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BMW’s Porsche Boxster rival is better to drive than ever, although it still makes a better high-day open-top cruiser than a true sports car

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The BMW Z4 has brought stability to its maker’s sports car offering. For more than a decade before it arrived, BMW seemed only to be experimenting with various executions of two-seat good-time cars.

The BMW Z1, Z3 and Z8 had plenty of novelty value, but none won enough commercial success to survive beyond one model generation (although that latter fact seems a bit bonkers when you think that secondhand values of Z8s have now risen well north of £200,000).

The Z4, on the other hand, has been successful enough to convince BMW to directly replace it not once but twice. The latest, third-generation version drops the folding metal hard-top of the 2019-2016 BMW Z4, but it's still slightly longer, wider and heavier than its immediate predecessor.

Chunkier or otherwise, though, BMW will tell you that this is an attempt to reverse the move made by its predecessor away from uncompromising driver appeal – to represent BMW’s traditional sporting DNA as best a modern front-engined, rear-wheel-drive roadster can and maybe even give owners of the four-cylinder Porsche 718 Boxster S greater pause for a silken six-pot reverie than it has managed before.

This is the car Munich has been developing in tandem with industry giant Toyota since 2013, of course – the platform sibling of the incoming Toyota Supra. That fact, more than anything, might be the reason why Munich hasn’t shrunk it down or changed it around too much, because doing so would only have made engineering the car on a common platform harder.

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What BMW has done, however, is to entirely redesign the car’s suspension (struts featuring up front and, for the first time in a Z4, a five-link system at the rear). Lightweight aluminium components have been adopted to save on unsprung mass, while new subframe mounting techniques have been used at both ends and the tracks are wider – by a significant 98mm at the front.

At launch, buyers will be able to choose between 194bhp and 255bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engines in the 20i and 30i respectively. A 3.0-litre turbo straight six (M40i), with M Performance derivative status, glitters away temptingly at the top of the range and is endowed with 335bhp and 369lb ft of torque (which, Z4 fans will note, is actually no more grunt than the outgoing BMW Z4 sDrive35iS had).

The headline version of the new car gets lightweight 18in alloy wheels as standard, as well as an eight-speed automatic gearbox, lowered and adaptively damped sport suspension, uprated brakes and a torque-vectoring electronic locking differential.

How the Z4 was built around its soft-top roof

It’s pleasing to note that the car industry’s elongated dabble with the folding metal hard-top is now mostly over. Cloth hoods are lighter, simpler and easier to package, all of which makes them a much better fit for any sports car. They seem to be able to seal a cabin at speed almost as well as a hard-top would these days.

They also reaffirm the central point about the best convertibles, it seems to me, via that sense of visual impermanence. A cloth hood on a sports car is like Gene Kelly’s fedora, or an umbrella over the barbeque: it’s a joyous thing. When it’s up, you can tell it’s only up under sufferance, and it’ll be down again to let the sunshine in and the good times roll before you know it.

The new Z4’s roof is nicer to look at than most. BMW supplies it in black as standard, but our test car’s came in anthracite grey with a silver fleck that made it look a bit like designer denim. Squeeze underneath that hood and you’ll find a driving position that isn’t set quite as far back as the Z4’s once was. It used to feel as if you were sitting right on the rear axle, with acres of metalwork out in front of you. That’s not quite true of the new version; you’re usefully closer to the middle of the wheelbase, positioned low and nicely out of the wind, and with plenty of room for your legs and elbows.

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How does the Z4 perform on the road?

The Z4 features BMW’s new-generation ‘Live Cockpit Professional’ digital instruments and its ‘BMW Operating System 7.0’ infotainment set-up. It’s also the first Z4 with a head-up display. The latter is optional but probably worth having, because those new digital instruments aren’t as easy to read at a glance as they might be.

You’ll need to keep a wary eye on that speedo, too, because the Z4 M40i can certainly stretch its legs. The car’s turbo straight six pulls with lots of guts and great throttle response from low crank speeds, and keeps pulling with smoothness and freedom in its delivery as well as with force. BMW’s preference to dial in contrived engine noise in the car’s more dynamic drive modes might be a bugbear for some, but drop the Z4’s roof and the foible becomes less annoying than it might be in a saloon or coupé, with more genuine exhaust and induction sound reaching your ears through the fresh air rushing around your head.

And what of the rest of the driving experience; should those Porsche 718 Boxster owners get ready to jump ship? I dare say some will - but I wouldn’t be in a mad rush.

The new Z4’s ride and handling are both greatly improved compared with its predecessor. It’s now a car with fine body control and a chassis that combines trademark BMW rear-drive handling poise with lots of lateral grip and traction. The car’s handling is accurate and composed, it has usefully good high-speed stability and it’s plenty of fun to drive. But it does feel quite sizeable on the road, and the agility and supple tautness that you hope to find in any truly absorbing sports car are notable by their absence.

As with so many BMWs, it takes familiarity and effort to find an Individual-mode combination of powertrain, suspension and steering settings that is to your liking. Even when you’ve found it, you won’t find a car that’ll entertain quite as well as the very best affordable driver’s cars. The Z4 steers with precision for the most part, but it's a bit short on tactile feel, and the car can dive into tighter corners with a gathering off-centre pace that’s a touch unsettling at first.

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The chassis’ preference is for an assured hold on the road whose margins of lateral grip can be hard to gauge. Meanwhile, the car’s ride feels so tightly damped at times that it leaves little room for fluency – something that might discourage you from sticking with the car’s sportier driving modes.

Does the Z4 compete with its closest rivals?

The new BMW Z4 will probably make a better buy for people looking for a fast, luxurious, two-seat roadster-cum-cruiser than for those looking for a really compelling sports car. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

It's still not quite representative of BMW at its very best, but it's certainly a car that’s getting warmer, better and generally nearer the mark as a driver’s car, by the generation.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

BMW Z4 First drives