BMW’s all-new, third-gen­er­a­tion Z4 is a more fo­cused beast and it’s primed to take on Porsche

FRUS­TRAT­INGLY, things don’t al­ways go to plan. If they did, we wouldn’t have the all-new BMW Z4 parked next to a Porsche 718 Cay­man. And it also wouldn’t be en­dowed with the mea­gre 2.0-litre four-cylin­der turbo. It is half-a-litre short on ca­pac­ity and sans the es­sen­tial top­less abil­ity we asked for when try­ing to se­cure a Boxster S for this com­par­i­son. Be­fore press­ing a starter but­ton, this all seems a bit of a mis­match on pa­per. How­ever, stats and fig­ures can of­ten mean lit­tle out on the open road and, ul­ti­mately, the body styles pre­sented don’t tell the full story.

Why would BMW al­low us to bring a Porsche Boxster (that was the orig­i­nal aim, re­mem­ber) to the launch of the new Z4? It’s cer­tainly not as a favour. The red car­pet was rolled out for our ri­val be­cause BMW knew that the G29 Z4 has evolved into a proper sports car. The orig­i­nal Z4 was an abom­i­na­tion from the Ban­gle de­sign era, while the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion was pretty, yet dy­nam­i­cally flawed with the re­tractable hard­top aimed squarely at the Mercedes-Benz SLK. Al­though the re­al­ity is that this line of an­ces­tors might as well be from an­other fam­ily, be­cause the third gen­er­a­tion is a com­pletely dif­fer­ent an­i­mal.

Want proof? The boosted, 3.0-litre straight-six-pow­ered M40i we have here blitzes the Nord­schleife in 7:55.41sec, which is faster than the N55-pow­ered M2 by a de­cent mar­gin. Ad­di­tion­ally, with 250kW and 500Nm, the claimed 0-100km/h time of 4.5sec is as plau­si­ble as it is im­pres­sive.

It’s no sur­prise, then, that BMW can’t wait for the M40i to throw down the gaunt­let to the 718 Porsche, even if its 220kW/380Nm out­puts leave it look­ing un­fairly out­gunned (its 4.7sec 0-100km/h time – with Sport Chrono fit­ted – is fur­ther proof ). Yet, Stuttgart’s horses are tra­di­tion­ally stronger and more ef­fec­tive than they ini­tially seem, and while the Z4 is lim­ited to 250km/h, the Cay­man will push on to 277km/h.

Es­sen­tially, the Cay­man is to the Boxster what the Toyota Supra is to the Z4. Also de­vel­oped in Europe, the Supra breathes down the Z4’s neck much harder than is com­fort­able for the ven­er­a­ble Ger­man mar­que. Not sur­pris­ingly, the Cay­man does the same thing to the Boxster. So un­less you reg­u­larly lower the roof, the coupe should al­ways be the driver-ori­en­tated choice over the road­ster.

Well, that’s the the­ory, but in re­al­ity the Z4 is much closer to its Ja­pa­nese coun­ter­part than most would have pre­dicted. “The new Z4 is more puris­tic, dy­namic and pro­gres­sive than the out­go­ing model,” says the project leader, Michael Wim­beck. “There is no bet­ter road­ster to ex­plore empty B-roads early on Sun­day morn­ing than the new Z4.” With that said, it’s time to get in the cars and drive.

While the lo­ca­tion of Lis­bon is idyl­lic, the weather de­cides not to play ball. Dense sheets of rain per­sist as the seem­ingly drought-break­ing pre­cip­i­ta­tion trans­forms the parched sur­face into an ice rink. Grip be­comes an en­ter­tain­ing il­lu­sion as both rear-drive steeds de­mand to be driven. Given half a chance the Z4 will fish­tail away from the apex, while the Cay­man of­fers a broader scope of un­der­steer and over­steer. Still, the buf­fer zone be­tween brav­ery and bad luck can be bru­tally nar­row in these con­di­tions.

As the rain mer­ci­fully clears and the strong winds dry the tar­mac, the BMW starts pulling away from the Porsche


in small, but quan­tifi­able in­cre­ments. Its main as­sets are a torquier and more pow­er­ful en­gine and the com­mend­ably rapid eight-speed au­to­matic trans­mis­sion. How­ever, it weighs in ex­cess of 1500kg, whereas 1365kg is listed for both the base Cay­man and Boxster (the coupe still out­per­forms the drop-top for tor­sional rigid­ity and over­all stiff­ness).

