Is this the greatest thing since sliced bread (or at least Mazda's MX-5 Miata)?
It might be a far cry from the Z3 that James Bond drove onto the silver screen nearly two decades ago, but the latest Z4 is an impressive droptop.
What is it?
The BMW Z4 is the two-seat, front-engined, rear drive continuation of the roadster introduced in 2011 as a 2012 model. Birthed from the loins of the Z1 of 25 years ago, the Z4 is one of the latest vehicles in the long line from Munich that lets you be the car. Buckling into the low-slung creation places driver and passenger just ahead of the rear axle for an exhilarating feel of all the G-forces at play.
The Z4 gets its power from a direct-injected BMW TwinPower 2.0-liter twin-scroll turbocharged four-cylinder engine. No slouch, it manages to produce 241 peak horsepower between 5,000 and 6,500 rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque from a wide 1,250-to 4,800 rpm. The four-banger is mated to a precise six-speed manual gearbox that offers quick shifts that can be performed while comatose. It's that good. Zero to 60 comes on at 5.5 seconds with the six-speed manual, while an optional eight-speed automatic completes the task in 5.6-seconds. Top speed for the 28i is 130 mph.
The four-pot engine is not the only one on offer. The Z4 can also be outfitted with a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine that features twin turbochargers (unlike the twin-scroll single model in the 2.0-liter). So equipped, it supplies 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque, or if specified as the range-topping Z4 sDrive35is, 335 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque, with the seven-speed DCT transmission and a top speed of 155 mph.
Our tester was of the anything but bare-bones variety, but was not equipped with the available iDrive or navigation system that would be operated by a console mounted controller. As a result, there is a top-of-the-dash storage bin where the eight-inch monitor would have been. It did, however, come complete with the BMW adaptive Driving Dynamics Control system which offered comfort, sport and sport+ modes for constantly variable suspension settings.
What's it up against?
Two of the Z4's natural competitors also happen to come from Germany. Mercedes-Benz's SLK and Porsche's Boxster are a couple of roadsters that match up head to head for their prospective buyers hearts and wallets.
Rivals from Japan are more of the "on a budget" variety compared to the pricey Germans - think Nissan 370Z and Mazda MX-5 Miata.
How does it look?
Shark-like in appearance, the Z4 follows the basic design esthetic of a long nose with a short rear overhang. In this segment, very few cars do it as well as the Z4, except maybe the gone-but-not-forgotten Z4 coupe from 2006-2008. Unchanged for 2013, the four LED light rings offer a distinctive identity to the signature face.
Ours included an M Sport Citrus Yellow package ($6,050) complete with M Sport steering wheel, shifter knob, yellow Alcantara trim panels, 18-inch alloy wheels and Bridgestone Potenzas all around.
The folding metal hardtop can go from utilized to stowed in as little as 19 seconds and at speeds up to 35 mph. The roof takes up most of the space in the trunk while stored. Any idea of a road trip with lots of luggage will most likely be accomplished with the roof in the up position. If you were interested in a top-down excursion, it's probably time to consider the use of a soft, duffle bag style of suitcase instead. Or maybe UPS.
And on the inside?
At first glance, it was time for a flashback to the Killer Bee days of John Belushi on Saturday Night Live. Filled with yellow and black leather throughout, the interior is a well thought out place of business that allows drivers to truly become one with the car.
Having been in numerous BMW vehicles through the years, the first thing we noticed was the missing iDrive controller. As this car is not equipped with the system, it was as close to a pure, un-ladened sports car that we have been in, bar perhaps the Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Well thought out, the interior offers numerous adjustments including moveable bolsters, thigh support, and a tilt and telescoping steering wheel that can accommodate most any size of driver, at least those six feet and under.
Interior noise is well controlled with the roof in the closed position. Cargo capacity is 6.4-cubic feet with the roof stowed in the trunk but grows to 10.9 cubic feet when in the open position.
But does it go?
The direct-injection, variable valve 2.0-liter TwinPower turbo offered great pickup in a torquey package that still managed to pull while in fifth and sixth gear.
The electric-assisted power rack and pinion system offered some of the best direct steering feel from any of the so-called artificial (electric) systems. Face it folks, electrification is here to stay. They say a new invention called the light bulb is just being perfected. The result is a beautifully handling roadster, which almost begs you to whip wheel through the turns. We found the 2.0-liter plenty engaging, but for those who can never get enough, we say tick the box for the 35is and its additional 95 ponies.
The four-cylinder is also equipped with auto start/stop, which saves some fuel but proved especially intrusive in the Z4. This might be due to the fact our Z4 sDrive28i was equipped with a six-speed manual gearbox, but it does display a considerable amount of what feels like shift shock as it refires, usually when pressure to the brake pedal lightens.
The EPA says to expect 22/34 mpg, with a combined total of 26 mpg. Our combined take was a tick above 24 mpg.
Overall the ride is exceptional with no chassis flex. It tends to handle brilliantly thanks to the intuitive nature of the Drive Dynamics Control toggle switch just west of the shifter, which allows for some fine-tuning of the suspension and throttle mapping from Comfort to Sport and Sport+. The immediate feel from C to S causes the sensation of a more rapid acceleration, while Sport+ manages to disengage the dynamic traction control for additional tail-wagging fun - the kind of driving sports cars were made to do.
Leftlane's bottom line
In its anything but stripped down form, BMW's Z4 sDrive 28i offers some pure roadster fun.
But it comes with a price. Although BMW is not the only German automaker that practices pricing at the extreme, why does it feel as though the Europeans are trying to recoup the entire set of loses from the Greek debt crisis with every car they sell in North America?
2013 BMW Z4 sDrive 28i base price, $47,350. As tested, $56,395.
M-Sport Citrus Yellow package, $6,050; Premium Sound System, $950; Heated seats, $500; BMW Assist with Bluetooth, $650; Destination charge, $895.
Words and photos by Mark Elias.