It took about 20 seconds after we got onto California's Pacific Coast Highway to realize why BMW's all-new turbocharged four-cylinder is a good fit in the Z4 two-seater. That's the time it takes to lower the 2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i's two-piece power-retractable hardtop, and doing so lets you properly experience its mechanical soundtrack.
Suddenly, we could hear the whistle from the turbo as it spooled up and down, not to mention some cool decelerative pops from the exhaust pipes. With the windows and top up, all you can hear is a small four-cylinder working away, one that's not particularly sonorous high in the revs, either.
Then again, 7,000 rpm is not where this engine does its best work. Nope, BMW's first four-cylinder in 12 years is better at delivering midrange power. And although the N20 (its internal code name) doesn't pack the supple character of an inline-6, the new turbo-4 packs something the normally aspirated engine doesn't — personality.
What's in a Name In BMW-speak, the "TwinPower Turbo" label on the 2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i's engine shroud refers to the combination of direct injection and Valvetronic intake control, not a statement that the N20 has twin turbos. Further muddying the BMW naming waters, the car is labeled "28i," not 20i, because the engine "provides the power of a 2.8-liter six-cylinder," or so says BMW. We'll tackle the German reasoning for the wordy "sDrive" tag another day.
Confusion and misleading labeling systems aside, the N20 turbo-4 produces 15 fewer ponies than the outgoing inline-6 Z4 base engine, although it reaches its peak of 240 horsepower at 5,000 rpm versus 6,600 rpm.
But torque is what the N20 is really all about, generating 258 pound-feet from 1,250-4,800 rpm. The old inline-6? Just 220 lb-ft at 2,600. And you feel that torque hit. True, there's a little bit of turbo lag, but by 2,500 rpm things are really humming along. There's no need to rev the turbo-4 to its 7,000-rpm redline either, as anything above 6K is mostly just noise with little reward. That said, having an actual spike of motive force makes this engine more exciting to drive versus the nondescript delivery of the N52's silky-smooth inline-6 power.
The 2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i comes standard with a precise, if slightly notchy, six-speed manual transmission with reasonably short throws. But the car we spent the most time in was fitted with the no-extra-cost automatic, now with eight forward gears (replacing the previous six-cogger). Our tester also had the benefit of the $3,900 M Sport package, which — besides driver-controlled Adaptive M suspension, 18-inch light-alloy wheels, an aero body kit and sport seats — adds an M steering wheel with paddle shifters. The tranny's shifts are always smooth regardless of mode; manual downshifts (via the paddles or the console lever) are aided by computer-controlled throttle blips.
Our seat-of-the-pants impression tells us the Z4 with the turbo-4 has a significantly stronger midrange than the outgoing six. In terms of pure acceleration numbers, BMW claims the six-speed manual-equipped Z4 sDrive28i hustles to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds, a tenth quicker than the three-pedal Z4 sDrive30i. But it's with the new automatic where the biggest gains are seen, 60 mph arriving in just 5.6 seconds, a good 0.4 second quicker than the previous six-speed auto/inline-6 Z4.
BMW expects the Z4 sDrive28i with the eight-speed automatic will see about a 20 percent improvement in fuel mileage over the auto-equipped Z4 sDrive30i it replaces, which should put its EPA figures somewhere around 21 city/33 highway mpg. The six-speed manual Z4 will also get the benefit of start/stop technology.
A Weighty Matter Besides the superior power curve characteristics of the new turbo-4, it's also smaller and lighter. A BMW spokesperson told us the new engine with the manual gearbox weighs "about" 33 pounds less than the outgoing inline-6, while the automatic version sees the fat trimmed by about 44 pounds. As such, curb weight on the manual model went from 3,252 pounds for the 2011 car to 3,263 pounds.
Wait, say what? Yes, you read that correctly, the 2012 BMW Z4 actually weighs 11 pounds more than the previous car due to "a substantial increase in standard equipment," according to BMW. Apparently floor mats are now standard on the Z4. Floor mats, folks. Truth be told, the eight-speed automatic model does, in fact, weigh 22 pounds less than before.
