2009 BMW Z4 sDrive35i Roadster Road Test Review
ASK TEN DIFFERENT PEOPLE what they are looking for in a new car and you'll likely get ten different answers.
For the most part however they'll agree that reliability, practicality, efficiency, safety and value for money are the most desired qualities. But what if their life circumstance allowed them to swap 'practicality' for other attributes such as beauty, balance and power?
More than a fair trade it must be said, and one that we'd all most likely enjoy making... perhaps more than we might care to admit.
Enter the BMW Z4 sDrive35i Roadster. With us for just a week, it taught us to 'pack light', leave the hangers-on at home and get behind the wheel just for the hell of it.
BMW's 'Z' car styling has had its moments, some good and some bad. The Z1 from the late 80's was unusual and forgettable, while the Z8 was simply stunning.
The Z3 was the first to come to our shores and while it was pleasingly styled, it didn't pack enough under-bonnet beef.
A Z3 with an M badge was the answer, but the added oomph was too much for the cheap trailing arm rear suspension and it earned a reputation as a tricky 'on-the-limit' handler.
The first of the Z4s was the E85 which arrived sporting Bangle's controversial 'flame surface' styling.
It worked, almost.
The E85 Z4's complex curves ended abruptly in a flat nose, making it one of those rare cars that can make your heart ache, or break, depending on its direction of travel.
The rare coupe version just amplified that loathe to lust effect.
In contrast, the new E89 Z4 features a more rounded mix of styling ingredients. The long nose and short tail remain, but it's now longer, wider and lower.
That the E89's styling is an evolution of the outgoing model is obvious, but there is no heartbreak here, the new Z4 'looks right' from any angle.
Larger exterior dimensions mean more interior space, but the Z4 is still intimately snug.
Compared to the previous generation, there is more headroom and shoulder room, more room to move your arms and entry is easier via the larger doors.
The interior will impress even the hardest to please, offering a well-balanced mix of style, materials and quality. It is without question the best interior this reviewer has seen all year, trumping some more fancied offerings.
The introduction of i-Drive has had a profound effect on dashboard design at BMW. De-cluttered and minimalist, a modern BMW dashboard is a lesson in Teutonic efficiency, but they can be unnerving for some first timers.
In the Z4's case, and as befits a performance convertible, the attention to detail is impressive, ensuring that this particular interior is no barren waste-land.
There are beautifully crafted climate control knobs to twirl, while bordering the business sections of the front-face and lower-dash sections is impeccably stitched leather, complementing the Brown Ash woodgrain inlays.
The same cream leather graces the door trims as well as the infinitely adjustable, seriously supportive seats that lock you in place (pudgy Captains of Industry be warned).
The instrument dials are typically BMW, a little austere but perfectly legible and housed in a sporty binnacle, tucked behind a three spoke leather steering wheel.
As much as we have to point out that cabin space is at a premium, few people buying the Z4 will care. So it should be noted that the glove box is minuscule and the carpeted and netted shelf area behind the seats will hold a coat... just.
Thanks to the new folding hardtop, the boot (roof down) offers less luggage space than the old car.
With the roof up, the Z4's boot will swallow a very reasonable 310 litres of luggage. Drop the roof and the luggage capacity shrinks to 180 litres; but that is still more than enough to deal with some overnight bags and a few bottles of your favourite Shiraz.
Of course, that folding hardtop roof is one of the more notable changes introduced to the new Z4.
Replacing the previous model's fabric roof, the electro-hydraulic retractable roof, takes around 20 seconds to complete the Z4's transformation from coupe to convertible.
Equipment & Features
The Z4's cabin area may be small, but that's not to say that it's light on features.
Entry level for the Z4 begins with the sDrive23i which boasts a host of standard features including a leather interior, heated seats, climate control airconditioning, power windows/mirrors, bi-Xenon headlights, heated rear glass, auto wipers and headlights, front and rear parking sensors, cruise control with brake function, run-flat tyres with pressure indicator, an electronic differential lock and a trip computer.
