2003 BMW Z4 Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2003 BMW Z4 Convertible

(2.5L 6-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

The Good, the Better and the Ugly

The folks in Bavaria have had quite a run over the last decade. The entry-level 3 Series is selling better than ever, and is still the acknowledged car to beat in the entry luxury game. The 5 Series is considered one of the best luxury sedans on the planet, particularly in terms of driving passion. The previous 7 Series had acquired an almost iconic status in the high-end luxury sedan market, and even with the new 7's controversial styling it is still selling well, relatively speaking. The Z8 has proven to be an effective (if short-lived) halo car, and even the lowly Mini managed to snag multiple awards (including Edmunds.com Most Significant Vehicle in 2002and North American Car of the Year in 2003) while far surpassing the most optimistic sales projections. And as long as we're on the subject of successful product, why not throw out the X5 nameplate? While in fact it is simply a taller, more expensive and less dynamic 5 Series wagon (that also offers less interior space and gets worse gas mileage), SUV-crazed Americans haven't let those annoying trivialities stop them from buying as many X5s as the Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant can build.

Truly it would seem this company can do no wrong. BMW has built up an incredibly loyal following across the globe while stealing market share from nearly every other manufacturer in one or more segments. Competitors have shown little, if any, ability to replicate BMW's sublime driving dynamics, though many of them are openly trying. Continued long-term success seems almost guaranteed, barring any major missteps from the company itself.

The Z4, taken as a whole, certainly can't be considered a major misstep…but its exterior design will likely drive as many potential buyers away as it draws near. And while "controversial" has some value, especially in today's world of rampant "me too" designs, the car's eccentric look requires a, uh…unique perspective to appreciate. So unique, in fact, that few Edmunds.com staffers found the design favorable — and most simply found it unappealing (more colorful terminology was heard in the Edmunds.com editorial offices throughout our one-week loan period).

And yes, we're well aware of BMW's position on the new roadster. It's not supposed to be a direct replacement for the smooth-bodied Z3 but, rather, an entirely new car for a broader market (preferably with a higher male demographic). Its exterior shape isn't supposed to please everyone but, rather, make a bold statement about the distinct future of BMW design.

Whatever. To our eyes it is a car with superb basic proportions compromised by nonsensical lines and unnecessary bulges. The Clueless crowd might refer to it as a "Monet" but, even when viewed from a distance, the car's harsh features and busy shape overcome what is normally a very appealing automotive philosophy: long hood, short deck, low roofline. View it from a distance, in fading daylight, and those basic elements come shining through, exposing the fundamental proportions that have made every roadster sexy since before the first Corvette. Why BMW's design chief, Chris Bangle, has chosen to break those elements apart with a bubble-bustle trunk lid, hollowed-out side panels and crisscrossed body lines is a mystery to us.

The Z4's exterior design has been the focus of heated debate among automotive journalists and consumers alike. At Edmunds.com we normally give a vehicle's styling only passing mention because, quite frankly, we feel it's impossible to quantifiably "prove" a car either attractive or unattractive. Our first impressions of the Z4's exterior left us with mixed emotions, but as with some other controversial designs (Nissan's 350Z and Honda's '03 Accord), we felt that extended exposure might soften our stance. It didn't. Quite the opposite, in fact. However, if you like the Z4's exterior styling, forget everything in this road test up to this point and start reading at the next paragraph. But we must offer one final observation: This is the second BMW product to wear a Chris Bangle exterior. The first was the 2002 BMW 7 Series, and that car is getting a major reskinning next year…making it the most short-lived exterior design in the history of BMW.

One of the first things you'll notice upon climbing into BMW's new Z4 is how low it sits, even by roadster standards. Our 2.5i test vehicle was outfitted with the Sport Package, which not only provides a more aggressive tire-and-wheel package (225/45R17 Bridgestones), but also stiffer shocks and springs, plus a 0.6-inch lower ride height (confirmed by the relative ease with which we scraped the front air dam when navigating even minor dips). The seats themselves feel low in relation to car's overall height, and the dash is also close to the floorboards, meaning your legs go forward as much or more than they drop down. Throw in the long hood that slopes up slightly before dropping to the headlight/grille area, and the Z4 almost feels like a mini Dodge Viper or Panoz Esperante.