The BMW power unit de­liv­ers its 250kW be­tween 5000 and 6500rpm, while the 500Nm torque peak is avail­able from 16004500rpm. The flat four needs 6500rpm to churn out its 220kW and the Porsche main­tains 380Nm of twist be­tween 21504500rpm. You need ev­ery ex­tra Newton me­tre of grunt to take off quickly in the Z4 be­fore pulling away like light­ning. The stan­dard eight-speed auto makes it easy to climb the torque moun­tain, but it isn’t as quick or as sharp as the op­tional seven-speed PDK trans­mis­sion in the Cay­man. With­out the dual-clutch ’box, the Z4 would eas­ily em­bar­rass the Cay­man.

That con­tro­ver­sial flat four, the smaller of the two, is bet­ter than its ques­tion­able rep­u­ta­tion. Yet it re­lies on high revs to de­liver and it doesn’t muster quite the same lin­ear punch as a flat six – and it sounds more like an air-cooled Beetle on steroids than a de­tuned M1. The 220kW, mid-en­gined


Porsche is bla­tantly en­try-level in­stead of cream of the crop. For acous­tics, the M40i has this com­par­i­son licked. Like the lead singer of a metal band, the six-pot melodically in­tones its trade­mark the­atrics be­tween a bassy low-end to a high-revving crescendo. And it can be en­joyed even more so when top­less.

When we first drove an early pro­to­type Z4 at the BMW prov­ing grounds, the road­ster im­pressed with a va­ri­ety of tal­ents. It worked well as an open-top GT, but we could al­ready feel the po­ten­tial of what’s un­der­neath. Blending the re­laxed mastery of a cruiser with the hard­core han­dling of a bruiser is some­thing the M40i is prov­ing ex­tremely ca­pa­ble of. Throt­tle re­sponse, trans­mis­sion setup, damper vari­a­tion, steer­ing weight and the elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled diff lock can be tweaked in five dif­fer­ent modes. Sport Plus is okay for track use, but Sport is more com­pli­ant and, as a re­sult, bet­ter suited out on the road.

Fit­ted with the op­tional 19-inch al­loys, just like the con­tender from Mu­nich, the Porsche does not ride quite as well as the BMW in Sport mode. In Com­fort, things can get a lit­tle mushy and un­de­fined. It’s tan­gi­bly brit­tle in Sport Plus, while the steer­ing be­comes no­tice­ably heav­ier and the diff lock trades

smooth­ness for bite. Ul­ti­mately, there's a lot at play, here.

While the over­all length has grown, the wheel­base of the new Z4 is ac­tu­ally shorter. It’s a com­pact drop-top with a sportier DNA, while the Cay­man, even in base form, looks and feels like a baby 911. The BMW is eas­ier to drive most of the time. It is fast in a straight line, brakes with pro­fi­ciency and fol­lows the road ac­cu­rately. It’s an emo­tional and ex­cit­ing bit of kit that also builds con­fi­dence quickly. Help­ing this is a front-end that sticks like glue, quick turn-in speeds, mas­sive amounts of grip and a rear axle which con­trols all forces with pro­fi­ciency and aplomb. BMW has de­vel­oped a new front axle for the Z4, which will later reap­pear in the next M4. What sets the road­ster apart from the coupe is the new vari­able-rate sports steer­ing, which boasts a re­as­sur­ing meati­ness on-cen­tre. There’s more feed­back on turn-in and a quicker re­sponse dur­ing rapid changes of di­rec­tion.

The 718 Cay­man still feels about as com­pe­tent and chal­leng­ing as the Z4. Its steer­ing is lighter and even more re­spon­sive, while there’s a dis­tinct lack of weight over the en­gine-less front axle. Grip is its forte, and the heft it saves over the ri­valling two-seater adds a dash of nim­ble­ness and agility. In­ter­est­ingly, de­spite the lack of grunt over the twin­scroll tur­bocharged B58, the flat-four Porsche is ev­ery bit as fast as the Z4 through a moun­tain pass. It al­lows you to brake a lit­tle later and get on the loud pedal ear­lier, with all the elec­tronic sys­tems seem­ing to work with you, not against you. Un­der­steer, and to a lesser de­gree, over­steer, are po­ten­tial is­sues. But no mat­ter what the con­di­tions, the Cay­man hangs on ve­he­mently as the amaz­ing turn-in and docile torque de­liv­ery aids progress. The Cay­man’s steer­ing feels slightly more in­volv­ing, its brakes are grab­bier and a tad stronger, while the un­com­pro­mis­ing road­hold­ing prefers smooth sur­faces to re­ally shine.

