Neil Dunlop, Contributor
Introduced at the 1999 Frankfurt Auto Show, the Z8 is BMW's conception of what its famous 507 roadster would be today if it had been built past the 1950s. Technologically, the Z8 is light years removed from its forebear, but visually many of its styling cues are remarkably similar its long, sloping hood with round headlight humps, the twin-kidney grille, the distinctive vents aft of the front wheels and the red leather interior all invoke images of the 507.
Today, the 507 is coveted by collectors and one in good condition can fetch more than $600,000. A similar, if not brighter, future is virtually guaranteed for the Z8. It possesses all the necessary ingredients of a classic: superior performance, outstanding design and rarity. BMW builds only 1,500 Z8s a year. From January to October of 2001, 711 were sold in the U.S. At $128,000 each, they will certainly be handled with care. And to ensure today's crop of Z8s will continue to purr well into the 21st century, BMW has pledged to supply parts for this sports car for at least 50 years.
The Z8 borrows the all-aluminum 5.0-liter powerplant that is used in the M5 sedan. The 394-horsepower V8 rockets that 4,024-pound four-door along like a race car, providing more thrills per cubic inch than any other sedan on earth. The aluminum-bodied Z8 weighs 730 pounds less than the M5, and its performance is nothing short of electrifying.
So potent is the engine, the car seems to fly forward rather than roll. The normal laws of friction, resistance and gravity don't seem to apply to this gorgeous BMW. However, it is not hard to drive. The Z8's six-speed gear box and clutch are wonderfully easy to operate there's no stirring the box looking for impossibly small gear notches or a clutch so stiff it requires the thighs of Hercules to deploy. Also, thanks to BMW's effective Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system, the Z8 is kind to drivers who are not racetrack-trained. The system combines antilock braking, traction control and cornering stabilization to ensure that over-eager drivers are appropriately reined in before they wreck their substantial investment.
You can feel DSC interrupt your proceedings if you take a corner too quickly or pull away too fast like the benign hand of God keeping you on the road. However, as the manual warns, no stability system can overcome the laws of physics. Translation: It may feel like it can fly, but it can't.
With DSC on, the Z8 is a bit prone to plowing or understeer. With it off, it takes a deft foot and trained hands to balance the engine's massive torque with steering input. Once the right mixture is found, though, the Z8 is pure automotive joy.
The Z8's all-aluminum body is exceptionally stiff so that road feel is exemplary. Driving hard, you can feel what is happening and what is going to happen better than you can see it. This lends extraordinary confidence to your forays into the twilight zone of the BMW's performance. Likewise, the steering, suspension and braking systems that are connected to this super-solid chassis operate with pinpoint precision.
The front strut suspension is borrowed from the 5 Series with travel reduced 15 percent. Spring rates are also stiffened. The lower rear suspension is borrowed from the 7 Series, but the upper suspension, springs, shocks and antiroll bars are all unique to the Z8. The resulting ride is not as supple as that of BMW's world-class sedans, but it is not harsh either. Unlike other pure sports cars, the Z8 is comfortable to drive and could easily be employed as a daily vehicle.
In addition, due to the Z8's electronically controlled variable valve timing system, the car adjusts easily to the sedate pace of city streets. The system achieves optimum power, torque and fuel efficiency for all driving situations by varying the valve timing of its four overhead camshafts. So, instead of lurching and roaring from light to light due to a torquey powerband, the Z8 purrs about town. It's a bit like Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde that way. Because, once you get it on a deserted country road, it lets loose with a howl.
Drivers can also choose between "Comfort" and "Sport" throttle response. Selected by pressing a button on the dash, the system alters the Z8's "drive-by-wire" throttle for either more aggressive or sedate reaction to your foot pressure. Deploying the Sport mode while driving is akin to what happens when cartoon characters switch their getaway cars to "Nitro" and blaze off into the horizon. Due to the Z8's performance, its early association with James Bond (it was featured in The World is Not Enough in 1999) and the reaction of people on the street to its presence, the surreal feeling that you are driving a make-believe Hollywood concoction is quite strong.
Public reaction to the Z8 was unanimously enthusiastic. While we drove it, people called "Nice car!" from their vehicles, their front lawns, the sidewalk and one guy yelled it from a scaffold two stories up. It's hard not to react emotionally to this car. Our test vehicle was finished in bright red with a red leather interior. When it rolls down a street, people are mesmerized by the blue glow of its xenon headlamps and bewitched by the sonorous note of its exhaust.
The interior is even more beguiling. Its most unusual feature is the center-mounted instrument cluster. At first, it's somewhat disconcerting to be hurtling along and glance down to check the speedo only to find a blank space. With a nod to the past, BMW moved the speedometer, tachometer and other gauges to the center of the dash. The dials are protected from the glare of the sun by a curvy cowling and are situated so that the Z8's vitals can be viewed by driver and passenger. After a few hours behind the wheel, glancing to the right becomes second nature, and the unobstructed view of the road is appreciated.
The retro-styled steering wheel also evokes classic sports cars with its three spokes, each composed of four metal rods. It is gorgeous in its simplicity and the fat, leather-wrapped wheel is sturdy and pleasing to grip. All the switchgear, the shift knob and the trim are polished aluminum as is the decorative metal trim. To preserve the aura of uncluttered elegance, the four climate control buttons are plain and simple. The 250-watt 10-speaker Harman-Kardon audio system and integrated navigation system are hidden beneath a spring-loaded aluminum panel.
What isn't covered in brushed aluminum is sheathed in supple red leather, including parts of the dash, the gearshift boot, the center console, the door skins and even the rollover bars behind the seats.