This miniature exotic-car feel continues once you get the Z4 rolling. The new car's wheelbase is nearly two inches longer than the Z3's, and the car's overall length is up by 1.5 inches. BMW's goal was to place the driver low and toward the rear, emphasizing the Z4's long hood. The company met its goal, with the front wheels seeming to be well out in front of the driver. That's not to suggest a disconnected or distant steering response. The ratio has been substantially quickened from the Z3's (13.7 to 1 versus the older car's 15.4 to 1), and you realize this after negotiating your first set of turns. Feedback and feel are nearly ideal, despite the electrically assisted power steering system (a la Mini Cooper and Honda S2000). If forced to choose, I'd still have to give the Boxster S a slight advantage here, but I emphasize the world slight.

The Boxster's advantage in ultimate steering feel is easily made up by the Z4's superb Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system. This is a two-stage system that can be partially disabled by quickly hitting the button and enabling DTC (Dynamic Traction Control), which allows a certain amount of wheel spin at lower speeds. In this mode, DSC will still brake an individual wheel when it detects major spin potential, but it never cuts engine power and allows a certain amount of vehicle rotation. Think of it as the BMW version of the Corvette's "Competition Driving Mode." In both cases you can have some fun while also knowing the electric nanny is out there, waiting to save you before things get completely out of hand. (You can still disable it completely by holding the DSC button down.)

And have some fun we did! At our test facility, with DSC in its more "relaxed" mode, we made our quickest slalom run in four years of testing, scoring an average speed of 67.1 mph. For the record, the previous slalom champ was a 2003 SL500. Even our recent American Exotics Comparison Test, which included a 2003 Viper, Corvette Z06 and Mustang SVT Cobra, never generated this strong of a number. Much of the credit goes to the Z4's stability control system that allowed us to slide the car with confidence while using minimal intervention. Most systems of this kind completely upset our pace when negotiating the cones unless they are fully disabled, but the Z4's was capable of making minor corrections without slowing us down, giving us a high average speed and making us seem like better drivers than we really are (just what Americans need, right?).

Not all the Z4's driving pleasure is attributable to the advanced stability control system. The base 2.5-liter inline six-cylinder engine, for instance, is as smooth and torquey as it was in the Z3 (not surprising since it is essentially unchanged in the Z4). At 184 horsepower, it offered more than enough thrust to propel the car during spirited driving; at the test track we recorded a 0-to-60 mph best of 6.7 seconds and a quarter-mile time of 15.0 at 91 mph. These aren't rocket ship numbers, but in a car as light and tossable as the Z4, they felt more than adequate. Best of all, on a typical two-lane twisty road, you can simply leave the Z4 in third gear and treat the throttle pedal as a rheostat. The 2.5-liter's 175 pound-feet peak torque is spread out over a wide rpm range, meaning minimal shifting is required to make quick work of your favorite stretch of tarmac. Add in the progressive brakes that never even hinted at fading during aggressive canyon runs and track testing, and you've got yet another ultimate driving machine. It's under these circumstances that the Z4 seems like a more expensive car than it really is.

Those seeking greater performance can go with the 225-hp, 3.0-liter engine, but the main reason to step up to the larger engine isn't so much the horsepower numbers as the transmission numbers. Manual transmission-equipped 2.5i Z4s feature the same five-speed unit as on the Z3, but 3.0-liter versions get an all-new six-speed transmission. We found the five-speed to be fully functional but not particularly joyous to operate. BMW clutches never seem to offer the kind of durability we'd expect of an ultimate driving machine, but a lower first gear can help out in this area. We also pined for another gear when the engine starting taching over 3,000 rpm while cruising on the highway above 60 mph (though the engine itself remained extremely smooth). With the six-speed's lower first gear and overdrive top gear you'll get both improved low-speed response as well as reduced high-speed engine noise. Note that regardless of engine choice you can opt for the Sport Package and get a selectable "Sport" mode that is supposed to quicken throttle response, cut power steering boost (for better feel, presumably) and, in Z4s with the five-speed automatic, hold gears longer and downshift quicker. We hardly noticed a difference with "Sport" mode engaged. The car felt quick and stable regardless of whether the little button on the center console was illuminated or not.

If there's a downside to the car's razor-sharp handling, it comes in the form of a somewhat harsh ride. Between the stiff suspension tuning and the 45-series run-flat tires, there's no mistaking a Sport Package-equipped Z4 for a touring car. Every freeway expansion joint makes itself known, and the car can feel a bit hyperactive over broken pavement. The latter issue seemed more related to the run-flat tires than the suspension's settings, making us curious as to how the car would behave by simply swapping the super-stiff sidewalls for traditional tires. Of course, there's no room for a spare in the Z4's trunk, which offers an impressive nine cubic feet of capacity but in a deep well that isn't wide or long enough to contain a full-size spare, or even a compact spare, without eating up most of the car's cargo capacity.

