With an all-new Z4 under development as a collaboration between Toyota and BMW, it’s worth looking at where BMW’s sports roadster has come from before we welcome the future.
Once upon a time, BMW was very good at preserving its principles. The famously stubborn brand said it would “never produce a front-wheel drive car”, a promise first rescinded by using the MINI brand as a workaround, and the more brazenly with the MINI-base 2 Series Active Tourer. For a long while, there “would never be a turbocharged M car”, owing to the fear of corrupting throttle response sharpness – though that fear, it turn out, was later quashed by twin-blown engines in the most recent M3 and M5.
BMW also once strenuously denied they’d ever put a folding hard-top on a Z4. A sports car didn’t need one, they said. With the 3-Series they had held off from folding hardtops until they found a way of packaging one effectively without it ruining the weight distribution. They finally managed, but you have to assume that they worked some kind of witchcraft to fit one on the E89 Z4 without exchanging the original’s no-frills premium for no-thrills tedium.
The Z4 was always a sharp little car. The folding canvas top was actually quite apt, fitting in with the slightly raw appeal that it sought to evoke. Stylistically it was one of Bangles happier efforts, the lines from the headlamps to the rear of the doors taking your eyes on a visual tour of the whole car. Clever stuff. The E89 generation car, while not so controversial as the E85, is still a very attractive piece of kit. You could argue that it looks more understated, perhaps less poised, but it still has that shark-nose grille and low bonnet line which shouts Fire Me Up and Take Me For A Drive.
So you do. Press start and, after split seconds of low-hydraulic pressure chaos, the three litre, twin-turbocharged engine of the sDrive35i car settles to an aviation hum somewhere in the middle distance, with just the faintest suggestion of a straight-six drone. With more application of throttle this unique sound becomes ever more acute, and you soon realise this could only be a machine from Munich.
At higher revs, and calling upon maximum effort, the warble becomes a war cry, a broad howl that reassures you that the Bayerische never truly lost sight of the goal. This is a very nice sounding engine indeed, not sounding overtly force-fed, just incredibly rev-happy and playful when you trouble the top sector of the tach.
The previous generation, E85 Z4 was frequently criticized for the artifice of its electrically assisted steering. I never saw it as much of an issue, yes it was nowhere near as information rich as a Boxster, but it was at least quick and precise, and hey, I’ve still had plenty fun on arcade machines with similar control interfaces. Nowadays steering is better, but still not perfect.
More worrying for some would be the gearbox, an automatic with paddle-shift control. A good many enthusiasts still vomit at the thought of a slushbox in a sports car, but I’m not one of them, at least not these days. For me it depends on two factors, how much power the car has, and how intelligent the box is. Old-school automatics, spending their time hunting for ratios, not kicking-down when you want and blunting the performance are responsible for much of the bad rap. More recent autoboxes can typically shift more quickly than you or I, is almost guaranteed to be in the right gear and doesn’t harm the fuel economy or the reflexes of the car, especially when you have over three hundred horses to deploy.
In the E89 Z4 I am ready to declare the auto box A Good Thing. Stick it in sport+ and it does at least as good a job as I could have done, even if I ignore the paddles. This gives me two hands gripped hard on the wheel to concentrate on direction changes, something the Z4 is still very good at, scything its way along country roads as if it knows every bend. It has a character all of its own, though; where the E85 Z4 had ridiculously unyielding suspension the E89 feels a little more yielding, but you pretty quickly realise that this is how the Z4 should have been all along. The little bit of give in the springs has translated to a tiny, almost imperceptible extra allowance of body roll, but this serves to reduce the instance of understeer. It means you feel you can push a little harder before you reach the limits.
So, in the evolution between generationa a little bit of the Z4s naughtiness was taken away, but this doesn’t mean it’s grown soft and fat. It was still car that you can still enjoy at ten tenths, but which you also have the choice of throttling back and relaxing in. Previously you’d only put up with having your spine turned to dust if it was in exchange for some serious back road entertainment. With the later car you might take the scenic route for the views, not just the roads. Let the deep buckets embrace you and sit back, roof down as that mellifluous exhaust warble surrounds you.
It all puts me puts me slightly in mind of the Z8, that ill-conceived retro roadster on E39 M5 mechanicals that never quite delivered what people though it ought to, but somehow the E89 Z4 doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be anything it’s not. Inside, the cockpit has a similar layout to that of the Z8, a central row of dials and controls, emphasising the width of the cockpit and creating a far more spacious feel. Like the previous Z4 and the Z3 before, it’s a car that you sit amongst, as opposed to merely in or even on, and with your posterior close to the rear axle you feel firmly connected with the machine, looking out over that longest-in-class bonnet.
You’re hard pressed to find any shortfall in quality, either. In recent years BMW, Mercedes and Audi have become difficult to split in terms of interior fit and finish, and the E89 Z4 has contributed towards that reputation. The whole thing looks like it has been built to be enjoyed. Somebody in the design department really cared about the driving experience, not just flashy controls and technology overload.
So, how do you define sports car? Well, if for you it means driving hell-for-leather and pushing the performance envelope on every journey, there may well be other cars out there more suited to your requirements, like a Lotus Elise, for example. Yet the chances are you’ll still find the Z4 very satisfying in its own way.
Alternatively, if your view of the definitive sports car is something like a Triumph TR6 or Big Healey, where being out on the road, judging every turn, feeling the weight of the car shift in your hands and listening to a big throaty engine warble are key to the experience, then you’re sure to find a friend in the BMW, particularly with the searing performance that the twin-turbo engine bring in sDrive35i format.
To be honest, even if you don’t like sports cars at all, if you find them too noisy, too uncomfortable or too uncivilised, the E89 Z4 has a good chance of converting you with its beguiling looks and pan-European refinement. The Z4 survived the metamorphosis from the rorty, thrusting E85 without losing anything, instead becoming massively more useful. The question now is whether the upcoming Toyota-developed third-generation car will take after the former or the latter – or will it redefine the Z4 yet again?
(Images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2017. If you enjoy this kind of thing, follow me on Twittter @RoadworkUK )