The final touch, and one that is surprisingly pleasing, is the black push-button starter located to the right of the steering wheel. Turn the ignition key to On, depress that button and the muscular V8 roars to life. It is a visceral thrill that prompts a smile every time.
Though we have raved over nearly every facet of the Z8, there are several aspects about which we have to complain. First, the price is outlandish. Tack on an additional $2,100 to cover the gas-guzzler tax, add sales and luxury taxes and you're up around $140,000. Second, though the convertible roof is lowered and raised automatically, the tonneau cover must be installed manually. This is a fussy job, requiring you to lean across the car trying to fit little pins into invisible holes. It's also messy. After installing the tonneau, I looked down to find 275/40ZR18 emblazoned across my khakis in tire dust and road grime not exactly the dashing figure I hoped to cut as the pilot of a supercar.
Third, the turbulence inside the cockpit is excessive. Even with the add-on windscreen zipped and snapped into place, the wind is obtrusive and disruptive. During spirited driving, conversation is difficult and hats, papers and other loose items must be firmly gripped.
These complaints aren't enough to turn us off, though. The Z8 is as much a joy to sit in as it is to drive. Therefore we are compelled to give it our unequivocal endorsement. It is a pure automotive dream.
Editor-in-Chief Karl Brauer says: The BMW Z8 is one of the greatest automotive contradictions currently available; not surprisingly, this is both good and bad.
The good aspects of Z8 schizophrenia relate to the car's driving characteristics. The shifter is quite user-friendly, the suspension is supple and forgiving, and the engine note is muted rather than maniacal. Drive the Z8 like a responsible individual, and this exotic sports car could almost be classified as "boring."
But then you hit the Sport button on the center stack (which quickens throttle response), just before switching off the Dynamic Stability Control. Get crazy with the right pedal and suddenly this "boring" sports car feels eager to shred canyon roads while the rear end remains in a constant slide. The exhaust wails, the hulking tires claw and squeal, and that large steering wheel with retro spokes becomes a purposeful tool, the key to containing the beast.
I've read a lot of reports that question the Z8's performance abilities, but those 394 ponies feel plenty adequate at propelling the car, especially when combined with a torque band as flat as Kate Moss' silhouette.
Other, less desirable contradictions reside inside the Z8's cockpit. The classic brushed aluminum dials and gauges, along with the rich leather and plush carpeting, make the $128,000 price of admission seem like a steal. Then you flip on the radio or try to use the navigation system and wonder who snuck in and replaced your exotic sports car's components with Kmart specials. And did I mention the plastic rear window?
But in the end, the Z8 isn't about pure performance, nor is it about hi-fi sound or high-tech features. With only 700 imported for U.S. consumption, and with sensuous proportions that make even elderly women swoon, the Z8 is about timeless design and exclusivity.
Oh, and it's also pretty damn fun to drive.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says: Once I got beyond the "Oh my God, it's gorgeous!" state while I poured over the Z8's curvaceous body and artsy interior, I was able to fire it up, hit the road and consider other elements of this retro/exotic.
In a way, the Z8 is like the Acura NSX. No, not in terms of style, engine or chassis configuration. I'm talking split personality. The Z8 is mostly easy going and flexible. Trolling around town, the Z8 is as docile as a 3 Series; there's no heavy clutch or nervous feel to it that indicates supercar capabilities. But lay into it and the Z8 gets busy real quick the acceleration is fierce right to the redline. And when flung through the twisties, the handling is so exceptional and unruffled that it seems as if the car is saying "You think that's pushing it? Don't make me laugh."
And how is it possible that something as primitive as propulsion by small, controlled explosions could sound so sweet and be so turbine-smooth? I loved the sound of that four-cam V8 so much that I left the stereo off through most of my all-too-brief time with the Z8. Which is a good thing, because the stereo's performance was not proportional to the cost of this car. The tunes in a $25,000 Nissan Maxima blow this system away. But that's the logical side of my brain talking. The purchase of a $128,000 car involves more passion than logic I consider cars such as the Z8 functional and exciting pieces of sculpture.
Although the Z8 is more of an extremely capable GT than a hard-edged sports car, this BMW is nonetheless stunning visually, aurally (in terms of engine and exhaust note) and dynamically. And it would suit me just fine as a daily driver.
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says: Driving a "supercar" like the Z8 is often a hit or miss affair. Either you're completely enthralled by every facet of the car's character, cherishing every moment like it might be your last, or you end up putting around town scoffing at the car's minor inefficiencies or the fact that it costs more than most people's annual income.
I'd like to say that I noticed the misaligned dash panel or constantly laughed to myself remembering how many chumps have parted with upwards of 200 large to own it, but in all honesty, I spent most of the time behind the wheel waiting for another break in traffic so I could once again smack down that throttle and feel all 394 horses dig in with full force.
Dial up the Sport throttle mode, and the Z8 practically leaps out of its own tires. The firm suspension and heavy steering allow you to throw the car into turns with little fear of surprises, and the pedals are perfectly placed for quick heel-and-toe downshifts. It's as solid with the top down as any roadster on earth, but its somewhat subdued exhaust note will disappoint those used to the pleasing wail of an open-air Ferrari.
A close inspection reveals attention to detail rarely found on even the most expensive luxury cars of today, and with only a handful trickling into the country, you can rest assured that you're not likely to pull up next to one in the country club parking lot. If you do, find the person who owns it, shake his or her hand, and savor the fact that you're both driving one of the most incredible cars on earth.
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