First drive: 2019 BMW Z4 M40i in Portugal
Roadsters aren’t the big-volume players in BMW’s line-up, but this genre has thrown up some of the Bavarian marque’s most iconic models over the years, dating back to the timeless 328 (1936-40) and sublime 507 (1956-59). In more recent times, we’ve had the offbeat Z1 (with its unusual vertically sliding doors) and the beautiful Z8 that served as James Bond’s ride in the 1999 blockbuster The World is Not Enough.
However, the roadsters that have made the biggest impact in real terms have been the popular Z3 and its Z4 successors, as each of these has tallied up sales in the hundreds of thousands, although numbers have tailed off in the past decade.
BMW has just rolled out the third generation of the Z4, and the latest entrant incorporates greater economies of scale as its platform and drivetrain will be shared with Toyota’s upcoming reborn Supra, which reprises a nameplate that’s been dormant for almost 17 years.
On paper, things look good for the new Z4 as it’s billed as the stiffest open-top car BMW has ever built, and its weight is distributed over front and rear axles in a perfect 50:50 ratio. From the accompanying images you’ll notice the newbie has ditched the folding hardtop of its predecessor, reverting to the traditional soft-top format of older BMW roadsters. This brings a weight saving of 40 kg, as well as lowering the centre of gravity.
The new Z4 doesn’t land here until March, but we had the opportunity to test the car across a range of Portuguese roads as part of the international launch for the car. We tested the flagship Z4 M40i variant, which is propelled by a turbocharged 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder motor pushing out 340 hp at 5,000-6,500 rpm and 500 Nm from 1,600-4,500 rpm. Drive is relayed to the rear wheels by an eight-speed auto, making for a 0-100 kph split of 4.6 seconds and electronically governed top speed of 250 kph.
This variant is likely to cost around Dhs 300,000 in the UAE, but don’t panic if your budget doesn’t stretch this far as there will also be cheaper four-cylinder sDrive20i and sDrive30i models pushing out 195 hp and 255 hp respectively.
Our drive saw us covering some inner-city trundling, highway cruising and backroad blasting, and the Z4 M40i generally coped well with it all. All-round visibility is obviously great with the top down, and the eight-speed auto (built by ZF) is a smooth-shifting unit, which makes for effortless progress in stop-start traffic.
Once on the highway, it’s clear the 3.0-litre turbo motor has long legs (we clocked up 250 kph without trying too hard), but there’s a fair bit of wind rustle from around the windscreen frame even at much lower speeds than this. Other than that, the Z4 is a comfortable cruiser, especially with the exhaust in its quiet mode. The steering offers more feel than other recent BMWs but is still not massively communicative in the feedback it relays to your fingertips. That said, it’s sharp and direct.
The car comes alive on the narrow, winding backroads we encounter next. The new Z4 has wider tracks (by 98mm at the front and 74mm at the rear) than its predecessor, and this is reflected by leech-like grip levels (especially on the optional 19-inch rims and low-profile tyres of our test car) and great cornering stability. The car’s dynamism is also partly down to the its M Sport Differential, which feeds torque to the left and right rear wheel in the optimum split, and Adaptive M Sport suspension, which tailors ride stiffness to the situation.
There’s a big contrast between Comfort and Sport modes (selectable via buttons next to the transmission lever). The car settles into a relaxed gait in the former as the exhaust note recedes into the background, the ride becomes relatively supple and the engine and transmission assume their most non-aggressive setting. However, choose the latter (ie Sport) and the Z4 undergoes a Jekyll-Hyde transformation by hardening up in every respect.
The cabin layout remains true to BMW’s trademark minimalism, with most functions controlled by the rotary iDrive knob, rather than a plethora of buttons. Nestled in the driver’s seat, you’re faced with a grippy three-spoke wheel (with aluminium shift paddles), behind which sits a virtual instrument cluster that’s configurable in various ways, depending on which info you want prioritised. There’s good use of aluminium trim highlights throughout the cabin, making for a suitably sporty ambience.
As you’d expect, there’s a raft of safety and driver-assistance features on offer, including Active Cruise Control with Stop & Go function, traffic sign recognition, distance information, Lane Change Warning system, Rear Collision Prevention and Cross-Traffic Alert, Active Park Distance Control and a rear-view camera. What’s more, the new Z4 is the first BMW roadster to be offered with Head-Up Display.
Handily, boot capacity swells to 281 litres in the new Z4 whether the top is up or down. This is 50 per cent more than its predecessor offered, making it a much more practical daily-driving proposition. Incidentally, the soft-top can be raised or lowered at speeds of up to 50 kph, with the whole operation taking just 10 seconds.
The new Z4 is a striking looking car, but it’s fair to say not everyone will warm to its styling. Where its predecessor was distinguished by a relatively clean design, the latest iteration has a lot going on visually. The complex front fascia has an assortment of scoops, vents and flaps, and those headlights look more Mercedes SLC-esque than BMW. The Z4’s side profile also lacks the purity of the oldie, with the doors and fenders perhaps a little over-sculpted. The derriere is no less complex, with elongated L-shaped taillights sitting atop a multi-surfaced rear bumper with aggressive cutouts in its outer extremities. More than likely, you’ll like it… or not. It certainly isn’t a middle-of-the-road design.
All in all, there’s a lot to like about the new Z4. There’s plenty of pace and dynamism on offer (especially in M40i form), as well as great fun factor. Its revamped cabin is also a good step forward, while the enlarged boot makes it a more usable vehicle than the oldie. The BeeEm is as engaging to drive as any roadster out there, with arguably only Porsche’s 718 Boxster instilling a greater sense of connection. That said, the latter isn’t the equal of the Z4 on the practicality front.
Photos by BMW.