BMW Z4 sDrive 2.3i

Hard-top Z4 is fast, stylish and full of fun – and it's punchy six-cylinder engine makes it a real contender for winning this test

To really understand the significance of the SLK to the roadster market, you only have to look at its closest rival.

The original BMW Z4 marked a huge improvement over the Z3 it replaced, merging classic roadster proportions with sharp driving dynamics and strong engines.

Yet when the second-generation model hit showrooms in 2009, it brought a further change to the existing template: a metal folding hard-top. That thrust the car into even closer competition with its Mercedes rival than before – but the change paid off.

Despite the requirements of its complicated roof, the latest Z4 is a striking design, with a long nose and stubby tail providing the hallmarks of a traditional roadster. In M Sport trim, a deeper front bumper and aggressively angled air intakes give it an even sportier edge.

Slide into the driver’s seat, and it’s clear the designers have worked just as hard to make sure the interior delivers the unique feeling you’d expect from a sports car. You sit low, with the cabin wrapped around you, yet there’s plenty of space, with a lot of leg, shoulder and headroom.

The dash gets a smart silver finish and the retro-inspired, alloy-rimmed heater controls look great. This switchgear isn’t found in other BMWs, and it’s these little touches that make the Z4 cabin special. What’s more, the uncluttered layout ensures you feel at home immediately.

Opt for the £2,225 sat-nav, and a high-resolution nine-inch colour screen provides extremely clear mapping, while the iDrive controller is handily placed on the transmission tunnel, next to the electronic parking brake switch. Hit a button on the console, and the two-part aluminium roof is stowed in just over 20 seconds.

With the hood folded, there is less buffeting than in either rival. This is highlighted by our noise meter readings: at 70mph, the Z4 was 5dB quieter than the more draughty SLK. It’s a shame BMW charges £215 for a fabric windbreak, though.

It comes as standard as part of our model’s £1,495 Comfort Pack – along with parking sensors, cruise control and a cubby between the seats – but you shouldn’t have to pay extra.

Stowage space is limited, as the door pockets and glovebox are tiny, plus the lowered hard-top eats into the boot, reducing available room from 310 litres to a cramped 180 litres. There are no complaints about the way the Z4 drives, though.

The six-cylinder engine is tuneful, smooth and thrives on hard work. It doesn’t have the torque of the Audi’s turbo, yet this is easy to forgive as it comes alive above 4,500rpm.

In corners you can feel the weight of the engine in the nose, but the steering is sharp and accurate, and neither rival can match the BMW for driver fun. While M Sport models get 18-inch rims, ours wore optional 19-inch wheels. They deliver plenty of grip, but also provide a firm ride.

Still, the superior damping of the well judged suspension ensures the Z4 is not as crashy as the SLK on rough surfaces. And the mix of roadster fun and long-haul comfort makes it a front runner in the battle for honours.

Details

Chart position: 2
WHY: The Z4 is a quality offering that delivers driver engagement and a top-notch interior. We test it here in manual guise.

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