New BMW Z4 bat­tles Porsche’s bench­mark

It’s all very well de­but­ing a £50k sports car in iso­la­tion. But sooner or later (or right now, in fact) it has to face up to the Porsche bench­mark

CAR (UK) - - CONTENTS - Words Ge­org Kacher I Photography Ste en Jahn

WHY WOULD BMW al­low us to bring a Porsche 718 to the launch of the new Z4? Be­cause they love this mag­a­zine, or be­cause they have a par­tic­u­lar fond­ness for this au­thor? Dream on. They rolled out the red car­pet for our white ri­val from Stuttgart be­cause they’re con­fi­dent – very con­fi­dent – that for its third gen­er­a­tion the Z4 has fi­nally evolved into a proper sports car.

The first Z4 was an abom­i­na­tion from the Ban­gle House of Hor­ror. The sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion car was a pretty yet dy­nam­i­cally flawed re­tractable hard­top aimed squarely at the Mercedes SLK; hardly the most dy­nam­i­cally sparkling tar­get on which to set your sights. The new Mk3 is a to­tally dif­fer­ent an­i­mal. Co­de­named G29, it laps the Nord­schleife in 7min 55sec (faster than the just re­tired M2, if a tad tardier than the new, more fo­cused – and M4-en­gined – M2 Com­pe­ti­tion) and blitzes 0-62mph in a re­mark­able 4.6sec, putting it­self on par with the M4 cabri­o­let.

So the Z4 M40i is itch­ing to go head to head with the £50k sports car bench­mark. But which Porsche 718? WLTP emis­sions test­ing tem­po­rar­ily made both base mod­els hard to come by (although nor­mal sup­ply has now re­sumed) but, bar its coupe bodystyle, our white PDK-equipped non-S Cay­man is the per­fect spar­ring part­ner. The Porsche is £3k cheaper and 40bhp down on the Bavar­ian but an S would be too fierce, and £3k more. (Plus Porsche will charge you a cou­ple of thou­sand pounds for a PDK gear­box and the Sport Chrono pack, both of which you need to go up against the well-equipped Z4.)

In fact, the new Z4 so spook­ily splits the two Porsches on price and power you sus­pect it’s no co­in­ci­dence. But the Cay­man, not the Boxster? Put it this way, if the BMW can stick with the bench­mark coupe, it re­ally will have be­come an al­to­gether more se­ri­ous propo­si­tion.

‘When the board gave the project the green light they told us to make it a co-op­er­a­tive ven­ture [with Toy­ota, see page 78] and to make it a good one; a proper sports car,’ says project leader Michael Wim­beck. We had a 718 for bench­mark­ing early on. I showed it to the board mem­bers, had them com­pare it to our car, and pointed out that, while it was in­fe­rior for noise and com­fort, that this also gives it char­ac­ter.

‘The new Z4 is purer, more dy­namic and more pro­gres­sive

than the out­go­ing model. There is no bet­ter road­ster to ex­plore empty B-roads early on Sun­day morn­ing than the new Z4.’ It’s Mon­day lunchtime, not Sun­day morn­ing, as we head out of Lis­bon, and the rain is fall­ing in dense, bil­low­ing sheets. Vis­i­bil­ity be­comes a guess­ing game as we head for the coast, and the first se­ri­ous down­pour in five dry months has coated the sur­face with what feels like liq­uid soap.

Grip is soon an il­lu­sion, road­hold­ing a se­ries of bro­ken prom­ises, and any­thing other than the ten­der­est of touches on ei­ther pedal risks send­ing us into the sea. Still, at least I’m awake now.

Rac­ing up and down the zig-zag­ging hill­sides in sec­ond and third gear feels like rid­ing the freshly honed cut­ting edge of a curved dag­ger. Get it wrong, and brace your­self for the worst. Get it right, and you’re re­warded with the sat­is­fac­tion of steer­ing in­puts, gearchanges and throt­tle ad­just­ment work­ing in har­mony and shrug­ging off the weather. In such mo­ments do true sports cars make them­selves known.

Ini­tially we com­pare the Porsche and BMW at con­sid­er­ably less than full throt­tle, en­joy­ing the fact that both are happy to be driven rel­a­tively slowly and have their share of com­fort and con­ve­nience.

In­side, the Z4’s cock­pit is use­fully spa­cious, if bur­dened with an aw­ful lot of in­stru­men­ta­tion and switchgear and a busy, fat-rimmed steer­ing wheel. The most but­ton-heavy zone is around the gear se­lec­tor. Here we find the lat­est ver­sion of the iDrive con­troller, four driv­ing pro­gramme keys la­belled Sport, Com­fort, Eco Pro and Adap­tive, the DSC switch and the tog­gle that opens and shuts the roof in a brisk 10 sec­onds. (It’s firmly closed right now, but a bright­ness be­yond the dis­tant clouds gives cause for hope.)

The dash­board of the Cay­man is pos­i­tively olde worlde when pit­ted against the BMW’s clever colour­ful dis­plays, the prac­ti­cal con­troller and the er­gonomic multi-func­tion­al­ity of the Z4. The dif­fer­ences be­tween the two MMIs look in­sur­mount­able at first, but the nov­elty soon wears off and you ad­just to what­ever you’re in. The BMW has the more clearly leg­i­ble dis­plays, the more log­i­cally ar­ranged di­rect-ac­cess but­tons and the more ad­vanced voice con­trol sys­tem. But as far as I’m con­cerned both cars would ben­e­fit from a large dig­i­tal speedome­ter, a big­ger tacho with a vis­ual and au­di­ble red­line-ap­proach warn­ing, and a large read-out to tell you which gear you’re in.