Choose the sDrive35i and the standard features list expands to include a keyless entry and start system, sports seats, adaptive headlights with highbeam assist, 18-inch alloy wheels fitted with 225/40 and 255/35 size tyres and remote operation of the folding hardtop roof.
The interactive heart of the car is accessed via the now familiar, and no-longer so daunting i-Drive controller. A brief familiarisation session with i-Drive is all you need: it's intuitive and user friendly.
An LCD screen rises out of the upper centre dash section and angles forward a fraction to avoid glare. It is here that you can access (via the i-Drive controller) satellite navigation, audio controls (radio, CD and MP3) and a range of other vehicle functions.
The Z4's sound system offers a high level of sound quality, making it the perfect alternative to the 'sonorous six', when traffic impedes progress or you just want to relax.
Passive safety features include four airbags (front and side/thorax), along with new seat-belt-tightening technology. A pair of fixed roll bars behind the seats, a very stiff bodyshell and strengthened windscreen pillars offer further accident protection.
The Z4's active safety features arsenal includes electronic stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes, and cornering brake control.
The sDrive35i's twin turbo 3.0-litre six is good for 225kW and a useful 400Nm (from just 1300rpm). According to BMW its enough to propel the manual sDrive35i from 0-100 km/h in 5.2 seconds and the double clutch equipped car in just 5.1 seconds.
A six-speed manual is standard in the sDrive35i, but our test car was equipped with the optional ($3,500) double clutch seven-speed, enabling lightning fast and almost seamless gearchanges.
The manual officially returns a combined cycle economy figure of 9.8 l/100km while the double-clutch betters that by 0.4 l/100km. There is little between the two in CO2 emissions, with the manual generating 228g/km and the double-clutch 219g/km.
BMW's Dynamic Drive Control (DDC) is featured and allows the driver to select between Normal, Sport and Sport+ options.
The different settings are software controlled and change throttle response, steering response, gearshift speeds (dual-clutch equipped cars) and the stability control thresholds.
The standard electronic differential lock negates the fitment of a limited slip differential, but BMW engineers have managed to get around this by programing the Dynamic Stability Control to brake the wheel that spins, and send drive to the wheel that has better traction.
The Z4's suspension has been revised and features front struts that combine with a double-joint tie-bar system, made almost entirely from aluminium.
The rear suspension is independent and features longitudinal arms attached to the Z4's chassis and track control arms that attach to the axle's subframe.
An optional Adaptive M suspension package is available across the Z4 range. It reduces ride height by 10mm and introduces electronically controlled dampers, that work in sync with Dynamic Drive Control (DDC), adding a further dimension to the 'selectable drive experience'.
Braking duties in the sDrive35i are handled by 348mm front and 324mm rear brake discs, and aluminium callipers.
The Z4 is an experience akin to automotive theatre. Drop down into the snug cabin for the first time and you're confronted with an exquisite mix of leather and wood, along with a bonnet that stretches decadently into the distance.
Of course the fact that you sit low, just forward of the rear axle, seemingly inches from the ground, just adds to the drama.
Punch the starter button and with a mechanical whirr the 3.0-litre twin-turbo fires to life. It's all creamy smooth BMW straight-six, with just enough metallic raspiness to hint at the measure of intent on tap.
The stumpy controller for the dual-clutch gearbox is easy to use, once you are accustomed to clicking the side button with your thumb (necessary to engage reverse or drive). If you prefer selecting gears yourself, then the controller can be pushed across into Manual mode.
Once in manual mode, you upshift by bumping the controller backwards, with downchanges requiring a forward push. It's intuitive to use and on the right road an absolute riot.
On the other hand you can use the steering-wheel mounted buttons to change gears, but its an altogether more confusing, and less rewarding experience.
Engaging sport mode ('DS' Sports Drive) shifts the game along, with faster gear changes, and a pleasingly heady exhaust sound-track.
The force fed straight-six is turbine smooth, and in the Z4, thanks to some neat exhaust tuning, it has found its voice. An altogether pleasingly gruff little number, there is plenty of smile inducing pop and crackle at low speed and on the overun.
