THE PROS & CONS
- What’s Good: Great styling, excellent steering, comfortable ride
- What’s Bad: No manual
The new BMW Z4 and Toyota Supra are cut from the same cloth and share a deeply symbiotic relationship even though the Supra is getting the lion’s share of attention and media coverage.
It’s no secret that they share a platform including everything from the powertrain to suspension design. Even all the little knobs and buttons in the Supra’s cabin have been lifted straight out of BMW’s parts bin. They’re also built in the same factory in Austria so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the Supra experience is similar to what you’re going to get in the Z4. The biggest differences would be the styling, tuning, and the Z4’s ability to drop its top.
But, if you’ve been living under a rock for the last year or so, then you’d have no idea the two were so closely related just by looking at them.
The last Z4 was largely forgettable coming across like a half-baked attempt at giving the roadster a more upmarket, luxurious persona. The biggest problem was the weight and complexity of its folding metal roof. Undoubtedly a boon for sour weather, a power hardtop still seemed like overkill on a 2-seater weekend car. A proper roadster should be simple and emotional and chances are most owners were not logging a ton of miles in their Z4s during winter.
The styling was tame and slightly boring, especially when compared to the weird-cool and polarizing designs of the previous two Zeds. And coming from a company that claimed to the build ultimate driving machines, the experience behind the wheel left us cold. A worthy Porsche Boxster competitor it was not.
A dwindling customer base for expensive roadsters meant that BMW needed to do two things: get the Z4 on people’s radar again and find a way to do it without breaking the bank. Do both of those right and they could probably convince a few of Porsche’s loyal customers to jump ship. The Supra connection undoubtedly helped with the financial bit but the better news is what the designers came up with: an absolutely stellar looking roadster, like someone stole one of your Hot Wheels and made it life-sized. That weird-cool look was back picking up from where the 2nd generation (E85) Z4 left off.
They pushed the boundaries a bit here like the headlight lenses that have been stacked on top of each other rather than placed side-by-side as they have been in virtually every other BMW. And the enormous kidney grille trend continues here but it helps draw your eyes to the striking front end that has the face of a big snarling cat bearing its fangs.
Scalloped sides with a downward rake give the illusion of movement and the long hood and stubby rear deck is classic roadster.
It’s also lower and wider than it looks in pictures thanks to front and rear tracks that have grown significantly. These are decidedly supercar proportions and if a roadster’s main job is to stir emotions then this one does that and then some.
Those wider tracks along with a wheelbase that has shrunk slightly are a clue to the direction BMW has taken with this new Z4 whose focus is now on an agile, dynamic drive rather than cruising boulevards.
You don’t sit; you sink into the cozy and supportive buckets that make it feel like you’re getting a warm and friendly hug every time you get in. Add in a beltline that’s higher than your shoulder and the feeling of being ensconced in a leather-lined cocoon is intimate but never claustrophobic. My 6-foot frame still had a good amount of headroom even when that top was up but the low sill height means that you still need to be reasonably limber to clamber into this roadster. But that’s usually a given in this category of car.
A centre console switch will lower the lined and insulated fabric roof in about 10 seconds and even on the move at speeds up to 50 km/h. It retreats into a well just ahead of the trunk and does not cut into it like the old one did. Which gives you decent boot space that will easily swallow a weekend’s worth of luggage.
The Z4 is more practical than it would seem with door pockets that aren’t exactly huge but they’re there; a fairly sizable storage net behind the seats, and a small cubby hole that can be used as storage or a trunk pass-through for longer items that Z4 drivers might carry, like baguettes. You also get cupholders that will actually fit cups, and there’s even a spot for wirelessly charging your smartphone.
So it’s all pretty civilized and even quite luxurious with a comfortable ride that never gets harsh even over pock-marked roads thanks to a well-tuned suspension and a properly rigid body structure.
There’s the same excellent infotainment system loaded with iDrive 7 that you’ll find across many of BMW’s new cars, a head-up display, active cruise control that will drive for you even in stop-and-go traffic, and a 12-speaker Harman/Kardon stereo. It sounds pretty good but you’ll have to turn it way up when driving at speed. You’ll need to option the premium package and driver assistance package, equipped on my tester, to get most of those items.
This being the Z4 M40i meant that it was motivated by the venerable B58 single-turbo inline-6 tuned to pump out a healthy 382 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque that’s fully available at just 1600 rpm. It’s efficient too, rated at just 8L per 100 km on the highway.
The Z4 sDrive 30i gets two fewer cylinders but still manages a respectable 255 hp from its 2-L turbo 4-banger. And while we always prefer more power the $13,000 price disparity between the two is hard to ignore, more so when you come to the realization that blasting to 100 km/h from a standstill in 4.5 seconds (with the M40i), as much fun as it is, can only be done but a handful of times on public roads unless you enjoy frequent run-ins with Johnny Law.
So yes there’s a strong case for the smaller motor Z4 even though it isn’t the one I’d personally pick. Thankfully both engines are augmented by the same rapid-shifting 8-speed ZF automatic that’s a perfect match for this roadster. Yes, a manual would be more fun but unfortunately, it’s not an option anymore just like it isn’t on the Supra. Boo!
Even if you can’t always use the deep power reserves the bigger motor offers, there’s just something special about BMW’s legendary inline-6. An engine they have perfected over the decades. And it sounds glorious here too. Better than it ever has, giving up that angry, gruff tone for one that’s more feral, more snarly, and more musical. A sound that at full chat with the top down can induce goosebumps and make you question if the exhaust is actually routed through a turbocharger before exiting the tailpipes.
The Z4 M40i is fast but don’t mistake it for a loose canon. It’s a precise instrument and keeps the driver feeling like they’re in total control at all times. Early throttle when exiting a corner will cause the tail to step out nicely but it’s so controllable and so much fun that you’ll want to do this over and over again. You can thank the lenient traction nanny and the standard M-tuned electronic limited-slip differential that’s always working to make you look like a better driver.
The steering feel which has been somewhat hit and miss with BMW ever since they gave up hydraulic racks is really good here. Credit goes to the fact that this is one of the few BMWs you can get in Canada that’s a pure rear driver. There isn’t even an AWD option and the world is a better place for it. The precise electric rack is quick to react to inputs and delivers a nice clear report on how much adhesion the contact patches have left when man-handling the Z4 along a twisty road. And given how compliant the ride remains even when dialed into sport mode, the absence of body roll is a genuine surprise.
I recently drove the M4 Cabriolet, a car that serves up a bigger dollop of drama courtesy of its extra loud, extra punchy motor and loose rear end. Admittedly at the end of its lifecycle, there’s no getting around the dated interior, dated infotainment, and compromised cargo area when compared to the Z4.
As an open-top vehicle, the Z4 is better than the current M4, of that there’s little doubt. But is it better than the Porsche Boxster?
That depends on what you want from your roadster experience. The Porsche is more precise, more clinical in its approach to vehicle dynamics, and its mid-engine layout is a more exotic proposition. The Z4 feels just as powerful; it’s more willing to powerslide on demand, and offers a better ride. It’s also cheaper and I think its styling is more exciting.
Which brings us to the Z4’s pricing that at just north of $76,000 in M40i trim is pretty high. Although, it does compare with other Euro drop-top rivals like the Mercedes SLC and the Boxster.
Some will argue that the Supra is better value and while that may be somewhat true, in BMW’s defense its excellent new roadster offers a much nicer, more upmarket interior, more power, and that prestigious roundel on the hood. And drop-tops typically command a premium over their fixed roof stablemates.
You might have forgotten about the Z4 in recent years and we don’t blame you but this new one will make you remember again