A cool coastal breeze swirls through the cabin, faintly accented with the scent of oranges from the surrounding groves. A "Curvy Road Ahead" sign cautions a change of pace, but the 2009 BMW Z4 sDrive35i is ready.
Press the Sport button and feel the steering weight up. Brake for the first turn, blip the twin-turbo straight-6 and push the mechanical-feeling six-speed manual transmission down to 3rd. The cool breeze hastens and the smooth howl of 300 horses arises from under the epically long hood. This is the new Z4 at its finest, a car that redefines what a luxury roadster can be from the company that reintroduced the segment 14 years ago.
The all-new Z4 seems a world apart from its predecessor, a car seemingly designed by cleaver-wielding art school students and tuned to take on (unsuccessfully) Porsche's slick-handling Boxster. The new car is beautiful, catching impressed glances from those who pass by. It cunningly sets a new styling course for itself, while honoring successful aspects of BMW's roadster past — Z8 proportions, Z3 side gills, Z4 ducktail and 507 character lines. Best of all, it hides its lowered retractable hardtop without the telltale bulbous butt indicative of such convertibles.
But it's the 2009 BMW Z4's handling and performance that really signal its change in philosophy. Gone is the rock-hard ride, replaced by a supple suspension that makes the Z4 a plausible candidate for long-distance road trips (the hardtop and big trunk help, too). That twisty road through the orange groves was dispatched with control and skill, but BMW wisely now concedes truly aggressive motoring to the Boxster. This puts the Z4 more in line with the similarly priced and roofed Mercedes-Benz SLK — although with its more spacious and higher-quality cabin, polished ride and generally refined nature, the Z4 seems more like a budget alternative to the Mercedes SL. That makes the higher price for 2009 easier to swallow, although at $51,650, the sDrive35i has a higher base price than the outgoing Z4 M Roadster.
Yet progress comes with a price sometimes, and the 2009 BMW Z4 sDrive35i certainly represents progress (along with clunky trim names). For long drives through a cool breeze under the warm summer sun, the roadster has been redefined once again.
The 2009 BMW Z4 in question is the sDrive35i, which indicates the superb 3.0-liter, twin-turbocharged inline-6 producing 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. Relentlessly smooth and responsive, it shows nary a hint of turbo lag when accelerating out of that hairpin, onto the highway or off the line from zero to 60 in 5.2 seconds. In any setting, power sent to the rear wheels through the six-speed manual is seductively strong. Plus, it feels stronger when you select one of two Sport settings (a total of three settings are available — Normal, Sport and Sport +) included with the standard Driving Dynamics Controls (DDC) that alter engine management and throttle response.
DDC also alters the electric power steering, stability control system and the optional adjustable suspension when so equipped. These settings are better sorted than in other BMW Group products with such adjustable drive settings (BMW 7 Series, Mini Cooper); in these cars, we'd typically leave the system in Sport, because steering and throttle modes are unresponsive in Normal mode. In the Z4, Normal mode's lighter steering effort is appreciated in normal driving (parking lots, traffic, trips to Kroger) but feels disconnected and sloppy in more sporting driving. Conversely, both Sport settings are unnecessarily wrist-straining around town, but responsive on back roads.
Sadly, none of the three settings provide the same level of steering feel as a Boxster or even the old Z3, which is fairly representative of a car intended more for a casual trip through winding roads than an all-out attack. That's not to say the 2009 BMW Z4 is some boulevard-cruising poseur — it's certainly more fun than the SLK — but the exaggerated proportions can make it difficult to place in a turn, while rear-end rotation is basically impossible. (The brakes are fantastic, though, stopping the Z in a quick 106 feet.) This is a civilized car that doesn't encourage the type of hooliganism the old Z4 M coupe did — and we don't think many people will mind.
We think drivers will be impressed by how refined, comfortable and grown-up the 2009 Z4 has become. The ride is superb, sopping up bumps like a much larger, more expensive convertible. Like the steering, the adjustable suspension's Normal, Sport and Sport Plus modes (included in the Sport Package) are well set for the driving situations they describe, but we're not sure if the added cost is worth it. The sport seats also included in the package are certainly enticing, though, as their adjustable side bolsters only add to the already excellent seats that adjust to a degree unmatched by almost any other roadster — including the Benz SL. Indeed, it's hard to think of a more spacious two-seat convertible.
With its retractable hardtop raised, the Z4 is remarkably quiet, but the whistling rubber antenna ruins that serenity somewhat. With the roof lowered, the cabin stays well insulated with the windows raised. Top up or down, there is a surprising amount of road noise, which seems inconsistent with the rest of the Z4's refined nature.
With a simple touch of a button (and the brake pedal), the Z4's two-piece retractable hardtop folds into the trunk in 20 seconds. With it raised, visibility is unmatched for a roadster thanks to its large rear-quarter windows that eliminate the typical convertible blind spots. The large area needed to swallow the folded roof also creates an expansive trunk (when the roof is raised) capable of holding two sets of golf clubs and a carry-on suitcase. Even when lowered, though, there's a deep, reasonably useful space for a pair of carry-on suitcases. There's also a unique pass-through for longer items and a small parcel shelf behind the seats. Still, for basically the same price, you could get an infinitely more practical BMW 335i.
Our fully loaded 2009 BMW Z4 sDrive35i came packed with BMW's latest electronic gizmos. The premium hi-fi stereo was praised for its rich bass and crisp sound quality that cut through top-down wind noise. Included with the optional navigation system is BMW's newest and greatly improved iDrive electronics interface. While we like the new iDrive in other BMWs, its knob and accompanying buttons in the Z4 are placed too far rearward and can get in the way of shifting. Shorter drivers in particular found this to be a problem.
We also found the automatic climate controls to be ill-suited for convertible duty, despite the nifty extra air vents located at knee level. Arctic cold seemed to be the only A/C setting (even when set at 80), while the entire system would annoyingly turn back on whenever the car was restarted. You won't remember this fact until 20 minutes into your drive — what did Dad say about air-conditioning the whole neighborhood?
Design/Fit and Finish
The Z4's interior is a special place, with none of the dark and dour ambience of the previous version's. Our car's Coral Red interior certainly helped, but the optional alloy trim and higher-quality materials make a big difference. Fit and finish was impressive, while rattles were restricted to body-flexing driveways and severe bumps — typical of retractable hardtops, the two roof pieces creak against each other. Cowl shake is kept firmly in check, however.
The exterior looks even better than it does in pictures. The added length necessitated by the hardtop has made the proportions less cartoony, while design details are harmoniously clever rather than ostentatious — the hood creases, the rear bumper line that mirrors the upper curve of the taillights, the door handle integrated into the character line, the aforementioned homages to roadsters past.
Who should consider this vehicle
For the roadster buyer who'll more likely take a road trip than attack a winding road, the 2009 BMW Z4 is the best option available thanks to its retractable hardtop, refined ride and spacious cabin. If you're searching for a traditional corner-carving drop top, though, a Porsche Boxster may serve you better.