Zed’s not dead Z4 M40i

WE SAY: IS IT A ROAD­STER? OR A SPORTS CAR? BOTH, SAYS BMW. LET’S FIND OUT...

Top Gear (UK) - - DRIVES | AWARS 2018 - BMW £40,050

Fold­ing hard tops were in­vented when soft tops were too eas­ily pen­e­trated by the weather and van­dals with Stan­ley knives. These days, a well-done fab­ric roof re­ally is all you could want for cosi­ness, and the yobs are too busily en­gaged in so­cial­me­dia bul­ly­ing. So the new Z4 wears a cloth cap.

So if there’s no hard top un­der there, I won­dered aloud to a de­signer, why’s the tail so bulky? I kept silent on my opin­ion that it’s un­be­com­ingly so. Aero­dy­nam­ics is the an­swer I was given. At the other end of the car, the jut­ting jowls are de­signed to help cap­ture air­flow and usher it past the wheels. If you don’t like it, lower-spec Z4’s have a slim­mer front bumper. What­ever the rea­sons, a mea­sure of gawk­i­ness af­flicts the pro­por­tions of this coach­work. Shame. You want it to be hand­some be­cause, more than any other kind of car, a roof-down road­ster is an item of cloth­ing.

Not just a road­ster but a sports car, the BMW engi­neers keep say­ing. They quote a Nür­bur­gring lap time. La-la-la... I’ve stopped lis­ten­ing since they told us a time for the 2-Se­ries Ac­tive Tourer mini­van. Oh hang on, the Z4 M40i time is un­der eight min­utes. Its phys­i­cal di­men­sions are good for lap­pery

– a shorter wheel­base than be­fore by a huge 20cm, for agility; a much wider track, for grip; a lower cen­tre of grav­ity. The body is a whole lot stiffer than the old Z4’s, and it’s light, aided of course by ditch­ing the pow­ered hard top. The front sus­pen­sion, un­like other BMWs,

mounts to a spe­cial alu­minium sub­frame for pre­ci­sion. Those aren’t the only dec­la­ra­tions of in­tent. The Z4 M40i’s tyres come from the M4. There’s an e-diff be­tween the rear half­shafts. You get the gist.

Six cylin­ders too. When Porsche’s road­ster has just the four and Audi’s five. Mercedes does six, but they’re in a V not in­line, and live in an SLC. So that’s a win for Mu­nich. Mind you, for an­other £10k you can have a V6 su­per­charged Jaguar F-Type road­ster and you can or­der the Jag with a man­ual. There are a whole three of those on Au­toTrader as I write, ver­sus 200 of the au­to­matic ver­sions. The Z4 doesn’t per­mit you the choice of that re­sale-sui­cide man­ual trans­mis­sion. The Z4 M40i that we’re driv­ing here, by the way, tops off a range that be­gins with a pair of what are now BMW-sta­ple 2.0litre fours, the 30i and 20i.

The M40i revs to 7,000rpm, and all the sen­sa­tions – in the pull of it and the sound of it – say it’s pretty darned chuffed to be do­ing so. You can wring the best out of it by us­ing the shift pad­dles and watch­ing the revs, but BMW makes it hard for you be­cause the newly de­signed vir­tual in­stru­ment panel (com­mon to the new X5 and 8-Se­ries, and up­com­ing 3-Se­ries too) has a hope­lessly il­leg­i­ble tacho and tiny gear in­di­ca­tor. I’ve banged on about the graph­ics of that clus­ter be­fore, and fa­mil­iar­ity has in no way bred con­tent.

Any­way, here we are, crack­ing along, en­joy­ing the six-cylin­der’s gen­eros­ity. The chas­sis can eas­ily cope. As promised, there’s enor­mous grip, and the sus­pen­sion keeps a vig­i­lant eye on body roll and float. The steer­ing is high-geared – gets even more so on lock too – but it acts in­tu­itively so you can al­ways aim the car with lovely ac­cu­racy, and even small ef­forts will thread it into a tight bend with the im­mense forces those tyres can gen­er­ate. Only thing is, you don’t get a whole lot of sen­sa­tion back from the front wheels. That job is left up to the back end. You feel the e-diff work­ing as you lean onto the power, the rear half of the Z4 crouch­ing down and neatly hold­ing onto the edge of trac­tion as it bleeds out of a bend.

