ALICANTE, Spain–I'll spare you the suspense – the new BMW Z4 roadster is a spectacular car.
Mind you, they had us test-driving it on some of the most spectacular roads I have ever encountered – gorgeous two-lane twisties with little traffic.
But the car looks great and goes sensationally, at least when equipped as my test car was, which was pretty much with everything.
That included the brilliant 3.0-litre twin-turbo direct injection in-line six-cylinder engine (last year's International Engine of the Year award) rated at 300 horsepower, mated to the seven-speed DCT (Dual Clutch Transmission) automatically shifted manual gearbox.
The car will also be available in Canada this spring, with a naturally aspirated version of this engine, still nominally 3.0 litres, and rated at 255 horses.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard with either engine, although the ratios are different. The DCT is optional with the turbo, a conventional six-speed automatic is available with the non-turbo.
The two models are dubbed, somewhat incomprehensibly, Z4 sDrive30i and Z4 sDrive35, respectively. Pricing will be announced in about three weeks.
The car retains the very long hood and close-coupled cabin that perches passengers almost directly over the rear axle.
The front end is aggressive, but a sports car shouldn't be a shrinking violet. The busyness of the old Z4's flanks has been honoured yet cleaned up.
The interior has been brightened considerably, with lighter-coloured materials and a metallic-finished instrument panel, and, when the roof is up, larger windows all around.
iDrive has been added as an option to the Z roadster. Fortunately, it has been heavily revised and is much more intuitive than the old version. It includes one of the biggest and brightest nav screens around.
It's still fairly snug inside, notably in the vertical dimension. Headroom is generous top-up, but the basic seating position is very low. When you crank the seat up (power is optional) far enough to allow you to see over the large side-view mirrors, it's a bit of a challenge to see under the thick windshield header and large rear-view mirror.
The biggest change in the Z4 body is the folding hardtop roof instead of a canvas lid, which allows this car to replace both the old Z4 roadster and the fixed-hardtop Z4 Coupe/M-Coupe.
Opening or closing the electro-hydraulic roof takes about 20 seconds.
The advantages are obvious. Roof up, you have a nicely finished closed car, snug and warm in winter, with very little wind noise. Roof down, you have an open sports car, which also keeps drafts well under control thanks in part to a mesh panel between the fixed rollover hoops behind each seat.
So, what's the drawback? Luggage space, or lack thereof. And access thereto.
BMW says that luggage space is 310 L top up, and 180 L top down.
It also claims that the pass-through into the cabin (standard on Canadian-spec cars) can accommodate skis, or even two golf bags. I'm not sure if those bags could actually have golf clubs in them.
But my co-driver and I each had a roll-aboard suitcase and we could not fit both in at once.
All folding-hardtop-roofed cars share this problem to some degree; the Z4 seems worse than most because the long-hood/short rear deck proportions don't allow for much cargo room under the best of conditions.
The Z4 offers a Comfort Access feature (again, standard in Canada), which allows the stored roof to move up to an intermediate position, to facilitate access to the luggage.
Either our Euro-spec test car didn't have this option or we didn't know that it did, because we found it difficult to access our stuff with the roof down.
With a powertrain like it has, it'd be hard for the new Z4 not to be a delight to drive.
Independent suspension front and rear, largely made of aluminum, electrically assisted steering, big brakes and the modern chassis electronics are like, well, piling on.
The standard Dynamic Drive Control feature offers three settings – Normal, Sport and Sport+. Throttle response, the engine management computer, directional stability control sensitivity, steering assist level and – in automatic-equipped cars – shift response, are increasingly sporty as you toggle up the list.
When the adaptive suspension is ordered, damper firmness is also variable via the dynamic drive control program.
Apparently, BMW got some feedback from owners of the old Z4 that the ride was sometimes a bit too hard.
So, Normal is now considerably more comfortable, Sport is about where the base set-up was, while Sport+ takes it farther up the handling curve.
We generally dialled everything up as far as it would go – Sport+, directional stability control off, hammer time.
The most remarkable aspect of the handling is front-end grip. No matter where you point the wheel, the car just goes that way. Only on one very hard downhill off-camber corner did we experience anything remotely feeling like push, or understeer.
I'd have to drive a Porsche Boxster or a Lotus Elise – the benchmarks for pure handling prowess – back-to-back over the same roads to say for certain, but the new Z4 has to rank right up there.
The body, said to be stiffer than before, feels amazingly rigid – nary a squeak, nor a hint of chassis flex or rear-view mirror shake.
The engine is a seamless tsunami of torque, with zero indication that it's turbocharged. Okay, one clue: when driving through a tunnel, you'll want to blast the throttle just to hear the fantastic noise.
There's the slightest hesitation while the turbo spools up. On the road, you never notice.
The Dual Clutch Transmission is essentially the same hardware as used in the M3, but with slightly less aggressive tuning. You can let it shift for itself or you can initiate the cog-swapping yourself.
You can do this by toggling the shift lever or you can use the buttons on the steering wheel spokes.
But BMW has made the same error here that Porsche does on its PDK gearbox – both buttons are identical: pull with your fingers to upshift, push down with your thumb to downshift.
A few quibbles notwithstanding, the new Z4 is very impressive. When the M version comes out, the steering wheel shift paddle issue will probably be fixed.
The first Z4 was a huge step forward, and this one is better in every regard.
Travel was provided to freelance writer Jim Kenzie by the automaker. firstname.lastname@example.org
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