Some sports cars are bought to be driven, and-let’s be honest here-some are bought to be flaunted. The outgoing BMW Z4 always felt more suited to catwalk duties, as it was compromised by the cumbersome retractable hard top that operated like a mechanized ballet but added mass and bulk in the wrong places for a sports car. As such, it struggled to make a convincing case to buyers asking the toughest question in this market: “Why shouldn’t I buy a Porsche Boxster instead?”
The new Z4 is far sharper to drive than its predecessor, and Boxster comparisons will certainly come. But the more pressing question is how it will differ from the new Toyota Supra. In an unlikely corporate hookup, both cars will be built by Magna Steyr in Austria, and they are as closely related as models with different exterior styling can be. The Supra is a coupe and the Z4 a convertible, but both use the same structure and share all underbody hardpoints, suspension design, and powertrains.
But don’t assume the Z4’s fabric roof makes it the less athletic sibling. Indeed, after our first experience, we can report that the Supra is going to have to be very special to offer a driving experience that beats this BMW’s.
Good and Bad Angles
The Z4 certainly has visual presence befitting a sports car, but it definitely also possesses both good and bad angles. Viewed dead on from the front or the rear, it’s striking. The angular headlights feature stacked elements rather than BMW’s long-established side-by-side layout. With its muscular haunches and interesting contours, the rear has a visual width that makes this Z4 look bigger and more grown up than its predecessors.
Although it’s 3.8 inches longer than the previous Z4 at 170.0 inches overall, the new car has a wheelbase that is 1.1 inches shorter. We’re told that the jowly front overhang is the result of the need to meet pedestrian-impact standards while maintaining a low hoodline, and as such, it’s probably the lesser of two evils.
The new Z4’s cabin features digital instruments in addition to a 10.2-inch touchscreen in the center of the dashboard. The interior is well finished and features BMW’s latest-generation switchgear, but it’s otherwise short on distractions. The seating position is low and the windshield header relatively high. Taller drivers have sufficient headroom with the top in place and are well protected from buffeting with it lowered. The fabric roof itself motors up or down in just 10 seconds, and it can be operated at speeds of up to 31 mph.
Two engines are confirmed for the U.S. market. The base is a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four that-in accordance with BMW’s confused badging methodology-will carry 30i branding, owing to its 255-hp output. Above it sits the six-cylinder M40i, which uses a juiced-up version of the twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter engine seen in the M240i. The car we drove was a Z4 M40i in European specification, which has an exhaust particulate filter that limits output to 335 horsepower. Cars in the United States don’t need such a system, which means a mighty 382 ponies and an estimated 4.2-second zero-to-60-mph time. In both the 30i and the M40i, an eight-speed automatic gearbox directs torque to the rear axle. (A 197-hp Z4 20i will have the option of a manual ‘box, but that model won’t be coming to the States.)
A Breadth of Talents
Our first experience with the Z4 M40i came with a prototype version on the Estoril circuit near Lisbon, Portugal. The car was a hard-beaten test mule, but it showed every sign of enjoying life on the tight, twisty circuit. The combination of a brawny engine, a fast-acting electronically controlled limited-slip differential, and lenient stability control give an oversteer bias to the car’s handling attitude, and in Sport mode it will slide to impressive angles before the system intervenes. Adaptive dampers, which are standard on the M40i, also kept the body under tight control.
Driving a production Z4 on Portugal’s twisty mountain roads demonstrated the breadth of the roadster’s talents and the degree to which its character can be altered. Although already familiar from other BMWs, the muscular twin-turbo six is the range-topping Z4’s starring feature and the most obvious point of difference when compared to the four-cylinder Porsche 718 Boxster S. Even in its lower European output, the M40i feels impressively brisk; the engine responds cleanly and without lag at lower revs and runs quickly to its redline. It sounds muscular under hard use, with the most aggressive Sport+ driving mode adding some of the pops and bangs with which automakers like to leaven the exhaust notes of their punchier offerings.
It often feels as if modern cars rely too much on selectable driving modes, but the Z4 M40i’s different settings make a transformative difference to its character without going too far. In Comfort mode, the Z4 is pliant and refined-with its powertrain working to deliver rapid but unobtrusive progress using the meat of the engine’s torque band-yet still responsive and keen. Sport mode shuffles from the other end of the deck, sharpening the throttle response and working the engine harder before upshifts; the active dampers grow firmer, but the car still handles rougher surfaces without harshness or any hint of scuttle shake. (BMW says this Z4 is the most torsionally rigid open-topped road car it has made.) Sport mode also tightens the leash on the differential, allowing for faster corner exits.
The Z4’s steering is worthy of particular praise. It feels crisper and more natural than the gloopy electronic assistance of the 5-series. We’re told that the new 3-series will use pretty much the exact same system, which is a good omen. The gearbox also copes well; we’d like to see a manual option, but the ZF eight-speed automatic shifts intelligently and cleanly when left to its own devices yet manages a good impression of a quick-shifting dual-clutch gearbox under manual control.
Even our relatively brief experience proves the Z4 to be a true sports car in a way that its predecessor just wasn’t. Our drive route took us on the N379 between Casais da Serra and Setúbal. It’s tight and lightly trafficked, combining sinuous sections with some impressively long straights, and runs mostly along a ridgeline that follows the coast and offers frequent glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean several hundred feet below. The drops are vertiginous and often protected by nothing more than flimsy crash barriers seemingly installed by the lowest bidder’s second cousin-in short, the sort of road where confidence is critical to going quickly, especially given the pleasant alternative of cruising gently and taking in the view. It’s also one that the Z4 M40i dispatched with as much assurance as pretty much anything else we could have nominated, holding faithfully to the chosen line, unfazed by bumps, and with an indefatigable engine and brakes.
Arrival and Pricing
The Z4 30i will arrive first, in March of next year. The M40i will be a couple of months behind, by BMW’s reckoning. We don’t have final pricing yet, but the four-cylinder looks set to be in the low-$50K neighborhood and the M40i in the mid-$60,000s, overlapping the Porsche 718 Boxster with the promise of much more standard equipment. We won’t prejudge that contest, but we can confidently predict it is going to be closer than ever before.
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