Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
Cute weekend cars with sporting intentions and overwrought designs. That's been the reputation of BMW's small, slightly pricey Z3 and Z4 roadsters until now.
Unless you were a subscriber to BMW for Life magazine, there was no compelling reason to choose the Z roadster over one of its equally competent competitors.
For 2009, the BMW Z4 finally becomes a serious roadster. More than just a face-lift, some new options and a little bump in power, this Z4 gets a whole new identity. And cute is no longer part of it.
Retro Futurist Unveiled at this year's Detroit show, the 2009 BMW Z4 sDrive35i looks stunning "in the metal." Slightly longer (5.8 inches), wider (0.4 inch) and lower (0.3 inch), the Z4 now looks a class up from traditional playmates like the Audi TT, Mazda Miata and Mercedes-Benz SLK.
It comes across as a more expensive car than it is. Think modern BMW 507 from the '50s, but add BMW's latest 3.0-liter sixes, an optional seven-speed double-clutch automated manual transmission and a healthy dose of up-to-the minute tech.
And don't forget the new, impossibly compact folding hardtop, an all-aluminum engineering masterpiece that allows this Z4 to take the place of the previous Z4 coupe and roadster.
When and How Much? On sale May 8, there will be two versions available: A base Z4 sDrive30i ($46,575 including destination fee) effectively will take the place of the current lineup's top-shelf Z4 3.0si ($43,525). A second model, the sDrive35i ($52,475), is a new animal altogether that's more comparable to the outgoing Z4 M ($53,225) in terms of price, engine output and handling capability.
Both models will be offered with a standard six-speed manual transmission, but the sDrive30i gets a 3.0-liter 255-horsepower inline-6, while the sDrive35i, which we drove, is powered by the company's matchless twin-turbo 3.0-liter 300-hp inline-6.
Pricey Options Our 2009 BMW Z4 test car also featured BMW's latest 80GB hard-drive navigation/audio system with the "new" iDrive first seen on the 2009 750i. We also enjoyed the comprehensive Sport package that goes beyond a mere tire upgrade with adjustable/adaptive suspension plus bespoke electronic throttle and steering maps.
The optional seven-speed automated manual M double-clutch transmission with Drivelogic borrowed (slightly modified) from the BMW M3 will be available only on the sDrive35i and was also on our test car along with 10-spoke 19-inch wheels and Ivory White leather. Option prices have yet to be announced, but we estimate our car's total price probably topped $60,000.
Is It Worth It? While that amount of money would've seemed ridiculous for a 2008 Z4, it somehow seems less objectionable for this recently matriculated Z4 sDrive35i. The engine alone is worth the extra cash, as it grabs your attention the first time you probe its upper ranges. The exhaust note gets angrier and the 7,000-rpm redline arrives suddenly and almost effortlessly, at which point you discover how quickly and seamlessly the seven-speed automated manual shifts gears.
The double-clutcher is well tuned to behave in a variety of situations. There's enough parking-lot creep with the brakes regulating progress, enough gentle clutch engagement for part-throttle getaways, and flinch-quick shifts for hasty ones.
In fact, when you're really putting the spurs to it, there's an audible exhaust burp accompanying each constant-momentum upshift. Shifts can be automatic, or manually selected with the steering wheel paddles or shift lever.
With a similar wheelbase (0.1 inch longer) and nearly unchanged strut suspension setup compared to the previous model, the Z4's handling remains relatively neutral unless you give it big stabs of throttle.
The Other Important Numbers With a 3,494-pound curb weight, it's no lightweight, but BMW claims the sDrive35i with the seven-speed auto-shifter will sprint from zero to 60 mph in 5 seconds flat (5.1 seconds with the manual transmission). We're confident those figures are a little conservative, but they still line up favorably (exactly, in fact) with the last Z4 M Roadster we tested as well as running just a tenth behind the V8-powered Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG.
More than just quick off the line, the 2009 BMW Z4 sDrive35i is sneaky fast, too. With 300 pound-feet of torque at a mere 1,400 rpm and 300 peak hp at 5,800 rpm, the transmission rips up and down the gears so fast that you quickly find yourself on the illegal side of the speedometer without exertion or notice.
Though we weren't able to drive one, the company says the sDrive30i will require between 5.6 and 6.0 seconds to reach 60 mph, depending on transmission choice.
A Quality Cabin The interior is also a huge leap forward. As with the exterior, the soft and hard shapes and exquisite surfaces coalesce to provide a truly premium environment. Our Ivory White leather-equipped example with glossy black dash was a particularly dramatic combination.
There's also a new bulkhead pass-through available to allow two sets of skis to be carried with a driver and passenger. With the top up, there are 10.9 cubic feet (DIN) of cargo volume and 6.4 cubes when the top is lowered.
The addition of an electronic emergency brake freed up room in the cabin for a genuine armrest compartment and even a small parcel shelf behind the seats.
There are also a host of infotainment options and packages including a hard drive audio server/navigation system with flash-memory-stick input for both audio and route guidance. At your home computer, first plot your route with POIs, fuel stops, etc., save it to a memory stick and then transfer it to the car. Very cool.
Expectations At this point, saying that we were pleasantly surprised by the all-new 2009 BMW Z4 sDrive35i during our drive on Spain's Costa Blanca would be like saying we were shocked our luggage got lost on the return trip through Madrid.
BMW never fails to raise its own self-set bar, and Iberia Air never fails to lower its. If we had to write a national motto for Spain, it would be, "España! It's our first day on the job, so give us a break." If we had to write one for the BMW Z4 sDrive35i, it would be, "Z4 sDrive35i! Never mind the alphabet soup and cute reputation. This roadster is for real."
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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