In either of the sports modes, the pops and crackles combine with a whoofly 'braaaap' between upshifts and perfectly timed throttle-blips on downchanges.
BMW's dual-clutch gearbox is hard to fault and even had this dedicated manual shifter thinking that, yes, this just may be the future.
It feels like a 'tightly wound' automatic. There is nary a hint of low speed hesitation or juddering, just smooth, precise gear changes handled with 'Swiss Watch' precision.
The Z4 will happily carve up the curves as well, with confidence-inspiring handling to compliment that oh-so-polished drivetrain.
Where the old car's harsh ride was oft criticised, the new Z4's ride is markedly improved. Less bone-jarring, more compliant and while it remains a little on the firm side, it is far easier to live with.
It may lack a little feel through the wheel, but the Z4 grips tenaciously. The electronic stability and traction control systems ensuring that even under the gun, a largely neutral stance is maintained. It is brilliant on a winding road and has you always wishing and hoping for the next set of apexes.
Selecting 'Sport' mode in the Dynamic Drive Control (DDC) system allows you dial in a reduced level of traction and stability control while at the same time sharpening steering and throttle responses. This was our preferred setting: good mannered, well-balanced fun.
If confidence in your ability behind the wheel is well founded, then 'Sport Plus' mode sees the stakes raised to another level with even sharper responses, and no traction or stability control. We didn't tempt fate, but had no reason to doubt the Z4's unassisted dynamic ability.
Sure its heavier than the old Z4, but in sDrive35i form that unburstable 3.0 litres of hard-revving force-fed six more than has the measure of the extra kilos. It's powerfully efficient as well.
Take the whip to the Z4's flanks on your favourite stretch of open road and you will be pushing to see more than 9.0 l/100km. A more relaxed approach will see the Z4's consumption dip comfortably into the 7's.
We managed 9.2 l/100km across a mix of Melbourne streets and a blat down the Great Ocean Road. Given the performance on offer, the Z4 is a worthy member of BMW's 'Efficient Dynamics' club.
With the roof up, the Z4 feels as safe and secure as any other coupe. Unfortunately our time with the test car saw more rain than sunshine, but the brief stints we enjoyed with the roof down were a load of fun.
Cruising at the speed limit, with the wind deflector in place, is a wonderful largely unruffled experience.
If you are shopping for a performance two-door convertible in the sDrive35i's price range ($120,400) then there are a few options that will highlight the value to be found in the BMW offering.
Porsche's Boxter S offers almost identical performance, but in a more finely honed, inherently better balanced package that will appeal to the purist. And it will cost you. At $145,900 for the automatic Boxter S, it is considerably more expensive.
Audi's 3.2-litre DSG equipped TT, isn't really a match on performance, but is keenly priced at $96,900.
The Mercedes-Benz SLK350 is really the closest match on specifications and price at $121,728 for the 224kW 3.5 litre V6 automatic. The SLK has featured a folding hard top for years and is arguably a more practical everyday car, but it doesn't offer the sDrive35i's high-strung, focused driving experience.
The Boxter may be brilliant, the TT may be a value contender and the SLK may be close on paper, but all are wallflowers compared to the Z4. If being noticed is a key part of your sports convertible fantasy, then the Z4 is overflowing with on-road presence.
The beauty isn't just skin deep either. It continues through to that beautifully designed and almost flawless interior, one of the world's greatest-ever engines and should you option it, quite possibly the best double-clutch gearbox this side of the Veyron.
The sDrive35i Z4 is an indulgence; frankly there is not a practical bolt in its body and most of us normal folk will struggle at the concept of spending a house deposit on a cosy little two-seater.
But if your circumstances in life allow, then this is the Z4 at its best.
- Commanding sportscar looks
- Glorious engine
- Precision double-clutch gearbox
- Improved ride
- Cabin design and quality materials
- Fuel efficiency
- Performance value for money buy
- Ride still a little firm and jiggly (but much improved)