Since the Z4 sDrive28i's weight has hardly changed, we can't report any drastic updates in the way this roadster handles, although the shorter engine does shift some weight rearward. Still, drive the Z4 hard on a twisty road and you realize it offers nowhere near the precision of an M3, especially when it comes to the Z4's electric-assist steering. The responses coming through the perfectly thick M steering wheel remain on the vague side, although the three-way-adjustable Adaptive M suspension and grippy, staggered-width 18-inch Bridgestone Potenza summer tires deliver plenty of stick.
It Prefers a Smoother Road After a day spent in a Z4 equipped with the automatic, we spent a valuable hour flogging a six-speed manual test car on Carmel Valley Road near Monterey, a winding stretch of blacktop that could serve as a suspension test loop for just about anything. The stiffest Sport Plus setting actually proved a bit too harsh and bouncy, the Z4 skittering about over the seemingly endless bumps.
The smooth, new pavement of Highway 33 near Ojai was much more to the Z4's liking, where it could strut its high grip level and show off the turbo-4's plentiful torque. That being said, don't mistake the Z4 sDrive28i for a tool with which you can execute easy power-on-oversteer corner exit slides. It just doesn't have that kind of punch.
The brakes were impressive, especially during heavy use on the CVR torture test. The pedal remained firm throughout, and we saw no fade and minimal brake odor. It was also on CVR that we appreciated the sport seats' extra bolstering.
The interior is little changed from previous second-generation Z4s. The center stack is clean and largely devoid of excessive buttonry due to the iDrive controller, and materials are mostly of a high quality. This is classic roadster simplicity here, and we like it. There is, of course, the afterthought cupholder stabbing the passenger's left knee.
Blasphemy or Brilliance? BMW doesn't shy away from controversy. There were the Bangle Years. Early generations of iDrive. A V8-powered M3. A turbocharged 1 Series with an M badge. And now BMW has replaced one of its ubiquitous inline-6s with a turbo-4.
In the case of the 2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i, you're getting a slightly quicker, more fuel-efficient and ever-so-slightly more exciting two-seat sports car. Not a bad deal, right?
Well, sort of. Despite losing two cylinders, a liter of displacement and a few horsepower, the 2012 BMW Z4 sDrive28i will start at $49,525 (including $875 destination). That's actually more expensive than the sDrive30i it replaces. The extra cost comes from added standard features like Bluetooth, USB integration, an alarm system, a ski pass-through and those aforementioned floor mats. BMW says it's an actual savings of $500.
Yes, it is a lot of money for a four-cylinder. It's also a lot of money for a Z4. But the N20 is the way of the future, an enthusiast's engine that also makes sense from an efficiency standpoint. So much sense, that BMW will plop it into the 2012 528i when that car starts production in September, surely followed by the X3 and 3 Series soon after. We expect few will miss the six it replaced.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
Is the 2012 BMW Z4 a good car? Edmunds experts have compiled a robust series of ratings and reviews for the 2012 BMW Z4 and all model years in our database. Our rich content includes expert reviews and recommendations for the 2012 Z4 featuring deep dives into trim levels and features, performance, mpg, safety, interior, and driving. Edmunds also offers expert ratings, road test and performance data, long-term road tests, first-drive reviews, video reviews and more.
Our Review Process All of our reviews are written by a member of Edmunds' editorial team of expert car reviewers. Our team drives every car you can buy. We put the vehicles through rigorous testing, evaluating how they drive and comparing them in detail to their competitors.
We're also regular people like you, so we pay attention to all the different ways people use their cars every day. We want to know if there's enough room for our families and our weekend gear and whether or not our favorite drink fits in the cupholder. Our editors want to help you make the best decision on a car that fits your life.