The engi­neers say that at the start of the pro­ject they used the M240i as a han­dling bench­mark, but soon re­alised that they’d be in­sult­ing them­selves if they kept their aim there. So the tar­get be­came the M2. I don’t think the Z4 is quite that trans­par­ent, but it’s that ca­pa­ble, for sure.

“BMW is one of the global hold­outs for straight-six en­gines and rear drive”

The M2 has pas­sive dampers, and their em­phat­i­cally judged cal­i­bra­tion, es­pe­cially in the Com­pe­ti­tion ver­sion, is why the M2 is so cap­ti­vat­ing when you’re driv­ing in fully recre­ational style. And why it’s jig­gly the rest of the time. The Z4, by con­trast, has adap­tive dampers, with two pro­grammes. Even in the sport mode, where you get clearly sharper turn-in, they al­low the sus­pen­sion to re­lax a cer­tain amount on the straights. In Com­fort, things re­ally be­come re­mark­ably sup­ple, round­ing off most of what a bro­ken sur­face throws at it. So the

Z4’s chas­sis re­laxes nicely into com­mut­ing or long-haul work. And while you’re at it, the driver aids and con­nec­tiv­ity are as hy­gienic as you’d ex­pect from mod­ernGer­man pre­mium.

Roof-up at mo­tor­way speed, there’s a mildly tur­bu­lent hiss of rush­ing air, but oth­er­wise its in­su­la­tion, warmth and gen­eral storm­proof­ing are be­yond se­ri­ous re­proach. Spend 15 sec­onds press­ing a but­ton to lower the cloth but keep the win­dows up and the neat lit­tle wind-blocker in place. That way you can still en­joy the ex­cel­lent stereo at speed. Even on a parky day there’d be no call for one of those airscarf gad­gets.

Of course the soft top is im­por­tant for an­other rea­son. It sep­a­rates the Z4 from the Toy­ota Supra coupe. Ah yes, you can thank Toy­ota for the ex­is­tence of the Z4. Six years ago, BMW phoned the Ja­panese be­cause it was look­ing for fu­el­cell ex­per­tise. Toy­ota took the call be­cause it fig­ured on swap­ping that for the Ger­mans’ skills in cut­ting weight, and in mak­ing car­bon fi­bre more cheaply, and in lithium-ion bat­tery cell chem­istry. So far, so in­dus­try-dull.

But then the engi­neers got talk­ing about a sports car. Be­cause who wouldn’t? Toy­ota wanted a new Supra but didn’t have a plat­form. BMW saw the road­ster mar­ket soft­en­ing and wasn’t sure if it could sell enough to jus­tify re­plac­ing the Z4. To­gether, though, they might just make a sen­si­ble busi­ness of it. BMW of course is one of the staunch­est global hold­outs for straight-six en­gines and rear drive, two ar­ti­cles of faith for a Supra.

The ba­sic en­gi­neer­ing of the Supra is BMW, the en­gine most con­spic­u­ously. The two sports cars’ sus­pen­sion and ba­sic plat­form parts, and the elec­tron­ics too, come from BMW’s cur­rent set that’s used on ev­ery lon­gi­tu­di­nal car they’ve launched since the 7-er of 2017. The Supra is tuned and set up dif­fer­ently from the Z4, but the Z4 peo­ple tell me that this work was ac­tu­ally done largely by BMW techs to Toy­ota’s in­struc­tions. Both the cars are built at a BMW-over­seen line in the Magna plant in Aus­tria (the same place that builds cer­tain 5-Se­ries plus all Jaguar I-Paces and E-Paces, and the Mercedes G-Wa­gen, fact fans).

So if it mat­ters to you that a car has ‘brand pu­rity’, you’ll be want­ing the Z4. If you want a road­ster, that’ll also be the Z4. The Supra, a coupe, plays to a dif­fer­ent, JDM-in­fused, vibe. So de­spite the com­mon root­stock, these cars le­git­i­mately ap­peal to dif­fer­ent au­di­ences. Mean­ing more sales over­all, which is the whole point, in­nit.

The road­ster – per­fect for the long, wet win­ters of the UK

Cabin doesn’t need that fancy airscarf busi­ness as it’s well storm­proofed

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