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2009 BMW Z4 sDrive 30i Review

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AS I write this, I have a smile on my face.

A full, broad toothed, ear-to-ear, that-was-awesome grin.

Why?

The fact of the matter is – a car hasn’t tickled me like this since… the 128i convertible that BMW sent us last summer. Since then, I’ve driven plenty of new cars that were, in one respect or another, awesome: the Rolls-Royce Phantom Fixed Head Coupe, the Cadillac CTS-V, the new BMW 750Li, the MINI Cooper S and Clubman, the Mercedes-Benz S550 4-Matic, and the Bentley Continental GTC.

None of these cars for all their grand attributes planted smiles as consistently on my face as the new BMW Z4.

Actually, hold on a minute, that’s not entirely true.

There was just one other car that made me smile as broadly but wasn’t new.

That car was a 2000 Porsche Boxster (a car largely that’s undergone minor tweaks in the current variant) that yours took for a spin while cooling his heels at the local CarMax. Following my turn at the wheel, I asked the new salesman to drive. The guy was practically giddy when the revs peaked eliciting a howl from the exhaust that reminded me of a formula car.

Apparently, my asking for the test drive made both our days.

That Porsche, for all its 911-fundamentalist detractors, was a thoroughbred. And though it was quick, it wasn’t necessarily fast – most of the cars in the aforementioned list were faster in acceleration and unleashed horses on horses more power.

LESS = MORE

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But none of them made me grin like that old Boxster.  And there’s a point here. Sometimes, less is indeed more. Less weight, for example. Less stuff to clutter a cabin. Less interference between the driver’s intuition and the mechanisms that move the vehicle forward – or backward –or side to slippery side. Less cost.

Which brings me to the new Z4. When I approached the “Deep Sea Blue Metallic” over “Ivory White” roadster I was, to be brutally honest, only mildly enthused. It took a second look to appreciate the car’s flame surfacing v. 2.0. Plus, the silly, sesquipedalian titles: Z4 sDrive 30i and Z4 sDrive 35i received knee-jerk ridicule.

And when STI presented me with the Z4 sDrive 30i featuring the smaller 3.0 liter, 255 horsepower, straight six engine (the 3.5 liter makes 300 hp) with a six speed slush box, I was already bored.

But as I closed the driver’s door to my next review the STI rep. stepped forward and said with a smile, “This car and the Boxster RS are my favorite cars.” Bear in mind, STI manages other manufacturer fleets like Aston Martin, Porsche, and Audi (read: R8).

Over an Aston?

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Yep, said he. The Boxster and Z4 were just tighter, righter cars, expressely made for having fun.
I turned to face the steering wheel with a new appreciation. Better than an Aston and as great as the Boxster. The car starts to register as something special.

Inside, the Z4 feels Teutonic; a little sterile, but comfortable, supportive, familiar, and functional. There’s great swaths of stitched leather and slick timber across the dash plus suede inserts on the doors. It’s similar in its snugness to the Golden Eye Z3, but more plush and offers much more space than any Boxster or Benz SLK.

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While this Z4 did feature the tricked out M-suspension with adjustable mode settings in Normal, Sport, and Sport +(deactivates the traction control), the little Bimmer made do without iDrive or any of the watch dog gadgets that pervaded the new 7-Series. So, if I was going to depart a lane without using my blinker, there’d be no nanny to vibrate my wheel this time.

Amen.

INTUITION

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Push the start button and a familiar twill finishes with a short brusque burst from the twin exhausts. It’s the kind of sound a 3-series might make with a shot muffler, which is great because it announces the motor’s potency with each blip of the throttle and every automatic gear change, but leaves you be when you’re highway cruising in sixth.

Pull the gear command back to drive – it’s the garden variety, no DSG tricked out push button stuff here – and get ready to experience the most enjoyable automatic cog swapper you’ve ever had do the work for you.
Slap the lever left to Sport when under way and the transmission will drop a gear as the car gets ready to rock.

Plant the go pedal and look past the tightly rounded instrument display down and over the arc of the long, etched bonnet. The Z4 tucks it’s long nose nicely into each and every corner. Descend a hill and tap the brakes once and the auto holds you back by dropping one gear. Tap the brakes a second time – and the car will detect the bigger battle against gravity and downshifts yet again! It’s brilliantly intuitive.

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Hold the steering wheel with both hands to feel the road’s sinews as they pass beneath sticky Bridgestone Potenzas. A few fast turns into this dance and these shoes warm up nicely; egging you on to make your moves that much more brazen.

This car lives to dance and subtle steering inputs are that’s needed to execute a laser-guided delivery system that places you exactly where you want to be on the road.
The steering’s superbly weighted and you feel secure in dialing in fast maneuvers. It’s one of the best handling production cars out there.

GENERATIONS

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To give you some indication of just how much an affirmation the Z4’s steering is to BMW’s long-standing reputation for providing superior handling cars, I had the opportunity of driving a M.Y. 2000 328i and a M.Y. 1992 325i following my time with the Z4. This difference in tactile precision between the generations is stunning. The older sedans, for all their sashaying talents and driver-first orientations, feel comparatively numb.

Similarly, the only car that I’ve experienced that comes close to this kinetic steering feel is the current generation MINI.

Adding to the Z4’s communicative aptitude is the forgiving but firm suspension and a balanced weight ratio. In short, the car is engineered to make anyone look like a hero and encourages you to pull crazy g’s tracking in and out of hairpin turns. The old Bimmer maxim of making suspensions that can keep up with the engine’s is well and truly alive with this roadster.

And about that smaller, 255 hp, straight six. Does it leave you wanting for more?

Yes. It’s signature smooth and torque rich, though no one will want to step out of an M badge car – particularly the predecessor Z4 M – without opting for the full 300 monty. Zero to 60 happens in six seconds and there’s just not enough mid-range punch to satisfy serious speed freaks. For everyone else, this roadster provides more than ample go juice.

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The only time you’re left wanting is when the six speed takes a moment longer than you’d want to find third as you try to build the requisite steam to pass from one extra legal speed to the next. There’s almost a kind of lag that you can detect. But once the power comes on its there and sending you well into the horizon – or swiftly into a corner.

But inevitably before you reach that corner, you’ll want to break just a little. The Z4 weighing roughly 3,300 lbs isn’t a featherweight, but the brakes apply stopping force to the roadster with sure evenhandedness. No heavy yaw or rear lock up. Is it Porsche quality? Not quite, but better than most everything else out there.

So… if you were to make a decision to buy just one Z4 sDrive 30i or one standard Boxster, which should you choose?

WHAT PRICE EXCELLENCE?

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Both, priced as new, are expensive. The Z4 may start at $45K but this test car with satellite radio, an automatic, and heated power seats was a set of all-season mats away from $60K. Even considering that assembly has moved to the Eurozone, that’s a wee bit high.

But if it is a question of value for money, the pricey Bimmer offers more for your dime than a new Boxster. The two seater Porsche is noisier, rides harsher, features steering that’s less communicative and offers less accommodation for people and their things leaving the mid-engined, amphibian go-kart less suited for driving every day.

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On the other hand, the Z4 comes within 9/10ths of the Boxster’s purist performance while offering better steering, a more cosseting interior that, thanks to a power folding hard top, features a coupe level of insulation, and smarter styling. Further, if you were ever to overcook it and do-in either car, you’re far more likely to walk away from the Z4 to tell the tale.

BMW’s produced a true, honest, classic but not overtly retro, wind-in-your-hair, sweet handling toy that you can drive day in and day out. If you can see past the steep price, the Z4’s the best in its class.

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It’s no wonder why I’m still grinning.

June 23, 2009
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About the Author: Gunnar Heinrich is publisher of Automobiles De Luxe online and is executive producer of the Automobiles De Luxe Television series on PBS member station CPTV.

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  1. Fantastic car, great pictures! That car screams summer…and rides like a go-cart :D

  2. Tight. Right. Perfect.

  3. Drive?

    I’ve been prepared to hate this car as another hardcore roadster going all soft and flabby in the manner of SLs and XK8s, more sporty car than sports car. But your’s is the second review that I’ve read that puts those fears to rest.

    That said if I were putting my sheckles on the table, my gut tells me I’d prefer the Boxster.

    Drive? Really? The press fleet is filled with slush boxes? It’s true then there isn’t a god.

  4. Actually, judging by how much fun this Bimmer is to drive, I’d say that the evidence is pointing towards there being one.

  5. The retractable adds 300 lbs put it doesn’t fight with you as much as the new M3. The twin turbo rocks!

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