BMW Z4 review
The BMW Z4 blends an upmarket image with wind-in-the-hair roadster thrills
Despite its sporty looks and powerful engines, the Z4 is more of a comfortable cruiser than a scalpel sharp sportscar. The rear-wheel drive layout delivers balanced and engaging handling, but a soft suspension set-up means it never feels as responsive as a Porsche Boxster or Audi TT. M Sport models feature a stiffer suspension set-up, but the trade-off is an extremely firm ride, which some owners will find off-putting.
There’s no super-frugal diesel engine as offered by the Audi TT, but the BMW’s petrol units are powerful, smooth and respectably efficient. The latest design tweaks have kept the ageing Z4 looking fresh, but nothing has been done to fix the compromise of the roadster’s metal top, which takes up far too much boot space when stowed.
The BMW Z4 is a two-seater roadster that designed to rival sporty models such as the Audi TT, Mercedes SLK and Porsche Boxster. Now in its second generation, the current Z4 was launched in 2009 and received a subtle facelift in 2013.
Unlike its predecessor which ran from 2002 to 2008 (and superceded the old Z3 roadster), the latest Z4 benefits from a complex folding metal roof that helps make the BMW more refined and secure than fabric-roofed rivals – although the electrically powered mechanism adds weight and reduces luggage space.
All versions of the Z4 feature a traditional front-engined and rear-wheel drive layout, plus a choice of turbocharged four and six-cylinder petrol engines. The entry-level 2.0-litre unit powers the 154bhp 18i, 181bhp 20i and 241bhp 28i, while the 3.0-litre straight six is reserved for the 302bhp 35i and 336bhp 35is.
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As you you’d expect from a BMW, the Z4 features an extremely upmarket interior. Top quality materials and a solid finish help give the snug two-seater cabin real premium appeal – although some of the dated graphics for the various LCD screens betray the car’s advancing years. There are no specific trim levels in the Z4 range, but rather two variants – the standard car and the M Sport version. There’s no shortage of kit even on the standard models, which get 17-inch alloy wheels, climate control, a DAB radio, Bluetooth connection and xenon headlamps.
M Sport models feature larger 18-inch wheels, a muscular bodykit and leather trim for the seats, while the flagship 35is adds adaptive damping and a seven-speed DCT twin clutch gearbox. All other models get a six-speed manual as standard or an optional eight-speed automatic, apart from the 35i, which is available with the same DCT unit as the 35is.
Nowadays the Z4 is built at BMW’s plant in Regensburg, Germany. The first generation cars came out of Spartanburg, South Carolina in the USA, but that plant is now dedicated to building BMW SUVs for global markets.
Engines, performance and drive
The rear-wheel-drive Z4 isn’t as engaging as a Porsche Boxster or Audi TT, but it is a surprisingly good cruiser, thanks to its supple ride and high level of refinement – the latter due in part to that complex and relatively weighty metal folding roof.
Still, the naturally weighted steering, fine balance and decent grip mean the BMW still feels agile and composed through a series of corners so it’s a lot of fun to drive. M Sport versions feature a stiffer suspension set-up that harms ride comfort, while the range-topping 35is gets adaptive dampers, which are very stiff in their sportiest setting.
Unlike the Mercedes SLK and Audi TT Roadster, the Z4’s engine line-up is exclusively petrol. The range kicks off with the sDrive18i, which uses a detuned version of the four-cylinder 2.0-litre turbo engine from the 20i and 28i. According to BMW it can complete the 0-62mph sprint in 8.1 seconds and hit a top speed of 137mph, but it needs to be worked hard to keep up with traffic. The sDrive20i is a much better bet in terms of performance, despite its modest 181bhp power output.
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It still accelerates strongly even from low revs and responds quickly to the throttle, particularly when the standard Performance Drive Control is in Sport mode - you can also choose from efficient ECO PRO and relaxing Comfort settings. At the top of the range are the six-cylinder sDrive35i and sDrive35iS – the latter goes head-to-head with the Boxster S and SLK 55 AMG, with a 0-62mph time of 4.8 seconds.
It comes with a seven-speed twin clutch M DCT transmission, which delivers smooth and quick shifts using the paddles on the steering wheel. Every other model comes with a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, while an eight-speed auto gearbox is available as an option, and the 35i can be had with the DCT transmission, too.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
No matter which version of the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine you go for, whether it’s the sDrive18i, 20i or 28i, BMW claims average fuel economy figures of 41.5mpg and CO2 emissions of 159g/km across the board. These numbers are pretty good for a sports car, although the newer, more efficient Audi TT Roadster 2.0 TFSI has the BMW Z4 beaten with figures of 47.1mpg and 140g/km.
Of course all the official figures are generated during a computer controlled test cycle, so if you use all the Z4’s performance potential on the road then fuel consumption and emissions have the potential to rise considerably. The larger capacity engines, driven hard, are likely to consume more.
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It’s worth noting too, that opting for the eight-speed automatic gearbox on the Z4 has no impact on the numbers. Unlike Audi with its TT, BMW doesn’t offer a diesel version of the Z4, so don’t go looking for a super-frugal option.
The range-topping sDrive35iS with its six cylinder engine will naturally be much more expensive to run than the four cylinder cars, as it can only manage to return 31mpg and emits 211g/km of CO2. Newer rivals like the SLK 55 AMG and Boxster S PDK both do better in this area, with emissions of 195g/km and 188g/km respectively – making the BMW marginally more expensive to tax, and increasing its Benefit-In-Kind rating a touch for company drivers.
