The BMW Z4 is a car that polarises opinion. The second-generation hardtop was not a particularly accomplished motor vehicle and had none of the character of the oddball Z3 that went before both Z4s.
BMW killed the E89 almost three years ago and nobody really mourned its passing. It was heavy and dynamically compromised by the high-set weight of the roof and its mechanism. It was a 90s car in a 2009 body, perhaps crushed by the weight of the Global Financial Crisis. And the roof, obviously.
After a bit of think and some time in a dark room, BMW came up with the G29. Rolling on a platform shared with both the 5 Series and the new Toyota Supra, the new Z4 is sleek, sophisticated, laden with tech and it’s here.
I’ve driven the Z4 30i with M Sport Plus and the M40i and I’ll be driving the 20i first chance I get.
Words: Peter Anderson
Peter travelled to Nagambie in central Victoria as a guest of BMW Australia.
Z Series History
BMW has been buildimg roadsters for nearly a century. Z, however, is relatively recent, with the Z1 arriving in 1989. Z stands for Zukunft, the German word for future which has always been an excuse to get weird. The Z1 was a weird car, with plastic body panels, vertically sliding doors and the running gear of an E30 325i.
It was designed by Harm Lagaay, who went back to Porsche to design the 1992 Boxster concept that became the 986 road car. Only 8000 Z1s were made.
Next came the mass-produced Z3, made famous by Pierce Brosnan’s Bond in Goldeneye and based (again) on the E30 3 Series. The Z3 ran from 1995 to 2003 and was built in BMW’s Spartanburg plant in South Carolina. It, too, spawned a couple of weird cars, most notably the breadvan M Coupe. You hardly ever see them anymore, which is kind of sad. Breathtakingly ugly but also wickedly fast for their time.
Another Z car dropped in 2000, the gorgeous and limited Z8 (BMW Australia has one!). 5703 rolled off the line in Germany and half of them ended up in the US. It was left-hand drive only (dammit) and ran the E39 M5’s V8 and gearbox.
The Z8 started life as an homage to the 507 roadster and was designed by Henrik Fisker, who now runs an electric car company (to a fashion) and designed Aston Martins for a while.
BMW Z4 History
Then the first Z4 arrived. The E85/E86 series came during the halcyon days when BMW’s design was under the guiding hand of Chris “flame surfacing” Bangle. He’d started with the slabtastic 7 Series (well, he came to prominence at Fiat with the amazing Coupe Fiat) and continued to convince the BMW board to produce individualistic cars.
The Z4 split opinion, but that was kind of the point.
Dynamically, it was a lively thing. The trailing arms of the Z3 were replaced with a multi-link rear-end that didn’t mind stepping out, on or off the throttle. The Z4 also spawned a coupe in 2005 which was far stiffer than the roadster and the choice for enthusiasts. Not as individual as its predecessor, though…
The E89 replaced the 85/86 in 2009. The design was BMW’s first attributed to two women – Juliane Blasi on the
It wasn’t a bad thing, but nor was it much of a smash-hit. More boulevarde than
The E89 died quietly in 2016. To give you an idea of how popular it was here in Australia not once was the Z4 on BMW’s press fleet when I asked for one.
BMW Z4 2019 (G29)
And so to the G29 Z4. It’s been a while coming and I was a bit surprised BMW committed to another one. It made more sense when it turned out that it would roll on the CLAR platform and, critically, Toyota would base their new sports car (which turned out to be the Supra) on the same running gear.
Game-changer. It worked on the 86/BRZ so why not a new Z4? Sports cars are increasingly difficult to make profitable, so it made perfect sense. I asked BMW Australia CEO Vikram Pawah if the G29 would have happened without the Supra and he firmly told me that BMW builds what customers ask for.
Just quietly, I think the Toyota link-up probably helped. Going out on a limb, there, right?
Look and Feel
The new Z4 draws much from the past. Australian designer Calvin Luk penned the exterior and says the Z8 inspired much of the Z4, which in turn took plenty from the 507.
The distinctive, wide and low kidney grille filled with a mesh effect rather than the usual slats, the vertically-stacked headlights (a BMW first) and an integrated spoiler are still unmistakably BMW. It’s more of a reboot than an evolution, though. A particular favourite element of mine is the functional air breather on the front guards that draws turbulent air from the front wheel arches.
The cabin is terrific. I actually read something somewhere where an overseas reviewer complained that the cabin didn’t feel like a stripped out roadster. 1. Wut? 2. For this money, I want all the things. Buy an MX-5 or a Lotus Elise if you want bare-bones top-down action.
The same week I drove the Z4 I also drove the G20 3 Series. There are a lot of the same components which is, frankly, awesome. The new Live Cockpit is brilliant and looks terrific, the redesigned iDrive screen running BMW Operating System 7.0 is great. It just feels good.
The seats look like the same as those on the X2 M35i but are wrapped in more weather-friendly Vernasca leather rather than Alcantara.
At launch, all Z4s feature the eight-speed ZF automatic BMW is rightly so fond of, replacing the seven-speed DCT in plenty of cars as well as the older six-speed auto.
You can choose between two 2.0-litre B48 twin-scroll turbocharged engines.
The 20i generates 145kW (197PS) and 320Nm of torque. That’s not bad for an entry level machine, delivering a 0-100km/h (0-62mph) time of 6.6 seconds and combined fuel economy figure of 6.5L/100km.
