Test Drive: 2009 BMW Z4

Sports-car driving doesn't get much more satisfying, and retractable hardtop adds a refined aura - but the Z4's main attraction is its luscious new shape

by James M. Flammang

2009 BMW Z4 sDrive35i two-seat roadster
with retractable hardtop

In their promotional materials and comments, many automakers make their vehicles sound like virtual works of art. BMW's sports car, in its latest form, actually deserves that distinction. Both the prior-generation Z4 and its Z3 predecessor were attractive and highly capable roadsters. With its 2009 redesign, however, the latest Z4 practically moves into a different league entirely.

Only Jaguar's XK coupe and convertible fall into the same lofty stature of design excellence. The 2009 Z4 looks so superb, so elegant, that it almost seems a shame to drive the car. Instead, it could simply sit there, idle, gathering admire glances and looks of longing.

On-the-road motion is what it was made for, of course; and the Z4 driving experience pleases one's psyche just about as much as its profile and shape please the eye. This is simply one beautiful automobile, both behind the wheel and gazed upon from afar - or up close.

Sure, getting inside with the retractable roof up means some twisting and squirming. But that effort is well-rewarded, once you're settled into the firm and serious, but impressively comfortable, driver's seat.

Introduced at Detroit's North American International Auto Show in January 2009, the new-generation Z4 two-seater was described as a "classic roadster," featuring a long wheelbase and a long, low-slung hood. Two engines are available. In the Z4 sDrive30i, a normally aspirated 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder produces 255 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque. The more potent Z4 sDrive35i gets a twin-turbocharged version of the 3.0-liter engine, generating 300 horsepower and 5800 rpm and 300 pound-feet of torque at 1400 to 5000 rpm.

Both engines mate with a standard six-speed manual gearbox. A six-speed automatic transmission is available for the Z4 sDrive30i roadster, while the Z4 sDrive35i may be equipped with BMW's dual-clutch seven-speed automatic. Teamed with manual shift, the stronger-engine model can accelerate to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds, according to BMW; and a tenth of a second quicker with the dual-clutch unit. Both automatic transmissions include paddle shifters for manual gear selection.

Standard Driving Dynamics Control uses a pushbutton to select from three drivetrain/suspension settings. With manual shift, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives the Z4 sDrive30i roadster a fuel-economy estimate of 19 mpg in city driving and 28 mpg on the highway. The twin-turbo model with a manual gearbox gets a less-frugal estimate: 18/25 mpg (city/highway). With the automatic transmission, the non-turbo roadster gets a slightly higher estimate: 19/29 mpg. Dual-clutch automatic in the turbocharged edition drops the mileage estimate to 17/24 mpg. Both models roll on 17-inch run-flat tires.

BMW claims considerable improvement in visibility, compared to the previous-generation Z4: specifically, a 14-percent rise overall, along with 40-percent bigger side windows and considerably bigger see-thru area in the back window. Maybe so, but over-the-shoulder visibility is close to nonexistent, so those outside mirrors are absolute necessities for highway driving and for backing up. Tiny triangular quarter panes, which can lower along with the front windows, are there for show, not for helpful viewing of the outside world. A touch of creakiness could be heard occasionally, likely emanating from the separate segments of the retractable hardtop, which raises and lowers without fuss.

Performance is just as enthusiastic and refined as expected from a BMW - and a bit beyond. BMW's six-speed manual gearbox also is just as superior as expected, beckoning the driver to use it enthusiastically and rewardingly. Flicking from one gear to the next, up or down, take a bit of effort and concentration, but it's an utterly enjoyable task. Clutch action is a perfect match, allowing for easygoing takeoffs when needed, along with emphatically rip-roaring sessions on the open road.

Few cars beat - or even match - the latest Z4 for sure-footed, go-precisely-where-pointed handling and control. Ride comfort is appealing on smooth surfaces, but the taut suspension does transmit some harshness under certain conditions, such as hitting a bump while taking a corner at substantial speed. Steering could hardly be more positive and certain.

Gauges are BMW-familiar, except for the oil temperature gauge at the bottom right. Trunk space is one notable drawback, qualifying as meager. Space is needed for the two-piece aluminum retractable hardtop, which is standard on all Z4s and goes up or down in 20 seconds.

Pricing for the Z4 sDrive 30i model starts at $46,575 (including destination charge). An automatic transmission adds $1,325. The Z4 sDrive 35i roadster stickers for $52,475, plus $1,525 for the optional dual-clutch seven-speed automatic transmission.

Attention Editors: This complete 2009 BMW Z4 review is available now for your publication. Please contact us at JF@tirekick.com for details. (8/09)

© All contents copyright 2009 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang