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BMW's new Z4 driven

2009-04-07 07:39

Leo Kok

It's the product of a design competition between all designers in the BMW Group. Two ladies (one for the outside and one for the interior) walked away with the prize, which will soon arrive on our shores.

The new BMW Z4, which was launched in Spain to the global market, is the second generation of BMW Z4 Roadster, but it actually stems from a long line of Roadsters.

It started with models such as the 319/1 that astounded the market back in 1935 with its long bonnet, driver's seat that sat almost atop the rear axle and side inlets for the three side inlet carburettors. The long bonnet has remained through to this day, as has the seating position, but the side intakes changed to gills in the 507 (1955), something which is shadowed in the new model.

"A typical Roadster must allow you to open the door and, whilst seated, touch the rear wheels," says Juliane Blasi, the winning exterior designer.

Blasi goes on to talk of the way the bonnet sweeps with four strong character lines. Two of these lines run from the badge and over the roof to the badge at the rear. The other two stretch from the front headlights to the rear lights across the hips of the car.

The bonnet itself is not broken by any seams (the seams close over the front wheel arch) and it was designed, as was the squat rear end, to create a wide stance and purposeful, sports car look.

The metal roof is the lightest in the business and does not influence the 50:50 weight split when folded into the boot. With this aluminium roof, designers were able to significantly increase the glass proportions, and all-round visibility is said to be up by 40%.


It is interesting to note that the designers made full use of the newly folding metal roof by subtly styling it as well. The roof folds in 20 seconds into two pieces that fit into the luggage space, but with it up it creates a coupe-like look. This design feature is key to understanding why BMW will not be offering a separate Z4 Coupe, as it did with the previous generation.

The sports car look is supported by what is happening under the sleek new steel and aluminium skin. Here engineers responsible for little gems such as the 135i fitted the new Z with a double-joint tiebar axle in the front and a guided axle in the back. A new version of their adaptive M suspension, featuring a central control that varies inbound and outbound damping rates, is an option and will even lower the car by 10 mm in its sportiest mode.

On to the engines. In keeping with their goal of building a sports car, BMW will offer only six cylinder engines on the Z4. The line-up kicks off with the sDrive23i. This unit sports a 2.5-litre six with 150 kW at 6 200 r/min and 250 Nm that is fully available from 2 950 r/min onwards. The engine will propel the car to a top speed of 242 km/h (239 km/h if you swap the six-speed manual for an auto' with the same number of gears), whilst acceleration to 100 km/h is 6.6 seconds for the manual and 7.3 seconds for the auto'.

Second in line is the well known 3.0-litre six in the sDrive30i. In this model the 190 kW engine is good for a 5.8 second run to 100 km/h (6.1 seconds in the auto'). Top speed is limited to 250 km/h. The sport auto' box in this unit is similar to that of the sDrive23i and shifts are surprisingly quick thanks to fast lock-up. The three-litre has a very healthy 310 Nm on tap, which peaks at 2 750 r/min.

Twin-turbo straight six

The absolute gem in the range, at least until an M-version arrives, is the sDrive35i. Fitted with the Engine of the Year-winning bi-turbo three-litre six, this version has 225 kW and 400 Nm available under your right foot, with the torque curve as flat as the Free State from 1 300 r/min to 5 000 r/min.

With this kind of power the sDrive35i will reach 100 km/h in 5.2 seconds (5.1 seconds for the double clutch system) and it will storm like a wounded buffalo until the electronic limiter spoils your fun at 250 km/h.

The sDrive35i further offers the option of BMW's seven-speed double clutch sport shift. With this Audi S-tronic-like gearbox the next gear is pre-selected and changes are made in micro-seconds. Each change under full throttle is accompanied by a small "blurt" sound, as unburned petrol escapes into the exhaust system, only to explode in that heat.

Combine this with the computerised blip of the throttle while gearing down and the exhaust growl and turbo waste gate wheeze of the engine, and you have a car that begs to be driven hard, all the time.

Erstwhile designer Chris Bangle´s flame surfacing lives on, but it is now overpowered by "strong shoulder and hip lines" for a more masculine and athletic stance.

Balancing act

The Z4 was launched to the international media in Alicante, Spain, and the test route took drivers through twisty mountainous roads outside the town. If you think of twisty, don't think of Franschoek Pass or the road to Magaliesburg over the mountain. Think of the scribblings of a hyperactive child who has had way too much sugar.

On these roads, with the car in Sport or Sport+ mode, the suspension primed and the meaty steering at its most communicative, one's hands were rarely still as corner after beautiful corner jumped in front of you, interjected by the odd tractor or truck that wandered across the road and kept you wide awake.

The test road did succeed in making a few journos very queasy, but it also managed to emphasise that this new machine is probably one of the best handling rear-wheel driven roadsters on the market.

The steering is meaty, your rear wheels stay in track even under heavy cornering and any hint of overstear is quickly and easily corrected. The old Z4´s tendency to wander on rough roads has also been dealt with completely.

The new Z4 should arrive on South African shores within a couple of weeks for local homologation and the first units should go on sale towards the middle of winter.


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