Beyond its harsh ride quality, the Z4 is afflicted with a fair amount of wind and road noise at highway speeds with the top up. On several occasions we were certain a window wasn't all the way up, but they were, leading us to question the seal between the top and the side glass. In contrast, top-down motoring was acceptably placid at freeway speeds, especially with the side windows up. We would have liked to try it with the dealer-available windblocker in place, but the windblocker we found in the trunk turned out to be for an Audi A4 Cabriolet… The fully automatic top lowers in 13 seconds and raises in 15 seconds at the touch of a button (the last few seconds of both times include the windows going all the way up). However, without the $2,900 Premium Package, the top becomes a manual affair, though it's still an easy one-handed maneuver.

Throughout the cabin, the Z4 impresses with a generous use of brushed metal accents and high-quality leather material (though you must pop for the Premium Package to get these features as well). The seats offer effective lateral support due to their aggressive side bolsters, but there is no adjustable lumbar support or articulating headrests. An attractive three-spoke steering wheel sits above three deep instrument pods. Both areas use a gray plastic that does a believable job of being brushed metal…until you touch them. Still, the overall effect is one of high-quality industrialized sportiness — a vast improvement over the chintzy Z3's cabin.

Not that there weren't some substantial nits to pick in the Z4, the biggest being a cupholder that broke during our one-week loan. You might assume we broke it by putting a large drum of fluid in it, or even by banging it with our leg after it was deployed, but you would be wrong. No, we broke this car's cupholder by…getting out of the car…while the cupholder was retracted into the dash! We're still not sure exactly what happened, but when our driver exited the vehicle he felt this slight tug on his shoe while bringing his right leg up and out of the floorboard area. He was facing the back of the car and there was an accompanying "click" sound. He turned around to see the cupholder door lying on the ground and the cupholder mechanism dangling like a nearly severed limb. There was no way to get the cupholder back into position, though we tried and proceeded to make matters worse. What can we say? Apparently, you have to be extra careful when exiting a Z4 — even when the cupholder is retracted into the dash.

Beyond the questionable cupholder design, we noted a tiny glovebox, narrow door pockets and a medium-size compartment between the seat backs. If your driving involves plenty of accessories, you probably won't have a place for everything inside the Z4. We also noted a slight creak from behind the seats when encountering midcorner bumps, but it was relatively unobtrusive. Also, why does a $40,000 car have one-touch down windows but one-touch up only for the driver window? Is it really that much more expensive to make them both one-touch up and down? Apparently not, as BMW will add this feature to all 2004 Z4s.

But as we said, these are mere nitpicks in an otherwise capable driver's car. From a performance standpoint, the Z4 lives up to its billing as a worthy successor to — no, make that upgrade from — the Z3. Its cabin is also a step up from the Z3's low-grade interior materials, and with the optional Carver premium sound system, the car's audio offerings are a literal and figurative blast.

We wish the cupholder hadn't snapped apart during one driver's exit from the car, and we would appreciate a quieter cabin when the top is up. And, well, there's that whole other issue, but we've made it clear where we stand on that topic. If you're a potential Z4 buyer, you can make up your own mind on the car's looks.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 8.0

Components: Every Z4 roadster gets a very wide and oddly shaped single-disc CD player in the dash and 10 speakers. Where do they put that many speakers in this small car? Well, four are mounted behind the seats. There's a built-in subwoofer and a large midtweeter speaker mounted in the cubbies behind each sport bucket. The other speakers include midrange and bass drivers in the door panels and tweeters up near the side mirrors. The test vehicle was equipped with the premium Carver sound system upgrade (standard on the 3.0i) that includes better speakers and an amplifier with Digital Signal Processing (DSP). It can't read minds, but the DSP will add depth to most recordings with sonic trickery — if you like that sort of thing.

Performance: You expect a lot with big metal dome tweets staring at you in a tight cabin, and those speakers do not disappoint. Highs such as cymbal crashes and keyboard samples are crisp and clean even at high volumes. The tweet placement near the corners of the dash provides good separation of the left and right channels; although, there is a bit of sound missing in the middle of the soundstage. Vocals and other midrange tones are strong and hold up when the volume knob is twisted. The bass is natural sounding, but requires coaxing from the tone adjustment to bump, which makes some notes sound boomy. The CD controls are easy to use and have a familiar layout.

Best Feature: Speaker upgrades in premium sound package.

Worst Feature: Two-fifths of the speakers are blocked by the seats.

