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The BMW Z4 is a fine-looking two-seat roadster with indifferent driving dynamics

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The second generation BMW Z4 was introduced in the belief that its bigger dimensions, a folding hard-top (its predecessor had a fabric roof) and adjustable steering, throttle and chassis settings were essential ingredients to make it appeal to a wider audience. Even the BMW's plush cabin now offers more room and better visibility for those wanting a tourer as well as a roadster. This is a very grown up kind of car.

The BMW Z4 is sold with a narrow range of high-output engines. The smallest in the line-up is a 2.0-litre, which is sold with outputs of 181bhp or 242bhp. Then there's a six-cylinder 2.5-litre unit that offers 201bhp, and the rest of the range is filled by a 3.0-litre engine that’s available in three states of tune: 255bhp, 302bhp and 335bhp.

A plush cabin and great engine, but it’s no dynamic benchmark

As is the new norm with BMW, the Z4’s nomenclature bears no relation to engine size; the sDrive18i, 20i and 28i get the 2.0-litre units, the sDrive23i gets the 2.5-litre and the three 3.0-litre models are badged sDrive30i, sDrive35i and sDrive35is.

So performance is a top priority for the Z4. But is the multitude of new technologies and the arrival of a folding hard-top really enough to make the second generation Z4 live up to BMW’s claims of a car that can 'morph from comfortable yet sporty cruiser through to outright performance car?'

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DESIGN & STYLING

BMW Z4 roof up
The pronounced lip spoiler incorporated into the boot lid is another detail that’s difficult to pick out in photos

It was inevitable that the quest to make the BMW Z4 more comfortable would also make it bigger. It is typically around 180kg heavier than the previous generation Z4, and it has grown by 148mm in length and 9mm in width. Despite the extra weight, the Z4 maintains its 50/50 weight balance and improves upon its predecessor’s green credentials.

One of the most significant styling features that distinguish the new Z4 from its predecessor is the indented ‘V’ set into the bonnet, which runs like a ribbon snagged on the badge. Although it is difficult to make it out in pictures, the area around the side repeater incorporates a number of complex contours and a deep inset.  In its position, if not design, this detail references BMW’s earlier Z3 and 507.

Gloss black finish helps to make the A-pillars appear thinner than they are, giving the Z4 a sleeker, less top-heavy appearance

A gloss black finish helps to make the A-pillars appear thinner than they are, giving the Z4 a sleeker, less top-heavy appearance. Three-quarter forward visibility is not a problem. 

Three-quarter rear windows help improve refinement when the roof is down and the windows up. They also make the Z4 look more coupé-like with the roof up. However, the fixed-position aerial looks out of place on such a modern design.

The use of LED technology in front and rear lights is nothing new, but it’s worth noting that BMW produces some of the most interesting light designs in the business - not overly glitzy, but with great attention to detail. The odd lip at the outside edge is to improve aerodynamics.

The pronounced lip spoiler incorporated into the bootlid is another detail that’s difficult to pick out in photos. Its proportions are finely judged and the edges flow neatly into the rear lights. A small point, but the Z4 badge looks as though it’s slightly too large and sited a little too high on the boot. 

INTERIOR

BMW Z4 interior
The wheel rim is perhaps a little too thick, but its diameter and angle are just about right

This is one area where the new BMW Z4 truly outclasses its rivals. Increased cabin space – 44mm extra head room, 20mm more shoulder room and 43mm more elbow room – gives a great sense of light and airiness that even the Audi TT and Mercedes-Benz SLK can’t match.

This isn’t just a result of the bigger metal structure. The substantial rear windscreen and addition of two rear side windows are key to making the Z4 a more comfortable place to be, as well as helping to deliver impressive overall visibility. Even the doors have grown in length by 26mm over the previous generation car's to aid a more elegant entry to the cabin. Our only criticism is that shorter drivers may be aware of the high sides and feel the need to raise the seat too high for comfort in order to get a sense of where the elongated bonnet ends.

Analogue dials are clear, but speedo is arranged in increments of 20mph — not ideal for UK speed limits

The quality of materials is also a big improvement. The new iDrive system for cabin controls makes an appearance and still takes some getting used to, but it’s simple to use once you have. Overall, the mix of space, improved visibility, simple controls and beautifully finished cabin does more than any other Z4 attribute to persuade the driver of its new-found touring ability.

Boot space is good for this class, with 180 litres available with the roof down and 310 litres with it up. Although outright capacity betters that of its direct rival, the SLK, which offers 208 to 300 litres of boot space, access to the bulk of the load space is difficult because of an obstructive safety lid, deep boot and small opening.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

BMW Z4 sDrive35i
The sDrive35i matches the 0-62mph sprint we recorded for the old Z4 M Coupe

Despite tasking the new BMW Z4 with a broader remit that encompasses the softer side of roadster duties, BMW has not overlooked performance.

The range-starting sDrive20i and the sDrive28i are both excellent engines that complement the Z4 beautifully. They deliver a blend of pace and economy that BMW seems to be able to achieve consistently better than its rivals.

A roadster should, regardless of your speed, make you feel good about driving it, and somehow the Z4 misses that mark

A Z4 sDrive28i is not only capable of 0-60mph in 5.7 seconds, it can also return 41.5mpg and emits only 159g/km. Our experience of the engine shows it be effectively lag-free and characterful also.

