REVIEW DATE: 04 Apr 2006
The Razor-Edged BMW Z4 Has Put The Credibility Back Into The Munich Company's Roadster Portfolio. Andy Enright Tries The Powerful 3.0si Version.
It's improbable that any eulogy to the BMW Z4 3.0-litre will convince you to plump for one if you can't live with the looks. The controversial lines seem to attract or repel in equal measure but underneath the scalpel sharp bodywork beats the heart of a sports car. After the disappointment that was the Z3, fans of the Munich marque are rejoicing.
Although a fire-breathing 343bhp M version of the Z4 is now available, the 3.0-litre car sits at the top of the four engine line up that makes up the conventional Z4 range. Initially, enthusiasts took heart from BMW's decision not to introduce a weedy 1.8-litre version designed to mop up the volume sales against Mazda MX5s and the like. The lure of the lucre proved too strong, however, and an entry-level 2.0-litre engine was introduced. Above this base model, the Z4 gets a more satisfying all six-cylinder engine line up. Choose 177bhp 2.5i, 218bhp 2.5si or, if funds permit, the rather more satisfying 265bhp 3.0si version as tested here. We won't mention the 3.2-litre M Roadster again for fear of giving our test car an inferiority complex.
Of course, the 3.0-litre car is faster but it also feels more of a sports car than the 2.5-litre models. Much of this can be put down to the more spirited aural accompaniment that's apparent as soon as you twist the key. The 2,979cc engine snarls into life and fills the cabin with a malevolent grumble quite unlike what you'd be served in a 3-Series with the same powerplant. The reason is a piece of tubing that runs from the inlet manifold to the bulkhead. This contains a diaphragm that flexes like a drum as the engine breathes, channelling noise into the cabin. Whereas other manufacturers strive to quell cabin noise, BMW has taken the opposite route.
It works too, but the sound effects are only part of the story. The £33,500 Z4 3.0si also has to do the business when the blacktop is twisting into contorted shapes, throwing dips, bends, duplicitous cambers and blind brows at the driver. Whereas this scenario would tie a Z3 in knots, the Z4 is made, quite literally, of much stiffer stuff. In fact the chassis is extremely torsionally stiff, which helps when transmitting that power to the tarmac. With a 155mph top end and a sprint to 60mph occupying just 5.7 seconds, the BMW should be plenty fast enough for most.
"The BMW betrays the relentless march of technology"
It can also more than hold its own as a driver's car. Although the steering feel can't match the Porsche, in almost every other area the BMW betrays the relentless march of technology. The stability control system does little to interrupt the enthusiastic driver, the gearbox can be slotted between the six ratios with a delightful firmness and the brakes are superb. Jab the 'Sport' button on the dashboard and the Z4 sharpens up its act still further, beefing up the steering and giving the fly-by-wire throttle a more aggressive software map to work with. It inspires enormous confidence and the little yellow triangle on the fascia strobes furiously through full commitment cornering, the only indicator that you are not, in fact, blessed with the car control of Juan Pablo Montoya.
The difference in philosophy between the Z3 and Z4 is immediately apparent as soon as you take a look at the dirty side. Whereas the Z3 used the ancient semi-trailing arm suspension of a 1985 vintage 3-series, the Z4 is bang up to date, using a proper multi link arrangement. The Z4 sits foursquare on the road due to a wide track at the front and rear. It was the first BMW to use electric power steering and is hugely torsionally stiffer than the somewhat wobbly Z3.
The commitment to appearing a proper driver's car can be seen in certain key areas. The traction and stability control systems can both be disabled at the touch of a button, something you won't be able to do in a Mercedes SLK for instance. Although it does require you to hold the button in for what seems like an eternity when the control systems are disabled, you'll be aware quite how potent the 3.0-litre in particular is. BMW's paddle shift SMG sequential gearchange can also be specified. If the exterior design generates a little controversy, the same can't be said of the cabin styling. It's typically low-key but classy, BMW at their best. There's a broad centre console and clear dials. Space in the footwell is especially generous and it's possible to hunker down into a low driving position and feel really ensconced in rather than on the car.
The hood is a superb fully-automatic affair with no manual intervention required whatsoever. Simply push a button on the dashboard and the whole thing retreats in less than ten seconds with no clips, latches, poppers or stress. The Z4 promises an easy life but who will these laid back takers be? It's an open secret that the Z4 - like its predecessor - has been targeted at the lucrative US market and a catchy advertising campaign featuring Gary Oldman and the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, received quite some acclaim back when the car was launched. The latest model can be spotted by the shoulder line that extends beyond the bonnet edge to the front air dam. There's a wider air intake below the grille, which itself displays some minor modifications and the rear tail lights feature horizontal light conductor rods as seen on the Z8.
The BMW Z4 3.0si is an enormously impressive achievement, better than we expected and better than we probably hoped for. With a charismatic and burly engine, beautifully designed cabin and fine road manners it is, if one takes pricing into account, the class standard. Of course, there are a number of very capable Plan Bs if the styling proves a little too much for your palate, but give it time and it'll grow on you. And time behind the wheel of a Z4 3.0si is time very well spent.
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