How do people like the 2012 BMW Z4? Consumer ratings and reviews are also available for the 2012 BMW Z4 and all its trim types. Overall, Edmunds users rate the 2012 Z4 4 on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. Edmunds consumer reviews allow users to sift through aggregated consumer reviews to understand what other drivers are saying about any vehicle in our database. Detailed rating breakdowns (including performance, comfort, value, interior, exterior design, build quality, and reliability) are available as well to provide shoppers with a comprehensive understanding of why customers like the 2012 Z4.
Review We traded in a baseline model 2003 Porsche Boxster for this 2012 BMW Z4. Everything about the Z4 blows away the older model Boxster except handling. While the Z4 is still stellar on hard turns due to its Sport and Sport+ suspension modes, it weighs 500 lbs more than the Boxster and feels like it'll fishtail if you don't have excellent control of the accelerator. The Boxster felt like it was pulling you around corners. The Z4 makes you have to pull it around corners. Subtle distinction, but noticeable. Definitely don't regret the trade in though. It's faster than most muscle cars off the line (not a new Stingray though). 0-40 mph before you can blink, and the auto- and paddle-shifting are FAR faster and smoother than you could ever possibly do with a manual transmission. I've owned Mustang 5.0s that weren't this fast off the line, including a Shelby GT. The looks, sound, power, and technology of the Z4 are phenomenal. Just don't get in a wreck with it, you won't win.
See all consumer reviews and retings for the 2012 BMW Z4
How can Edmunds help? Edmunds has deep data on over 6 million new, used, and certified pre-owned vehicles, including rich, trim-level features and specs information like: MSRP, average price paid, warranty information (basic, drivetrain, and maintenance), features (upholstery, bluetooth, navigation, heated seating, cooled seating, cruise control, parking assistance, keyless ignition, satellite radio, folding rears seats ,run flat tires, wheel type, tire size, wheel tire, sunroof, etc.), vehicle specifications (engine cylinder count, drivetrain, engine power, engine torque, engine displacement, transmission), fuel economy (city, highway, combined, fuel capacity, range), vehicle dimensions (length, width, seating capacity, cargo space), car safety, true cost to own. Edmunds also provides tools to allow shopper to compare vehicles to similar models of their choosing by warranty, interior features, exterior features, specifications, fuel economy, vehicle dimensions, consumer rating, edmunds rating, and color
What options are available on the 2012 BMW Z4?
Available BMW Z4 2012 Submodel Types: Convertible, Hatchback
Available Trims: 3.0i, sDrive35i, 3.0si, 2.5i, sDrive28i, sDrive30i, sDrive35is
Exterior Colors: Black Sapphire Metallic, Jet Black, Titanium Silver Metallic, Sterling Gray Metallic, Alpine White, Deep Sea Blue Metallic, Silver Gray Metallic, Bright Red, Glacier Silver Metallic, Mineral Grey Metallic, Valencia Orange, Crimson Red, Melbourne Red Metallic, Stratus Gray Metallic, Toledo Blue Metallic, Maldives Blue Metallic, Mineral White Metallic, Monaco Blue Metallic, Montego Blue Metallic, Space Gray Metallic, Sparkling Brown Metallic
Interior Colors: Black, Beige leather, Black Kansas leather, Black leather, Black leatherette, Coral Red Kansas leather, Canberra Beige Kansas leather, Coral Red leather, Extended Black/Orange w/Black Orange Color World leather/sueded microfiber, Beige, Red, Black leather/sueded microfiber, Walnut Kansas leather, Canyon Brown Extended Merino premium leather, Canyon Brown Merino premium leather, Coral Red Kansas Extended leather, Dream Red leather, Pearl Gray, Saddle Brown leather, Walnut leather
Popular Features: Stability Control, Tire Pressure Warning, Audio and cruise controls on steering wheel, Post-collision safety system, Trip Computer, Automatic Emergency Braking, Aux Audio Inputs, Soft Top, Auto Climate Control, Leather Seats, Upgraded Headlights, Hardtop, Multi-Zone Climate Control, Alarm, Bluetooth, USB Inputs, Power Driver Seat, Electronic Folding Mirrors, Heated seats, Navigation, Keyless Entry/Start, Parking sensors