There are few automotive pleasures finer than being behind the wheel of a roadster. Okay, perhaps there are, like speeding around the Nurburgring, but for an everyday motoring experience, driving a two-seat open top car can be sublime.
BMW has a respectable modern history with roadsters—now into their third generation, it starting with the Z3 and the previous Z4. Forget about the confusing name, this latest Z4 is more refined than ever and it's now available with a remarkable new four-cylinder engine.
This new 2.0-litre four-cylinder is filled with technology. Of course, it's turbocharged, allowing it to produce 241 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque from its relatively small size. Add in direct injection, four valves per cylinder and modern engine management and you've got a recipe for power when you need it and improved fuel consumption when you don't. BMW rates this Z4 at 9.4 L/100 km city and 5.9 highway, but with my lead-weighted right foot, I was averaging in the low teens…with a smile.
Also helping performance, the four-cylinder Z4 is 100 kilograms (220 pounds) lighter than the six-cylinder model, with most of that weight being absent from the front axle. Less weight, of course, improves acceleration and braking, but also how the car responds to your inputs.
Steering is almost race car-like in its precision and the brakes are powerful with superb feel. While handling is predictable and limits are high, the ride is firm, perhaps more firm than it needs to be.
Most enthusiasts with cringe at the thought, but my test car was equipped with BMW's eight-speed automatic transmission. It's a testament to how good automatics can be. It shifts quickly and BMW's got it setup to blip the throttle for smooth downshifts.
While I didn't drive the four- and six-powered models back-to-back, I'll argue that the four gives the Z4 better overall dynamics, although not better acceleration. If you're power-obsessed, go with the sDrive35is and it's 335 horsepower, but if you're looking for a more balanced package, this 28i is a great little premium roadster.
Broadcasting to the world that you make the, "Ultimate Driving Machine" for decades naturally imparts your cars with the kind of DNA that enthusiasts like. For me, BMW consistently delivers on great seats and superb driving interfaces. Once you set the seat and steering wheel positions to your satisfaction, you've got a cockpit that fits like a glove.
With their chrome rings, the climate controls across the middle of the dash are reminiscent of BMW's legendary Z8 roadster. The rest of the controls, save for the iDrive infotainment controller, are relatively simple. As for iDrive, it gets easier to use as you get familiar with it and, it seems, each new generation is improved over the previous (is that damning with faint praise - Ed?)
During a previous test, I was surprised by the choreographed dance of the Z4's folding hardtop. Putting the roof up or down happens quickly, and can usually be accomplished while stopped at a red light. The hardtop also provides better security than a traditional canvas roof.
As an everyday car, I'd be looking for more storage room inside the cabin. The medium-sized case for my sunglasses could never find a secure home inside the Z4.
The penalty for the hardtop is that it does intrude into the trunk space when folded. With the top up, there is a reasonable 310 litres back there, but with the top down, that decreases almost by half to 180 litres. With the trunk's cargo cover in place, larger items can be carried, but they may not fit through the narrow opening.
This cool little roadster starts at $54,300, slightly higher than Mercedes-Benz's four-cylinder SLK 250 at $52,200 and Audi's all-wheel drive TT Roadster at $51,600.
The recently-tested Nissan 370Z Roaster starts at $47,478, but my test car priced out at just over $53,000. That's very competitive for another two-seater that offers similar, satisfying driving dynamics and about ninety more horsepower, although saddled with about 160 more kilograms of weight and a badge that's not as premium as BMW's roundel.
The Z4 sDrive28i is true to BMW's spirit and gives its driver an unparalleled experience behind the wheel. Sitting so far back in the chassis makes driving this Bimmer unique among two-seat convertibles.
The entire package—power delivery, steering, braking, and handling—make the Z4 a thoroughly enjoyable roadster.