering that would be about the same as the previous MZ3 coupe. I like the Boxster S a lot and the Cayman is fantastic too, though the MZ4 coupe gets my heart racing a bit more.

    Regarding the sliding calipers, they work well and can even have a better clamping force than some multi-piston calipers out there. Heavy track users on the E36 M3/E46 M3/MZ4 feel that the right pad and good air ducting is the most important aspect. With a more aggressive pad on my MZ3 (e36 m3 brakes), I still have no trouble activating ABS with 255/18 & 275/18 after a few hot laps. I would say the pedal feel of the multi-piston caliper for the avg. driver is the biggest factor for having them.

  • avatar

    @imag – only the title is nearly new Germans, that is all I was talking about.

    I’d take an Elise, KTM X-bow, or other dedicated ridiculous machine over an S2000 for the track and a Boxster or other roadster over the S2000 for the street.

    My next car will most likely be a 370Z if it can manage to come close in feel to my current Boxster. I agree with you, Porsche interiors are total crap, even if you spend all the money on all the possible upgrades. But, despite the long feature list and better interior of the IS350, I’d never buy one over a 3 series BMW, the feel of the IS is ridiculously bad – I can only hope the Z is better vis-a-vis the Boxster.

  • avatar

    @ i got to drive my dads s2000, all i can say say is holy sh*t, no one needs to ever buy a motorcycle after driving that car.

    Also, the most phallic car ever is a BMW but not the Z4

  • avatar

  • avatar

    akatsuki: Fair enough – and I agree with you on pure track cars, but I guess I appreciate the S2K on street twisties. I do love the shove of the 370 though.

    I’ll be curious about your opinion. The interior on the 370 worked better for me than the Cayman, but there was also a matter of simple logistics; my knees were crammed against the car in the Cayman, and I “just fit” in the Z; the ergonomics everywhere are perfect for me. Cars are like shoes that way – they can look great, have the right price and features, but they just may never fit well. I think that is something that’s underemphasized in all the keyboard test driving…

    Either way, I’m hoping that VeeDub teaches Porsche how to do interiors – it’s one thing they have just nailed.

  • avatar

    @imag just to clarify, by feel i was referring mostly to steering feel and plantedness – the IS350 felt like I was driving a larger car, and the 3 series, despite its horrific bloat, makes me feel like I am driving a smaller one. The Boxster just has the right weight to its steering and is sensitive without being twitchy. Haven’t driven the new 370z, but I am definitely looking forward to it.

  • avatar

    akat – totally understand on the IS, though I haven’t driven one. I just was explaining why I got the Z. I have a feeling your impression will be that it’s heavy compared to the boxster (it is), but that the steering is pretty good. It may not be boxster good, but it’s got great feel. In my opinion, it makes the bimmers feel numb by comparison, but maybe that’s because I’m okay with twitchy.

    Anyway, I suppose it’s time to leave this thread alone…

  • avatar

    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.

    Ouch, says this owner, and that’s the first time that I’ve heard it called the “German Trans Am”. And while spiked dbags may be your experience back East (I’m guessing), here in the Bay Area, the E46 M3 drivers seem to be pretty evenly split between the ricers, midlife crisis set, and enthusiasts. Furthermore, if there was an antidote needed, it would be the MZ4C, not the droptop. A stunning car in Alpineweiss with a light window tint.

  • avatar

    Wow, no offense, but did you really even drive the car? The brakes are from an M3 CSL, and from the perspective of a road car, they are probably the best brakes I’ve ever owned on a vehicle. Were they not red enough for you, or not have BREMBO stamped on them or something? I owned an E46 M3 several years ago for about a month, until I could no longer take the sheer boredom. I had owned a 2001 Z3 ///M coupe, and switching to the M3 was awful. I’ve owned my Z4M roadster for awhile now, and it’s such a superior car in the fun department to the E46 M3, and I have no clue how anyone could see it any differently.

    You must be old?

  • avatar

    “The bonnet is cartoonishly long”……..This kind of stuff cracks me up. This car is a roadster with a straight six. I’m sure the engine is packed pretty tight in the engine bay.

    At least this author reveals his Porsche bias up front. The Porsche and BMW are two completely difference style of cars. This and the author’s bias, I don’t get the reason for this comparison.

    When I read TTAC reviews, I always feel like the authors have more literary talent than automotive knowledge. Hey, that’s just my 2 cents and I’m sticking by it.