Insurance premiums are going to be pretty hefty whichever model you choose, with the Z4 range falling into groups 38 to 43 depending on performance. On a ‘like for like’ performance basis, the Mercedes SLK and Porsche Boxster are each a little more expensive though.
The Z4 also benefits from strong residuals, with our experts predicting that most versions of BMW’s roadster will retain around 50 per cent of their new value after three years. This is around the same level of return you might expect from a Mercedes SLK or Audi TT, but invest in a Porsche Boxster and your money should do better.
Interior, design and technology
While the original 'flame surfaced' BMW Z4 divided opinion, the latest model has a much sleeker shape. The long bonnet and stubby boot give it classic sports car proportions, while the metal folding roof ensures it looks just as smart with the top up or down, and you can even specify it in a contrasting colour, if you want to make sure everyone knows you're driving a convertible.
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The Z4 was facelifted for the second time in 2013, with new circular LED running lights, subtle chrome trim for the grilles and side indicators, plus a slim white ‘eyebrow’ line that has been added to the top of the main headlight cluster. The changes are subtle but do just enough to keep the Z4 looking fresh. It’s just a shame, then, that BMW hasn’t done more to the interior.
The snug wraparound dash design is still stylish and it’s all made using high-quality materials, but some dated looking switchgear means it feels older than rivals such as the hi-tech Audi TT and Porsche Boxster.
Standard equipment depends on the engine you go for, but all versions get climate control, alloy wheels, a DAB radio, Bluetooth and xenon headlamps. Leather seat trim is standard on 20i models and above, while the M Sport versions get bigger 18-inch alloys, sport seats, M Sport chassis and suspension settings and an aerodynamic bodykit.
The options list includes a Comfort Pack, which comes with cruise control, parking sensors, extra storage and a wind deflector, plus a Media package that adds internet connectivity and a Design Pure Traction styling pack, which adds black and orange contrasting trim to the interior.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
The Z4’s sat-nav and infotainment system is operated by the familiar iDrive wheel on the console between the seats – existing BMW owners will feel comfortable with it straight away, and newcomers to the system soon will.
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The audio package comprises a BMW Professional radio with single CD player and MP3 playback, and you can beef up the output with two levels of speaker upgrades at £575 and £870, or even add a TV tuner for £810.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
Two-seater sports cars aren’t known for their practicality, but even by class standards, the BMW Z4 doesn’t fare well in this area. The complex hood system takes 21 seconds to fold down and 20 seconds to erect, which is considerably longer than the Audi TT’s fabric top.
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The BMW roadster does claw back some advantages thanks to its elaborate roof though, as it improves driving refinement while touring (with the roof up) as well as increasing security. The car’s comfortable ride – excluding M Sport spec – helps make long distances bearable too, and while boot space is compromised there are plenty of handy luggage nets and a couple of big central cupholders in the cabin itself.
As the Z4 is strictly a two-seater, there’s no option of slinging bags behind the seats either.
The BMW Z4 measures 4,244mm bumper-to-bumper, and is 1,790mm wide. This compares to 4,177mm x 1,842mm for the Audi TT and 4,374mm x 1,801mm for the Porsche Boxster.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
Even tall occupants should have no problems fitting into the BMW Z4’s comfortable seats – there’s plenty of leg room, and elbow and shoulder room isn’t bad either. With the roof up the car’s headroom is decent, and roof down the sky is the limit!
Lowering the roof on the BMW Z4 unfortunately has a big impact on available luggage space, with boot capacity shrinking from 310 litres to 180 litres with the hood stowed. It’s still big enough for a couple of large holdalls, but getting them in and out is one of the biggest problems, as the roof mechanism leaves you with a narrow opening when you raise the bootlid.
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Such compromises are part and parcel of living with a convertible, but if you load the boot with the hood up and try to unpack with it stowed, the chances are you’ll have to raise it again before you can get your luggage out. An optional ski-hatch allows you to carry longer items, though.
Reliability and Safety
The latest BMW Z4 hasn’t been crash tested by Euro NCAP, but the previous model received a four-star result when it was tested all the way back in 2004. However the standard level of safety kit is as comprehensive as you would expect from a BMW, and includes the manufacturer’s full Driver Stability Control system, which includes traction control, anti-lock brakes and electronic brake-force distribution to keep the car stable in extreme conditions.
Run-flat tyres are also fitted as standard, along with protective rollover hoops and a whole host of airbags, including a pair in the seat headrests to protect you in the event of a side-on smash. Incidentally, the latest Audi TT has been tested by Euro NCAP, and that received only four stars in 2015.
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As for reliability, the previous-generation Z4 had an excellent reputation in this area, and this latest model is proving just as impressive. It has been the subject of one recall, though, which was for a potential fault with the electric power steering.
The Z4 hasn’t yet featured as a specific model in our Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, but BMW finished 14th overall in 2015, four places down on its performance in 2014 – putting it one place behind arch rival Audi, and three places behind Mercedes.
Interestingly, breaking down the 2015 results shows BMW polled 22nd for Reliability, but 7th for Build Quality. Its dealer network scraped in at pretty dire 23rd though – two places behind Mercedes, and two ahead of Audi.
Audi’s TT has unlimited mileage cover for the first two years of its warranty, but a 60,000-mile cap kicks-in for the third year.
As with other BMW models, the Z4 is available with a great value pre-paid servicing pack that takes care of scheduled maintenance for five years and 50,000 miles. It costs just £424.