That the BMW Z4’s predecessor, the Z3, was the automotive equivalent of a Ken doll is hardly front-page news. Underneath its exaggerated muscly proportions (big chest/pert rear) lay cheapo plastic and a rather flaccid lump (in the car’s case a 1.9-litre engine initially). It was pretty clear that the US-built BMW was more about body image than ballsy dynamics. The Mazda MX-5 was better at half the price.
The Z4 though is different, like the Rutger Hauer replicant in Blade Runner is different from Barbie’s boyfriend.
BMW’s bold design direction, with its flowing forms, tense surfaces, carved edges and deliberate detailing, is altogether breathtaking. Its influence will resonate for decades, and is a welcome one-fingered salute to virtually every other car maker’s cowardly derivative design in these cripplingly conservative times.
Anthropomorphically speaking, it’s like Penelope Cruz’s face -“ it shouldn’t work, but it does beautifully; and never better than in the Z4.
The revolution spreads inside the spacious two-seater cabin, and it flies in the face of fussiness and clutter despite all the creature comforts expected in an $80-$100K convertible. The T-shaped dash is intelligently laid out with simple instrumentation, a brilliant steering wheel and clever controls. Comfortable seats and a perfectly attainable driving position are other plus points.
Some might find the pared-down interior design too stark for a BMW, but few can doubt the quality or class of the materials (nicely contrasting plastic and metallic finishes) used. The electrically operated roof seamlessly stows or erects in around 10 seconds. And since it’s fabric (with a glass window), it doesn’t eat into the impressively big boot like a Mercedes SLK’s.
But that’s beside the point because this car is actually about the drive. There’s a soul to this sun-chaser, thanks to blue-blooded BMW rear-wheel drive engineering.
Like the Z3, the Z4 is based on BMW’s 3-series sedan; but not like before on the one introduced in 1983 -“ and that’s the difference. Now there’s a sophisticated multi-link rear suspension set-up, along with a 50:50 weight balance, a body that’s 259 percent stiffer (hello, Ken!) and arguably the best production engines available.
Two six-cylinder motors lurk underneath, beginning with a 141kW 2.5-litre unit. It’s a sweetheart, winning you over with a silky smooth but steely strong power delivery all the way up to its 6,000rpm limit.
It means plenty of revs are needed for real sports car performance, but it always delivers and never sounds anything other than happy to do so. The figures speak for themselves: 0-100km/h in 7.5 seconds on the way to a 227km/h top-speed.
There’s a Sport button for Dynamic Drive that sharpens engine, steering and gearbox responses for more hard-edged performance. It’s one of those little flourishes that make driving BMWs special. Even when mated to the superb five-speed automatic as tested, it makes for an involving and invigorating experience.
We also drove the 170kW 3.0 six-speed manual version, which is in another league for punchy acceleration, especially in blistering Power mode. But its high price thrusts the 3.0 too close to the leading Porsche Boxster for comfort, and for the vast majority of buyers the 2.5 will suffice.
And here’s more advice: resist the temptation to upgrade to the drop-dead gorgeous 18-inch alloy wheels. The ride goes from supple to jarring -“ all in the name of looks.
Many critics pan the Z4’s electric steering as feeling odd, but I enjoyed its reassuring combination of crispness, feedback and lightness. And it melds convincingly with the balanced chassis, electronic driving enhancements like traction and stability controls, and superb brakes for a fluent, fluid handling and excellent roadholding. Backed by a broad stance and solid body, the Z4 makes for an awesome zigzag cornerer and long-distance tourer alike.
Besides cost, the Z4’s image will be its biggest hurdle. Its Z3 predecessor largely languished laughably against Porsche’s far more focused Boxster, and people might assume the Z4 is the same. But after a week and a half at the wheel, the Z4 is revealed as anything but a Barbie plaything.