Step up to the 30i and the same engine delivers 190kW (260PS) and a very healthy 400Nm. The benchmark run to 100km/h is over in just 5.4 seconds and BMW reckons you’ll get an identical 6.5L/100km despite the significant increase in power and torque.
Then there’s the big fella, the M40i. The lovely B58 (as seen in the X3 M40i and M140i) is along for the ride, with 250kW (340PS) and 450Nm for a 4.5 second run to 100km/h and a combined fuel figure of 7.4L/100km.
There’s still plenty of room in those figures for a Z4 M which should be epic, probably packing the X3 M’s S58 (we live in hope). It will also be interesting to see if the 225kW tune of the B48 found in the X2 M35i ever finds its way to the Z4…
Chassis and Aero
The Z4 rolls on BMW’s Cluster Architecture (CLAR) platform, shared with a very wide range of Beemers such as the 7, 5, X3, X4 and X5. And X6 and X7. And the 3 Series. Yeah. BMW is working it hard.
The Z4 is the smallest car on CLAR, but is bigger than the old Z4. Looking at it, that’s hard to believe, but it’s 85mm longer and the front and rear tracks are 98mm and 57mm wider respectively. Interestingly, the wheelbase is down by 26mm.
Front suspension is by double-joint spring struts with plenty of aluminium to keep weight down. The rear is a complex five-link setup, the first time that arrangement has appeared in a BMW roadster.
If you choose the M40i or the M Sport Plus Pack on the 30i, you’ll also get an
All Australian cars feature the M Sport package, notionally lowering the suspension by 10mm. The 30i and 40i have adaptive dampers and you can option it on the 20i. The 30i and 40i have M Performance brakes and again, they’re optional on the 20i.
And the 30i and 40i run on 19-inch light alloy wheels, which on the cars I drove had Michelin Pilot Sports.
You can see the aero in the front bumper, with the signature BMW air curtains at the front and, interestingly, an integrated spoiler on the boot. The air breathers on the side are real and actually extract the nasty bumpy air from the front wheelaches.
(for detailed spec, read our specifications story)
Driving the 30i
If you want to break a years-long drought in Australia, launch a highly-anticipated roadster. The skies opened up not long after we left Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport and kept up most of the time I had behind the wheel as we pushed northwards.
To get the boring stuff out of the way first, the roof didn’t leak and even with a ton of water to push through, the cabin remained fairly civilised. We could easily hear each other’s weather jokes but you couldn’t accuse the cabin of being quiet.
The 30i was very sure-footed in the slippery conditions. BMW is very good at sorting out a non-interventionist stability and traction control system, the diff doing plenty of hard work before cutting the power when things get hairy.
Common to all of the Z4s is a fantastic driving position. It immediately reminded me of one of my favourites, the Jaguar F-Type, although the Z4 is a smaller car and a fair bit lighter. You sit right down in the chassis and everything is in the right place – pedals, steering wheel, console. It’s cosy, comfortable and a great place to get down to business.
The steering is really nicely-weighted in all modes, never getting too heavy even in Sport Plus. BMW used to just wind off the assistance and leave you with a heavy, fuzzy feeling rather than genuine steering feel.
The front end loves to change direction without hesitation, with the diff turning the car in on an ambitious late-braking gambit without letting you embarrass yourself. And boy can you get on the power early. It’s not as predictable or ultimately as awesome as a proper mechanical LSD, but it’s not far off.
The 30i’s lighter nose rides the bumps well and it’s only on the big stuff that you feel the rear might be a bit too stiff in Sport Plus. Having said that, it doesn’t upset the car, the bumps merely underlining that you’re basically sitting on the rear axle.
Driving the M40i
After some nit-picking about the weight distribution – the heavier six-cylinder sits slightly further forward than does the four – it turns out it isn’t even as bad as 51:49 front-to-rear. It’s like…50.2 to 49.8, so near as makes no difference. Park your backside in the car and it probably evens out. Anyway.
There is a lot of torque. In fact, there is a near-overwhelming amount of the stuff meaning the M40i is a lively thing. The deep lungs of the B58 mean the Z4 surges forward at a rate no Z4 has done before. The linear power delivery is the same as everywhere else but with the roof down.
You have to stay awake in the M40i.
Wind it up into a proper mode, though, and the Z4 loosens up and gets a bit more jumpy-in-a-good-way. The rear wheel drive
I love the way the Z4 changes direction and the way it digs in at the front and the car goes with you. I love how the M40i wags its tail, again without letting you embarrass yourself. The fact the conditions were tricky but the Z4 stayed planted until I unplanted it won my heart.
And the M40i’s speed, oh the speed. Top-down speed is so, so good. If only the engine made a bit more racket…
I’m not about to tell you which one is better but I will say that the 30i with the M Sport differential was terrific. As it was still pretty damp even on Day 2 of the launch program, I took it easy but was still impressed with the Z4’s grip in the wet, the lovely, sharp steering and the mildly charismatic engine.
It’s lighter than the M40i and makes you work a bit harder for speed. I like that.
The M40i, though, is lively. Fitted with the same diff as the 30i I drove, it’s a lot of fun in the wet and you need to keep your wits about you in Sport mode. It will shrug off pretty much anything you throw at and if you intend to take a Z4 to the track, the M40i is the car for you. The bigger lungs of the M40i will be worth it.
Oh, and the M40i knocked off a lap of the ‘Ring in 7:55. That’s quicker than the M2 Competition.
Peter Anderson is the Editor and founder of the theredline.com.au. He’s been writing about cars for years and finds it difficult to talk about anything else.