I must be a heathen as I fail to see how BMW’s ‘Expression of Joy’ ad campaign for the new Z4 is going to make true BMW fans – let alone eGoli’s Gucci-clad ladies who are the target of the ad – grab their cheque books and head down to the nearest dealer.
Watching a metallic blue Z4 execute donuts over a canvas the size of a soccer field makes a mockery of the art cars of old. Andy Warhol’s iconic M1 or even Calder and Lichtenstein’s exquisite Batmobiles fused artistic flair with the car’s bodywork, not the floor below it.
For me, the newest Z4 is a work of art without any help from an artist’s brush. Only a Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione or Aston Martin DBS have ever stirred such emotion. And that’s an illustrious group.
Stroll around the Z4 and examine it from every angle and you realise it’s probably the most inspired canvas since the iconic 507 cabriolet. Every line, curve and fold is a thing of considered beauty.
Whether you marvel at the Z4’s design or take exception to the way BMW has decided to market it, the real test is whether the performance and rear-driven dynamism is enough for the hardcore BMW faithful – those enthusiasts who believe the brand still stands for Sheer Driving Pleasure and not aimless Dulux donuts and doodles.
The Roadster recipe
Aside from its obvious beauty, the latest iteration captures the essence of its predecessors, the 328, 507, Z8 and Z1. Designer Juliane Blasi has stayed true to BMW’s successful roadster recipe: a T-bar interior design, flowing lines with sleek proportions, and a long bonnet. The short overhangs, long wheelbase and large wheels, together with a low, rear-set seating position accentuate the traditional roadster appeal.
The low-slung front uses the same upright BMW kidney grille as the Concept CS, with a wide air intake and dual round xenon headlights featured as standard. The flanks are dominated by the flowing shoulder line which connects the front and rear wheel arches, emphasising the sinewy, athletic proportions, while the black A-pillars, side gill intakes and slender rear lights complete the honed look.
The new two-piece retractable hardtop constructed in lightweight aluminium opens and closes within 20secs. As with every rearward folding roof design, packaging is the problem, and the Bavarian engineers did well to carve out a rear luggage space ranging from 180-310 litres – better than the previous folding soft-top despite a cabin set further back. Cabin packaging is also better, with 14% more head and shoulder-room and improved visibility.
Great strides inside
With the roof closed, NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) levels are good and with the top down wind turbulence is minimal, allowing you to enjoy the full glory of the 225kW straight six. The interior design is the handiwork of Nadya Arnaout, who has made a huge step forward with the ergonomics. There is now a wide range of storage options, including clothes hooks behind the seats and a through-loading hatch for ferrying items up to 170cm in length, such as golf bags.
The leather seats also feature BMW’s Sun Reflective technology, which in direct sunlight stay 20deg C cooler than conventional leather would, so the crown jewels stay unscorched on hot summer days.
The latest version of BMW’s iDrive control system also finds its way into the Z4. It debuted in new 7 Series and is far easier to understand than the finicky previous versions. The optional navigation system – which comes standard on our sDrive35i test unit and works in tandem with the audio system and its hard disc memory – offers a wider range offunctions when entering destinations, planning trips and presenting maps. The folding 8.8-inch high-res graphic display is also clearer in harsh sunlight and the revised menu structure more intuitive and easier to access via buttons around the central controller.
More road than track
As the flagship model in the range, the sDrive35i is driven by the much lauded 3.0-litre twin-turbo also employed in the 135i and 335i. With 225kW under foot, power is down on the previous M Coupé and Roadster’s 252kW, though the force-fed six now trades 400Nm for the old 365Nm. To their credit BMW engineers managed to build in a hard top (and the seven-speed autobox) while matching the 1600kg kerb of the previous generation, though of course the power to weight ratio of 142.4kW/tonne is 16kW/tonne lower.
Despite using the electronic launch control, we were disappointed not to get closer to the sDrive35i’s claimed 0-100kph time of 5.1sec on track. Our test unit achieved 5.76sec for the 0-100kph run (0.4secs off the M Coupé) and a quarter mile of 14.04sec @ 170.2kph. That said, in-gear 80-120kph tractability results were 1.8sec quicker than BMW’s 4.9sec claim. Given that Nissan’s burly two-pedal, 245kW 370Z sprints to 100kph in 5.46sec and Audi’s 200kW TTS quattro coupé in 6.11sec, the sDrive35i’s 0-100kph time is less impressive considering its price tag.
Our test unit was fitted with the seven-speed double clutch automatic which is a R28 700 option only on the sDrive35i models (both the sDrive 23i and sDrive 30i can be fitted with an optional six-speed automatic transmission). BMW strangely opted for the push forward/change down, pull back/change up steering wheel paddle formula which is less intuitive than the conventional left/change up, right/change down set-up.
Also standard on the sDrive35i is BMW’s Dynamic Drive Control whichat the press of a button allows the driver to set up the car in three stages:Comfort, Sport and Sport + . Compared to the previous Z4 the car feels softer and less hard-edged in Comfort mode, with a ride quality ideal for everyday commuting. With this setting BMW has effectively addressed the previous Z4’s skittish attitude over rumble strips and mid-corner undulations – a by-product of that car’s runflats.
In Sport and Sport + modes the system sharpens throttle response, alters the control map for electronic damper adjustment (in cars fitted with Adaptive M Suspension) and reduces traction control intervention. With the optional sports automatic transmission, DDC also changes shift points and ‘holds’ gears for longer under acceleration.
Although the Adaptive M Suspension lowers the car by 10mm, we would have liked more precision and response to steering in Sport and Sport+ modes, particularly on track. The Electronic Power Steering (EPS) system is the car’s biggest disappointment, because in slow to medium radius turns the front end still feels disconnected and what should be a tangible link to the chassis is synthetic and remote. A pity, as the chassis otherwise feels more nimble and poised than its predecessor, offering excellent torsional rigidity and lateral grip.
Art has a price
As you would expect, the sDrive35i is grandly specced, with luxuries including the Professional iDrive Satnav system (R21 300), exclusive leather interior trim (R17 000) and Adaptive M Suspension (R15 000) all as standard. But the list price is R16 200 more than a Porsche Boxster S PDK and almost R200 000 more than the Nissan 370Z automatic.
Like any true work of art, the Z4 is pricey, hitting showroom floors at R725 700 for the seven-speed sports auto. Yes, it has a few blemishes, but the overall picture is one to savour. We just wish the steering, like Robin Rhode’s silly advert, had more substance.
2979cc, 24v, 6cyl twin turbo petrol, 225kW @ 5800rpm, 400Nm @ 1300 – 5000rpm
7-speed double clutch auto, rear-wheel drive
0-100kph 5.1sec, 250kph, 9.4l/100, 219g/km
HOW BIG? (LENGH/WIDTH/HEIGHT)
0-60kph 2.96sec, 0-100kph 5.76sec
QUARTER MILE TIME/TERMINAL SPEED
60-100kph 2.43sec, 80-120kph 3.07sec