Conclusion: Optional speakers provide strong and refined sound, and you still get 10 drivers without the upgrade. — Trevor Reed

Second Opinions

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
The new Z4 reminds me of another BMW I drove a few years ago, the M coupe. Before I drove that M, I was turned off by the styling, which looked as if they took the front end (fenders, hood, nose) and stuck it onto a bread box. Then I drove it and my sour opinion changed to one of adoration nearly as swiftly as the 240-horse sweet six sent the blunt instrument down the road. I couldn't help but love the communicative steering, tight-as-a-drum structural integrity and go-cartlike handling of that M coupe. And so it is with the Z3's replacement.

Make no mistake, the Z4 has some strange elements; though I've slowly warmed up to the car's profile, the duck-tailed rear is still just too bizarre. But after you jump in and take it for a blast on your favorite curvy road, you might not care if it looked like a Pacer. Well, maybe that's a stretch, but you get the point. Handling is tight, and the steering is spot on once you're moving along (it's a bit overboosted at low speeds). It feels as if the car is reading your mind, and the lack of body shake over the bumps is impressive for a ragtop. Involuntary hoots of exhilaration left my mouth as the Z4 and I cut up the canyon roads north of L.A. And although our test car was "only" the 2.5-liter version (versus the more potent 3.0-liter inline six), the little engine packed enough of a punch that not once did I wish for the bigger motor.

In the end, I found the Z4 to be a thoroughly enjoyable and well-rounded roadster that shouldn't disappoint anyone who truly loves driving. Just remember to back the car into parking spaces.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
I love the Z4 way more than my annual income would deem reasonable. About six months ago, I drove a six-speed Z4 3.0i 300 miles across South Carolina. There were no tight turns along the route to press its handling limits (or more accurately, mine), but on that crisp fall day, I loved that car and its quick reflexes. When it was my turn to take the wheel of our 2.5i test car on a warm spring day in the coastal canyons near Malibu, I knew I would enjoy myself, but I gravely underestimated just how much.

Revving the smaller inline six to redline yields a serious endorphin release in the driver, and the car rockets forward with a fervor I thought only the 3.0i roadster had. Although I was familiar with the two-lane highways on my route, I found myself pushing harder than I normally would and doing so with a fearlessness ordinarily alien to my personality. While I don't think the Z4 is quite as sharp as the S2000, no one could drive this car and say that the suspension doesn't deal well with cornering forces or that the steering isn't quick on the draw. Moreover, the BMW entertains while still being comfortable to drive anytime, anyplace. Do I have any complaints about the Z4? Well, its classic roadster shape isn't good for forward visibility, and it costs a lot. In regard to how the car looks, I feel neither like nor dislike, but I will say that my hypothetical Z4 2.5i would only be Sterling Gray.

Consumer Commentary

"I bought my Z4 last month. I tried to find a stripped-down one, but it's pretty much impossible, especially if you're picky about interior/exterior color like me. So I ended up getting a 2.5 Z4 with sports, convenience and premium packages, and heated seats. I got all of this for $38K even (MSRP=$40,220). I went through Edmunds, which went through autonation.com. I cold-called other BMW dealers in my area trying to get a better deal, and they all told me I was getting the runaround because there's no way anyone would sell it to me for that low. Well guess what? I got it for that low! Plus free mats, free keychain, and all ready to go. And I am really glad I got all of the packages that I did. I don't know how I'd do without them now!" — clogozm, April 17, 2003

"I have owned the Z4 for about three months and have 4,800 miles on it. I got the Sterling Gray/black 3.0, auto, with premium/convenience/sports pkg.

The look: Originally I was going for the Titanium Silver, but after seeing the Sterling Gray I felt it's a much better-looking color. The Sports Pkg comes with 18-inch wheels, which looks very good in my opinion. So far I have received nothing but compliments on the look of the car. You need to see the car in person to appreciate it. So many strangers just walked up to me to compliment on my car.

Ride and handling: The ride could be harsh on bad pavements, and I have heard that it's partially due to the run-flat tires of Z4. The handling is very good, the brake excellent. As for acceleration, Z4 moves. With the sports button that comes with the Sports Pkg, it alters the acceleration curve and turns Z4 into a different animal." — hlee 1169, March 12, 2003

"The design is trying too hard to be different. It only scores points through the (over)use of all those converging character lines and creases. It's my opinion that the best car designs don't need to scream, 'Look how radical I am!' to be noticed. Think 911, 360 Modena and the last 300ZX." — himiler, Jan. 27, 2003

"I find it interesting that so many people focus on the Z4's lines. Sure, those are controversial, but I don't think they are ugly. What bugs me about the design is the nose. It's pushed too far forward and the grille is mounted too low (compared to the headlights). Kinda looks like a beer gut hanging over some guy's belt." — varmint, Feb. 7, 2003

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