Come early af­ter­noon the rain eases off and strong winds be­gin to blow the black­top dry. We spend all af­ter­noon swap­ping be­tween the duo on some truly great roads dot­ted with blind cor­ners, heart-at­tack des­cents and cin­e­mas­cope vis­tas. The po­lice must be busy help­ing drenched cats out of trees, be­cause they’re cer­tainly not out here mea­sur­ing how much we’re ex­ceed­ing our fun al­lo­ca­tion.

With the corner­ing grip back in full force, the BMW gets a chance to re­ally shine, and show off the mer­its of front-mounted straight-six ver­sus the Porsche’s mid-mounted boxer four. Although our Z4 has more power and more torque, it weighs a sub­stan­tial 1535kg ver­sus 1440kg for the Cay­man. Fit­ted with the seven-speed PDK ’box and the Sport Chrono pack, the mid-en­gined two-seater can ac­cel­er­ate from zero to 62mph in 4.7sec. The more pow­er­ful Z4 M40i will do the same job in an even brisker 4.6sec, but it is gov­erned at 155mph where as its ri­val maxes out at 170mph.

The BMW en­gine de­liv­ers 335bhp be­tween 5000 and4

IN THE RAIN GRIP IS SOON AN IL­LU­SION, ROAD HOLD­ING A SE­RIES OF BRO­KEN PROM­ISES

6500rpm; 369lb ft of max­i­mum torque is avail­able from just 1600rpm. The boxer needs 6500rpm to put down 295bhp, and it main­tains its torque peak of 280lb ft be­tween 2150 and 4500rpm. At 35.8mpg against 38.2mpg, the Cay­man’s boxer four is slightly thirstier than the Z4, and has to work hard to keep up with the lus­cious straight-six. The Porsche’s op­tional seven-speed twin-clutch gear­box is more than happy to help. None­the­less, as we press on, speeds ris­ing as the tar­mac turns from dark grey and shiny to light grey and grippy, the BMW starts pulling away from the Porsche in small but quan­tifi­able in­cre­ments.

When we first drove an early Z4 on the BMW prov­ing grounds in Mi­ra­mas, the road­ster im­pressed with a va­ri­ety of tal­ents. It worked well as open-top GT, it would per­form as sports car for road and track, and it blended the re­laxed mastery of a cruiser with the hard­core han­dling of a bruiser. Six months later, on this his­toric patch­work turf north-west of Lis­bon, the M40i passes its bap­tism of fire in the com­pany of a se­ri­ous ri­val.

The nub of our com­par­i­son is a de­mand­ing 10-mile stretch. Up in the Z4, down in the Cay­man. Then up in the Cay­man, down in the Z4. Both our test cars are on 19-inch wheels, and the di­rect com­par­i­son re­veals that the Porsche does not ride quite as well as the BMW in Sport mode.

The Z4’s throt­tle re­sponse, trans­mis­sion set-up, dampers, steer­ing weight and the elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled diff lock can be tweaked by the driver in five dif­fer­ent steps. Sport + is okay on the track, but Sport is more com­pli­ant and thus bet­ter suited for the open road. As far as the trans­mis­sion goes, the most in­spir­ing mix is hy­per-pre­cise man­ual down­shifts fol­lowed by au­to­matic up­shifts.

In Com­fort, the Z4 can be a lit­tle mushy and un­de­fined, while in Sport + the ride feels no­tably more brit­tle, the steer­ing a tad heavy, and the diff lock trades in smooth­ness for bite. The six-cylin­der en­gine os­cil­lates be­tween a low-rev mur­mur and a high-rev roar. Even with the roof down, the driver feels com­fort­able and se­cure, has a com­mand­ing view de­spite the low seat­ing po­si­tion, is pro­tected sur­pris­ingly well from rain by the large laid-back wind­screen, and from the pass­ing storm over­head by the tacky re­mov­able deflector wedged be­tween the fixed head re­straints.

With a shorter wheel­base than its pre­de­ces­sor, the new Z4 feels ev­ery inch the com­pact drop-top with sporty DNA. The Cay­man on the other hand looks and feels like the baby brother of the 911. The BMW is eas­ier to drive most of the time. It flies a straight line as un­err­ingly as a mi­grat­ing goose, it de­cel­er­ates with the el­e­gance and ef­fi­ciency of a land­ing swan, and it fol­lows the road as ac­cu­rately as a buz­zard trail­ing its lunch. It’s an emo­tional and ex­cit­ing piece of kit, but at the same4

THE Z4 BUILDS YOUR CON­FI­DENCE WITH PHE­NOM­E­NAL FRONT END GRIP AND A REAR AXLE THAT DOES YOUR BID­DING AC­CU­RATELY

Auto the only Z4 trans­mis­sion, so our Cay­man runs a PDK ’box

Porsche cock­pit rel­a­tively low-tech, if er­gonom­i­callysound

Sport Chrono pack makes the Cay­man a 4.7sec 062mphsprinter

Clas­sic fron­tengined lay­out good for drivercon­idence

Sta­bil­ity con­trol o ? Why not in­deed

The BMW might not tick the box marked ‘pretty’but it nails ‘pur­pose­ful’

Ge­org takes a breather from a tough day’s hair-split­ting

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