First Drive: 2003 BMW Z4

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2003 BMW Z4 Convertible

(3.0L 6-cyl. 6-speed Manual)

Light My Fire?

At the press introduction for the Z4, journalists were shown the first of a new batch of short films for the bmwfilms.com site. At the risk of spoiling your viewing experience, we'll throw out this observation: By the end of the John Woo-directed Hostage, one is apt to question which "hostage" is more important — the kidnapped CEO or the BMW Z4 3.0i constrained to a life of doing The Driver's every bidding? After taking over a similarly equipped Z4 and driving several hundred top-down miles between Charleston and Spartanburg, S.C., the next day, we determined that there would definitely be worse cars to take hostage.

The Z4 is not just another installment of the Z3 (else it would have kept its predecessor's name, we suppose) but another level of roadster for BMW and the roadster segment, according to the company's product communications staff. Well, we expect that serious enthusiasts will continue to prefer the hard-edge talents of a Honda S2000 for racing around turns, as well as that car's lower price, but for well-to-do roadster buyers who need as much athleticism as they can get without giving up day-to-day or road-trip livability, the Z4 is easily the top choice. Key competitors are the same as before — S2000, Mercedes-Benz SLK, Porsche Boxster and Audi TT — with secondary competition coming from the Mazda Miata and Toyota MR2 Spyder.

Much has been made of the new sheet metal — at least among the editors here — which abandons the Z3's dessert-wine version of the traditional corporate styling of the 3 Series and 5 Series for a "flame-surfaced" body (earlier seen on the CS1 and X Coupe). And the company's taste for front fascias with an almost unsettling degree of self-assurance has already been modeled on the current 7 Series. During the obligatory PowerPoint presentation, journalists were shown a chart with the 7 Series on one end and the Z4 on the other — apparently the styling of all future models will fall in between the two on this spectrum, so we'd best learn to like the new direction.

Flame surfacing as it appears on the Z4 is replete with twists, contortions and prominent cut lines — a bit of a shock to those accustomed to the Z3's smooth, continuous curves, but then, that's the idea. To the extent that the Z3 might have been regarded as a ladies' car, the Z4 is intended to reach out to a broader, hopefully "maler" audience — without alienating would-be female buyers, of course. Once said drivers are seated in the cockpit, capturing their minds (and wallets) is not likely to be a difficult task. As company representatives were quick to point out, the Z4 retains traditional front-engine roadster characteristics — hunkered stance, long hood, driver and passenger seated as far rearward as possible — and after strapping in, we soon felt carefree and potent. Depending on how you adjust the side mirrors, you'll catch occasional glimpses of the car's contours, which proved to be quite appetizing in these smaller doses — the only way you'll ever see the Z4 once you're behind the wheel, except through the eyes of others (and there should plenty of those to go around during the first year).

As important as styling is for a roadster, the Z4 is a purebred BMW, and accordingly, the driving experience is its ultimate selling point. The new roadster rides on a new chassis adapted from the current 3 Series, and that means struts in the front and a multilink rear suspension (in lieu of the Z3's semitrailing arms). Of course, rigidity is always an issue for an open-top car, and BMW's engineers took a number of measures to ensure that the Z4 would be stiffer than its predecessor. Among these is a pair of Y-shaped engine-bearing chassis rails that forms a side sill and half of the central driveshaft tunnel. They are similar in concept to what's used in the Z8, though steel, rather than aluminum, is used in this application. And as on the M3, there are front and rear underbody thrust plates and reinforcing braces between the strut towers and the cowl area. The result is a car that is over 100 percent more structurally rigid than the Z3 roadster, according to BMW, and indeed, top up or down, we detected no cowl shake during our initial drive.

Like most successors, this one is dimensionally larger than the car it replaces — the Z4's wheelbase is almost two inches longer than the Z3's at 98.2 inches; its front track is 2.4 inches wider for a total of 58 across; its rear track is up 1.2 inches to 60 across; and overall length and width have increased approximately 1 1/2 inches each. These changes offer payoffs in handling as well as interior room; though there was only a negligible increase in legroom, larger drivers will likely notice the extra shoulder room — almost an inch more for a total of 52.5 inches.

