BMW Z4 roadster
"The latest BMW Z4 offers good, old-fashioned fun, but lighter rivals are more exciting"
- Powerful engines
- Balanced handling
- High-quality interior
- Lacks excitement
- Old-fashioned feel
- M40i is automatic only
BMW has put the Z4 badge on two very different cars in the past. Both were, ostensibly, sports cars, but the second generation redefined itself as a refined, luxurious cruiser with a folding hard-top roof. This third-generation Z4 goes back to basics, with an engine range topped by a big, powerful six-cylinder engine, rear-wheel drive and only a canvas top for protection from the elements.
At least that's how it looks on paper. In fact, the Z4 – a car developed in parallel with the latest Toyota Supra and sharing much of that car's structure – is anything but basic. Every version is lavishly equipped and quite different to many of the other sports cars you can buy today; the Porsche 718 Boxster is a lighter, simpler machine and the Alpine A110 is positively featherweight by comparison.
BMW's loyalty to the old Z4 formula has up and downsides. Like the Toyota Supra, the Z4 harks back to the days of butch British and American sports cars such as the Austin Healey 3000 and AC Cobra, with lots of power up front, drive to the rear wheels and little in the way of sophistication. Of course, there's lots of standard equipment and a first-class finish inside and out, but the Z4's driving manners are rather more basic than today's sports car drivers have come to expect.
The range-topping BMW Z4 M40i has a 335bhp, six-cylinder turbocharged engine and its 0-62mph time of 4.5 seconds is a match for the Porsche 718 Boxster S. However, while the Boxster feels almost an extension of your own body, the Z4 is a rather more physical car to drive and needs to be bullied through bends. It's a totally different experience to that delivered by the minimalist Alpine A110 coupe.
In many ways, it's better to compare the Z4 to its more traditional rivals, namely the Mercedes SLC and Audi TT. Judged against these the BMW has a raw, focused feel that many will appreciate. Only the long-running Nissan 370Z can match the muscularity of the Z4, but the Japanese coupe is outclassed by its German rivals in every regard other than outright speed.
The Z4 is best regarded as an indulgent two-seat convertible with greater enthusiasm for twisty roads than a BMW 2 Series Convertible. It's not as imaginatively designed inside as you might hope from a sports car, but the same is true of the Audi and Mercedes, against which the Z4 now has the most modern look. There's masses of standard equipment, too, and even more available at extra cost.
At launch the M40i tops the range, with the less powerful four-cylinder 255bhp sDrive30i and 195bhp sDrive20i available if you don't need the full 335bhp, or prefer a manual gearbox – the M40i is automatic only. With less weight over its nose, the sDrive20i actually feels sweeter to driver, with sharper steering, handling and braking, making it our pick of the range - even if it isn't as fast in a straight line.
The smaller engines are also more economical, with the potential for 39.2mpg compared to 33.6mpg for the flagship. It's possible that an even more powerful Z4 M will join the range later, bringing even higher power with running costs to match.
Overall, the latest BMW Z4 is exactly what you'd expect a Z4 to be. Its maker proclaims it as the sportiest, most driver-focused Z4 yet, and that's certainly the case. However, the world has moved on since the Z4's old-fashioned roadster recipe was first published, and greater driving excitement is delivered by its lightweight, turbocharged four-cylinder rivals.
Ultimately, it seems the Z4 is living in the past. While many will applaud the way it treads such a familiar sports car path, it doesn't have the sense of occasion you'll find in the retro-flavoured Ford Mustang. It falls into the category of 'sporty all-rounder', rather than being the ultra-sharp Boxster-beater some had been hoping for. At least in sDrive20i guise it's cleaner and more precise to drive, making the cheapest BMW Z4 also feel the most relevant to today's drivers.