    Please don’t ban me, RF…lol

  • avatar

    Sorry, but even as a BMW owner I find the Z4 progressing sadly into Thunderbird-land. The “old” one is a cartoon worthy of J.Mays, and the new, improved 2-ton version has fully jumped the shark.

    The original idea behind the Z3 was to capture the upmarket Miata business which Mazda had ignored by failing to sell a 250 hp version. The S2000 took over this province, yet there was still room for the silky BMW six in an attractive and unabashed sports car. Instead they delivered a car which is itself a cartoon. I can think of no other car which is detailed at the cutlines in the high-schoolish manner as the Z4, not to mention the idiotic and useless “Z” pressed into the side. We might have had a beautiful 8/10’s scale Z8 if Heinrik Fisker had hung around BMW, but nooo…

  • avatar
    Bruce from DC

    As a Z3 (3.0) owner, I will freely admit that the base Boxster of the same vintage (’01) is a better handling, more telekinetic car. That said, as a buyer of a used car, I was moved that buying my car 2 years old and BMW certified (with perfect paint and interior and all new rubber) was the same price as buying an out-of-warranty Boxster four years old and with twice the miles. And that was before anyone knew about the problem with the Boxster engines. At 55K miles and 8 years of age, my car has had no repairs other than 1 water pump (under the warrany). As a person who drove the classic British sports cars in my early 20s, I found the Z3 to be exactly what it was supposed to be — an update on the British roadsters of the 60s without the Lucas electrics. And that’s the driving experience it delivers. The long hood is only “cartoonish” if you fail to understand the design principle (from those vintage roadsters) of having a straight-6 engine mounted behind the front axle.

    The Bangelized styling of the Z4 I won’t defend, although I have to say that I thought the Z4 coupe (unlike the Z3 coupe) looked pretty good, better than the roadster.

    The new Z4 looks very nice inside and out, but, with its retractable metal top and substantial weight gain (such that even the twin-turbo 6 will only push the car to 60 mph 0.4 seconds faster than my car), I agree that it is no longer a “sports car” but more like what used to be called a GT car. It is not really a competitor to the Boxster/Cayman cars. The comparison to the Lexus SC430 is apt, except that the Lexus is one of the ugliest cars I’ve ever seen. I can’t imagine anyone who can see well enough to get a driver’s license shopping these two cars and ending up with a Lexus instead of the new Z4.

  • avatar

    Don’t get me wrong I’d love to own a car that is as good as this is to drive – but boy is it ugly. It looks like a cut pig.

  • avatar

    I’m a prior owner of a Z3M, and have driven a Z4M. The reviewer at least admits as a Porsche owner that he favors Porsche and that’s OK. The Boxter is a great car, and it’s something to be said that this car comes in 2nd place. I personally did not notice and brake shortcomings. Like all BMW’s, I found them to be very responsive. I’d take one of these in a heartbeat. A great car, responsive, and wonderful for everyday driving!

  • avatar

    So, is the review of the first place car ever going to see the light of day?

  • avatar

    # Michael Karesh :
    September 23rd, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    So, is the review of the first place car ever going to see the light of day?

    There is no first place. Only second place!:-)

  • avatar

    “Also, the most phallic car ever is a BMW but not the Z4”

    What kind of statement would it make if a woman drove up in a very, very phallic car?
    And why aren’t there more female or girl looking cars?
    What kind of statement would it make if a man was driving a very, uh, female looking car?
    Or if a female designed a car, what would it look like or what does a female want?

    Ah, BMW Z4M… brutally strong mechanical engine. Seems like you will have to be really creative to bring about finesse.

  • avatar

    ConejoZing :

    Or if a female designed a car, what would it look like or what does a female want?

    Just take a look at the new Z4. The exterior was designed by one woman, the interior by another.

  • avatar

    I’m not a big fan of the SLK, but I think comparing it with the Boxster is a little apples-to-oranges. It’s like comparing a 190SL with an E-Type roadster — they were similarly priced, they were both open cars of sporty appearance, but they were going for very different effects. The 190SL (and the W113 roadsters that followed) were not so much sports cars as cars for sports, to paraphrase John R. Bond.

  • avatar

    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.

    Excuse me, but what about BMW Z1? It was never officially sold in North America, but it was manufactured from March 1989 to June 1991.

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