Care was taken to ensure that the Z4's stiffer structure and larger dimensions did not adversely affect curb weight through the use of aluminum for the hood and various suspension parts (thereby reducing unsprung weight). Overall weight is right around 3,000 pounds, just a few dozen pounds heavier than the Z3 and about 300 pounds lighter than the 3 Series sedans. While it carries about 200 pounds more than peers like the S2000 or Boxster, the Z4 feels solid and secure without seeming encumbered.

BMW says that the base Z4 suspension has been tuned for a firm ride that permits little to no body roll during cornering. We spent all of our time in a roadster equipped with the Sport Package, which prescribes stiffer springs, more firmly tuned shock absorbers and a 0.6-inch lowered ride height. Depending on the engine choice, the package comes with either 17-inch wheels with W-rated 225/45R17 tires, or 18-inch wheels with W-rated 225/40 rubber in front and 255/35 contact patches in the rear. Also included is the Dynamic Driving Control feature previously seen only in the M3 and M5. When activated by a "Sport" button on the console, it affords increased steering effort (less power assist), quicker throttle response and, in automatic-equipped Z4s, a more aggressive shift program.

As we learned, South Carolina is a state crisscrossed by straight roads, and aside from a few high-speed sweeping turns, we had little opportunity to evaluate the Z4's handling at anything resembling the limits. Certainly, we were impressed by its stability and flat body attitude as we prodded the throttle around said turns, but we'll reserve final comment until we conduct a full road test. We did, however, have plenty of time to consider ride quality, which although not as forgiving as that of a 3 Series', was nonetheless commendable for a sports car with a short wheelbase. After driving 300 miles, we arrived at our destination still relatively comfortable and wouldn't have minded driving further if given the chance. The Z4 should make a fine companion for commuters, though nonenthusiasts who regularly drive on crumbling pavement will probably be happier without the 18-inch tires and sport suspension calibrations.

The Z4 is the first BMW-branded vehicle with an electric power steering system. This change initially gave us pause since, for the most part, we've found the company's traditional hydraulic setups world-class in terms of steering feel and response. While we won't deliver the final verdict until we've been able to hustle a Z4 through a series of tight turns in the canyons, our initial drive suggests that the electric setup is worthy of the BMW name. Responses to driver inputs were quick, and the vehicle-speed-sensitive power assist allowed the wheel to firm up progressively as we negotiated sweeping curves. Also note that the Z4's steering ratio is quicker than the Z3's — 13.7:1 versus 15.4:1.

Engine choices (and by extension, trim level designations) are the same as on the Z3: Buyers have their pick of a 2.5-liter inline six that generates 184 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 175 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm and a 3.0-liter inline six that turns out 225 hp at 5,900 rpm and 214 lb-ft at 3,500 rpm. Both feature double VANOS continuously variable valve timing for the intake and exhaust valves, and thusly equipped offer broad spreads of usable power dispensed in an extraordinarily smooth manner. While journalists like us gravitate toward the beloved 3.0-liter straight six, most people will be quite content with the 2.5i model — BMW expects that two out of three Z4 buyers will stick with the smaller-displacement engine. Fuel economy hovers around 20 to 21 mpg in the city and 28 to 29 on the highway.

Braking is typically a strength for BMWs, and to keep the Z4 stopping short among luxury roadsters, the company has fitted all roadsters with larger-diameter rear discs, 11 inches on the 2.5i and 11.8 inches on the 3.0i. The 3.0i discs are ventilated as well.

Buyers will have several transmission options this year. The 2.5i model's standard five-speed manual is a carryover, as is the five-speed automatic with Steptronic automanual functionality — this one is optional on all Z4s. Standard on 3.0i models is a new six-speed manual transmission.

