The third-generation BMW Z4 finally has the go to back up its considerable show
You know what they say about being third time lucky? Well, it seems BMW knows about it, too.
Except perhaps in the case of the Z4 (which was co-engineered with the Toyota Supra), it’s not so much luck as the blood, sweat and tears of the people who worked on the third car to wear the Z4 badge. The first car, designed under the stewardship of Chris Bangle, was, like many of his cars, somewhat… challenging. If you wanted to be rude, you might even call it ugly. A (most probably apocryphal) quote attributed to industrial designer Marc Newson went something along the lines of the first Z4 looking as if it had been styled with a machete.
Clearly, this is something BMW took to heart because it corrected those styling ills with the second Z4. Taking inspiration from the GINA concept car, the Z4 had a long bonnet, rearset cab and my favourite design feature of all – the very-Bangle pair of opposing ‘lines to nowhere’ character lines on its flanks.
It was a pretty thing, then. And with its folding hardtop, a feature all the rage in its day, drivers could experience the joys of owning a coupe and an open-top roadster all in one car.
Except that BMW forgot about the handling. The second Z4 felt fat, wasn’t particularly confidence-inspiring and left me wondering where the BMW handling magic had gone to.
And so, we come to the third-generation Z4. One wonders why BMW didn’t call it the Z6 instead, but anyway.
As with its predecessor, the new Z4 is a looker. More so than before, if you ask me, especially with the return of the fabric roof. Where the previous one was rounded, the new Z4 is angular and it’s looking quite angry indeed. Particularly so if you spec into the M Sport bodykit or get the M40i variant, on which it comes as standard.
It falls very much in line with BMW’s current design idioms, which means a massive kidney grille and squinty wraparound light clusters that are pushed out as wide as they will go. All this is wrapped up in an angular, sculptural body that has some neat design tricks, including a ducktail spoiler integrated into the rear bootlid.
What the new Z4 is trying to say, and it’s saying it in a fairly insistent voice, is that it’s now A Serious Driving Machine. Which probably also explains why the M badge is returning to the Z4 after a generation away.
Yes, the Z40 in M40i trim still isn’t exactly a full-fat M car in the way the second-generation M Roadster was, but still. Power comes from a turbocharged three-litre straight-six with 340hp and a century sprint time of 4.5 seconds, which puts the Z4 M40i squarely in Porsche 718 Boxster S territory.
These are Good Numbers because this makes the Z4 powerful enough to be interesting, but not so quick that it’ll scare you silly. Even on public roads, there’s a feeling you can deploy a good deal of the Z4’s power reserves and have fun in the process, even if perhaps the petrol gods didn’t bestow upon you a multitude of blessings at birth.
And that is the essence of the Real Sports Car and I think one of the biggest reasons why the Porsche Cayman has been so successful. Of course, you could also argue it’s one of the most affordable routes to Real Porsche Sports Car ownership, but I digress.
Another thing the Z4 has going for it is how crisp the car feels. It’s not just good for a car without a roof, it’s good full stop. There’s the barest shimmer of scuttle shake (the torsional flex endemic to all convertibles), but you really have to go looking for it, and I think the vast majority of people won’t even notice it.
What’s more surprising is how, in spite of weighing virtually the same as the preceding model (just over 1,500kg sans driver), the new Z4 feels so much sharper and more perky. Perhaps it’s the loss of the heavy folding hard-top, the stiffer chassis and lighter suspension components or perhaps a combination of all of the above. Whatever the case is, it works and it’s a welcome improvement.
But deeply competent though the new Z4 may be, it’s not exactly, how do I put this, fun. Its personality is too stoic and remote to convey it’s having as much fun as you are. Granted, you can put absolute faith in the meaty mixed-size tyres and the electro-mechanical rear differential, but everything feels so far away and there’s so little feedback – tactile, aural or otherwise – it might as well be an arcade game.
One happy by-product of the emotional distance is how the Z4 is surprisingly adept at cruising. As with the levels of chassis rigidity, it’s not just good for a convertible, it’d be good for a mid-sized executive saloon.
On the surface of things, it seems that, along with being third time lucky with the new Z4, BMW also seems to have achieved a trifecta of virtuous car traits. The new Z4 is good-looking, handles well and is highly refined.
It’s lacking a certain spark, but you also know that saying about good-looking people getting away with a lot of things…