On the in­side, the dash­board of the Cay­man is start­ing to look a lit­tle dated when pit­ted against the new Z4. The lat­ter has colour­ful dis­plays, a prac­ti­cal iDrive con­troller and sound er­gonomic func­tion­al­ity. The dif­fer­ence be­tween the two in­fo­tain­ment sys­tems seems in­sur­mount­able at first – one is more dig­i­tal (BMW), while the other re­mains staunchly ana­logue (Porsche). The Z4’s tech-fo­cused cabin isn’t at the ex­pense of in­tu­ition, and in fact, it’s eas­ier to get along with than the old-school but­tons in the Cay­man. Still, in the Porsche’s favour are more leg­i­ble dis­plays, log­i­cally ar­ranged but­tons and a more ad­vanced voice-con­trol sys­tem. Both sorely lack a large dis­play show­cas­ing which gear you’re in, but re­main pleas­ing places to be.

At an es­ti­mated $135,000, the 250kW Z4 M40i is about $17K less ex­pen­sive than the PDK-equipped, 257kW Boxster S we tried to get for this com­par­i­son. The 2.0-litre Cay­man fea­tured here is $117,132 in base form. If you’re look­ing for other op­tions, the Jaguar F-Type V6, Mercedes-AMG SLC43 and the Audi TT RS Cabri­o­let of­fer the badge and pace, if not the out­right han­dling prow­ess, for around the same coin. If a fold­ing roof isn’t a must-have item, then wait­ing for the new Supra (or in­deed the Alpine A110 – which you can buy now), due next year, could be a worth­while op­tion.

If you fancy the over-styled ex­te­rior (to some) and the new in­te­rior de­sign, then the Z4 will re­ward you with a leg­endary


en­gine, a re­mark­able chas­sis and per­for­mance that out­guns many in this class. It should have been branded a Z5 to un­der­line the model’s tran­si­tion from poser to pro­fes­sional. A Z4M that’s eas­ily able to out­gun an M4 Cabri­o­let is also a tasty propo­si­tion, too. Short­en­ing the wheel­base and ex­tend­ing the over­all length com­pared to the sec­ond-gen car doesn’t seem to make sense un­til you ac­tu­ally drive the new model. It’s less twitchy at speed, yet more switched on through the twisties. On slip­pery ter­rain it’d be nice to over­ride the DSC and power into over­steer, but on dry roads, the grip, trac­tion and road­hold­ing are beyond re­proach.

The Cay­man has the nicer steer­ing – it’s lighter, quicker and more in­volv­ing. It also scores with han­dling char­ac­ter­is­tics that are more en­ter­tain­ing with an un­canny abil­ity to con­nect steer­ing, throt­tle and sus­pen­sion move­ments into one com­pelling ex­pe­ri­ence. What the Porsche lacks in this com­pany is the ex­tra help­ing of torque to shove the Cay­man for­ward with vengeance rather than need­ing to wring its neck for ev­ery ex­tra en­gine rev­o­lu­tion. Hav­ing less fat and an over­all sportier setup, with a row­dier Sport Plus cal­i­bra­tion, helps. How­ever, four cylin­ders and 1988cc sim­ply don’t cre­ate as many fire­works as a 2998cc in­line-six.

At the end of the day, the Z4 M40i is the faster car. And more of­ten than not, it matches the Cay­man for tac­tile ex­cel­lence and pal­pa­ble in­ter­ac­tion. For Porsche, the BMW Z4 is now frus­trat­ingly close to top­pling a car many have re­garded as un­beat­able. Now that’s cer­tainly go­ing against the plan.


MAIN A re­mov­able de­flec­tor is wedged be­tween the fixed head re­straints

ABOVE While the base Cay­man re­mains but­ton-heavy com­pared to the tech-laden Z4, both cab­ins are plenty easy/com­fort­able

MAIN Z4 grants a com­mand­ing view de­spite the low seat­ing po­si­tion. Swept-back wind­screen of­fers pro­tec­tion from the el­e­ments

MAIN So what’s the more con­vinc­ing con­cept – a six-cylin­der up front or a mid-en­gined four? Both are com­pelling pur­chases

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