Compared with the five-cog unit previously offered on the 3.0i, the six-speed has a somewhat shorter first gear ratio, as well as an overdrive sixth gear ratio for slightly quieter highway cruising (the five-speed manual has a 1:1 direct-drive fifth gear, though as the BMW-initiated know, engine droning at high speeds has never been a problem). The gearing for second, third and fourth is pretty much the same for both manual transmissions. Beyond that, the six-speed features shorter throws between gears as well as a shorter shift lever so as to heighten the performance feel. Interested buyers should note that the six-speed won't go into production until December 2002. BMW did have early-run six-speed-equipped specimens at the press introduction, and we immediately warmed up to the new tranny, finding it easy to shift smoothly.

More interesting is the availability of a Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG) for all Z4s starting in April 2003. Already offered on the M3, the SMG is a true six-speed manual transmission (no torque converter), with an electronically controlled clutch (no clutch pedal in the driver footwell), that offers authentic automatic and manual shift modes. It has been toned down somewhat for use in the Z4, whose driver will presumably be more into relaxed driving pleasure and seek a more user-friendly setup as opposed to the M3 driver who wants maximum performance at whatever the cost. As such, the roadster's SMG will have a single automatic shift program (to the M3's five) and two manual shift programs (to the M3's six). In the manual mode, drivers will be able to change gears by tapping steering wheel-mounted shift paddles or the shift lever; as in the M3, each downshift will be accompanied by an automatic blip of the throttle to ensure seamless gear changes. There weren't any SMG-equipped Z4s to try out during the event, but based on our experience with the M3, we expect that this transmission option will be useful in situations in which several people — some enthusiasts, some not — will drive the roadster on a regular basis.

Inside, the Z4 retains a simple driver-oriented design, though its shapely one-piece dash and minimum of center stack controls definitely give it a more upscale feel. Better interior materials help, too — no longer must buyers pay extra for an "aluminum look" interior; rather, genuine brushed aluminum trim is included in roadsters with a leather interior (standard fare on 3.0s, optional on 2.5s). Most surfaces seemed high in quality during our initial inspection, though the plastic used for the glovebox door and the storage cabinet behind the seats felt surprisingly cheap — leading us to think that like the Z3, the Z4 is perhaps not as impeccably dressed as other BMWs.

Laterally bolstered sport seats are standard on all Z4s, and we found them supportive enough for long-distance travel. New this year are adjustable headrests and tilt and telescoping adjustment for the steering wheel. Unfortunately, the range of adjustment for the wheel is limited, and we weren't able to locate that perfect driving position that's so easy to find in a 3 Series car, causing our right leg to develop a few kinks before the trip was over. Keep in mind that the roomier 330Ci Convertible costs about $3,000 more than the Z4 3.0i, though of course you'd have to part with the running-barefoot-through-the-grass sensation of driving the roadster.

Raising the windows and putting the seat heaters on the highest setting enabled us to drive in relative comfort on a cool fall morning in South Carolina's low country. A wind blocker would have been a nice addition; buyers will be able to get one as a dealer-installed accessory. We noted with pleasure that the new Carver audio system (standard on the 3.0i, optional on the 2.5i) easily overcame the wind, though any lasting judgments on its performance are best left to our stereo expert.

As we drove, most of the controls were within easy reach, including the window buttons, which BMW has thoughtfully relocated to the driver door as opposed to the center console. We did have some difficulty negotiating the climate controls, despite their straightforward three-knob arrangement because of the downward slope of the dash. However, our water bottle was always within reach thanks to the excellent new cupholders — a sturdy ratcheting holder pops out from either end of the dash (safely out of the way of any controls). Beverage containment doesn't get any better than this among convertibles.

Should you have to put the top up while driving your Z4, you'll find that it's much less of a hassle than in the Z3. For starters, every top includes a wide expanse of defrostable rear glass — blind spots are minimal with top up and a clear rearward view replaces the mottled plastic. A manually operated top is standard — it has a single release point (instead of two latches) which, along with effort-reducing gas struts, should make it a one-hand procedure to raise or lower the top. Note that this top becomes its own integrated tonneau cover when folded, eliminating the need to get out and snap on a cover that would otherwise eat up valuable trunk space.