Fitted with the optional seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox, the sDrive35i sprints from rest to 60mph in just 5.1sec, matching the time we recorded for the outgoing Z4 M Coupé. Although the M car is quicker to 100mph (by only 0.4sec), the new Z4 has the advantage over the more relevant 30-70mph increment, needing only 4.3sec.

Underpinning that impressive performance is the now-familiar twin-turbo straight six, unchanged from its applications in the 1 Series and 3 Series. It may not have quite the same zingy top end as BMW’s naturally aspirated sixes, but as an engine to tackle the variety of conditions our congested roads present, it is difficult to fault. The efficiency of the DCT gearbox also contributes to the performance potential.

At 335bhp, the 35iS has 33bhp more than the regular 35i. There are some visual tweaks but chassis changes are limited. Beyond a freer-flowing exhaust, there are no mechanical changes to the 35iS's motor over the 35i's. That's okay, because the turbocharged 3.0-litre six was already a stonker.

The way the 35iS picks up and pulls cleanly through its rev range is world-class, and now it comes with the kind of exhaust rasp that's been missing from the line-up since the demise of the old M3. Economy and emissions are on a par with the regular 35i, too.

RIDE & HANDLING

BMW Z4 cornering
Ride feels composed with Drive Dynamic Control switched to Normal

Ever since the BMW Z4’s predecessor, the Z3, appeared in 1996, BMW’s roadsters have had one major dynamic problem: the Porsche Boxster. And comparison remains slightly unflattering in the case of this latest car.

As well as attempting to broaden the Z4’s ownership appeal by fitting a folding hard-top, BMW has made an effort to expand the car’s dynamic appeal to match. This is most pronounced on M Sport-suspended Z4s, which get adaptive dampers as part of a Drive Dynamic Control system that offers three settings.

The Z4 takes very little time to settle and it exhibits little roll

On its Normal setting, the ride is composed enough, even if it never shakes off an underlying harshness over small ripples and ridges, but its body control is seldom tight enough. Through Sport and to Sport+, body movements are controlled more tautly, but by then the ride has reached new levels of harshness. Even range-topping sDrive35i models get modest 17-inch wheels as standard, and that could be in a bid to mitigate this tendency.

The steering is a little better. In its general weight and accuracy it’s good, and once you’ve wound on some lock it’s responsive and linear. But just off straight ahead there’s a dead patch, and here it lacks linearity. Gauging how much reaction you receive for any given input can be trying.

If you do push on, though – ideally with Sport+ engaged – the Z4 displays the kind of poise and lateral grip that you always suspected it might have. At the extreme there is reasonable feel from the steering, too. It’s just a shame this ability isn’t evident more often.

A Boxster is better on all levels and even the SLK sometimes displays a superior blend of ride and handling. It’s a shame, because extracting the best from this Z4, with its excellent drivetrain, should be more pleasurable.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

BMW Z4
The BMW Z4 has more comfort and added practicality, but has it gone soft?

The the BMW Z4 certainly isn’t priced at the cheap and cheerful end of the roadster spectrum.

Options are also pricey, and it's easy to spend big sums on what we'd consider essentials, such as the sat-nav and DCT gearbox; seat upgrades are also worthwhile to improve comfort, especially if you intend to use the Z4 for longer journeys.

BMW really should include some of the excellent optional interior equipment as standard

 Set in the broader context, the Z4 has reasonable residuals, but forecasts suggest that the equivalent Boxster or SLK will protect your investment better. 

Although the 26.1mpg we averaged in the sDrive35i falls short of BMW’s claims, this is still a good result for a sports car that sacrifices no performance for the sake of its environmental conscience. The lower-powered 2.0 units are markedly better for fuel consumption, with claimed fuel consumption in excess of 40mpg.

VERDICT

3.5 star BMW Z4
The Z4's perceived quality is beyond criticism

The BMW Z4 does many things well. To our eyes and those of many people we meet, it looks a million dollars. The cabin is designed thoughtfully and its perceived quality is beyond criticism. It’s reasonably spacious, too, although the boot isn’t overly generous.

Little wonder BMW sees no need for a coupé-only version of this car, because this Z4 is so capable at swapping its feel between open-top sportster and snug coupé.

There's no need for a coupé-only version, because it is so capable at swapping its feel between open-top sportster and snug coupé

Dynamically, the Z4 is a tale of two halves. The drivetrain is excellent to its core, whichever model you choose. Engines are smooth and free-revving, with plenty of power and excellent response. And for the level of performance on offer (we’re talking the beating of the old Z4M, here) economy and emissions are up to usual BMW standards, which means impressive.

However, it’s hard to escape the feeling that there’s something missing. The Z4’s steering isn’t intuitive, and although the chassis will ultimately exhibit fine balance and ability, getting it to reveal its talents is a less enjoyable exercise than it should be. It doesn’t ride well enough, either; at times it’s just plain uncomfortable, whichever model you choose or whatever setting you have the adaptive suspension set to.

The Porsche Boxster still has the beating of the Z4 as far as we’re concerned, while, at times, the Mercedes SLK also offers a better blend of comfort and thrills. A roadster should, regardless of your speed, make you feel good about driving it, and somehow the Z4 misses that mark.

BMW Z4 2009-2016 First drives