The optional automatic top makes things even easier: just hold down the button and the transition is made within seconds — seven seconds to drop, according to BMW, but that doesn't include lowering the windows. The passenger window doesn't have a one-touch-up feature, by the way, which seemed silly to us given that the windows were automatic in every other respect. Interestingly, BMW has already made plans to offer this convenience after production begins in October 2003, along with a removable hardtop.

Unless you live in a harsh and/or wet climate, the soft top should serve your needs year-round. It's well insulated from outside noise — with the top raised, we could almost forget that we were driving a convertible.

Standard equipment on the Z4 is neither stingy nor generous by BMW standards. For a starting price of $33,795, the 2.5i model comes with 16-inch wheels with V-rated 225/50R16 run-flat performance tires; manually adjustable seats with leatherette upholstery (high-quality vinyl, that is); a CD player; and power windows, mirrors and locks. Note that run-flat tires are standard on all Z4s; besides providing added safety and convenience (when the flat-tire monitor detects a flat, the car can be driven up to 90 miles at speeds up to 50 mph until the driver reaches a tire shop), it frees up trunk space. BMW hasn't released cubic capacity specs yet, but we had no difficulty loading it with a couple days' worth of luggage for two people. All of the cars we encountered during the event, including those seen rolling off the line at the factory in Spartanburg, were wearing Bridgestone Potenzas.

The 3.0i model adds 17-inch wheels with W-rated 225/45R17 rubber, leather upholstery, a center armrest, aluminum interior trim, the Carver audio system, cruise control and heated mirrors. Any of these features can be yours on a 2.5i if you're prepared to pay extra for them.

Options for all Z4s include bi-HID headlights, seat heaters, power seats, automatic climate control, auto-dimming mirrors, a DVD-based navigation system that pops out of the top of the dash and adjusts for viewing angle, Sycamore wood interior trim and map pockets. Other possibilities include cloth/leather-combination upholstery for 2.5s and extended leather trim for 3.0s. As usual, dealers will install CD changers and alarm systems with keyless entry.

Besides the usual black and beige leather interior ensembles, BMW will offer an option for red starting with December 2002 production — we viewed an early example and found it striking, along the lines of an Audi TT interior. Soft tops will be available in black, gray or beige, depending on which interior-exterior color combination you choose. Initially, the company will offer the Z4 in black, silver, Maldives Blue and Sterling Gray exterior paint, with additional colors being phased in starting in December.

All Z4s benefit from a number of safety upgrades — smarter front airbags (in terms of deployment), active knee protection for driver and passenger, more astute side-impact sensors, a passenger airbag deactivation switch and child-seat anchor points for the passenger seat. Rollover protection is also provided in the form of roll hoops and a reinforced windshield frame. Managing many of these safety features is something BMW calls ISIS (Intelligent Safety and Information System), which makes use of more sensors than before to evaluate and address accident situations.

As in the Z3, Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) is part of the safety package, but the system has been modified for greater flexibility in the Z4. A quick press of the DSC button on the dash activates a Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) program that allows more wheel spin at lower speeds (the system may selectively brake individual wheels but will not cut engine power) while maintaining full DSC benefits during high-speed cornering. Holding down the DSC button for at least three seconds shuts off stability control completely.

Adaptive brake lights also make an appearance on the Z4 (the 7 Series and X5 are the only other BMWs that have these). Under harder braking, the brake lights illuminate with greater intensity as a warning to motorists behind you.

It would be hard not to like the Z4, as exhilarating to drive as it is to behold in the parking lot (well, maybe not). But certainly, it's great fun to drive and should prove more skillful around twists and turns than the Z3. And unlike the high-revving S2000 or the rough-riding Boxster, it's a roadster that can easily be driven everyday. For some, it will be a car to test drive during the lunch hour and dream of taking hostage at night. For a few, it will be a car to have their way with — for the legally financed price of admission, of course.

And that price remains high — about six percent higher than the 2002 Z3's for both the 2.5i and 3.0i models — especially when compared to the S2000's price tag (even with the TMV adjustment for the markup this Honda often commands). But alongside the Boxster, the TT or the outgoing SLK, the Z4 might seem like a bargain. Indeed, so long as you throw out tiresome words like need and want.

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