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2020 BMW Z4 Test Drive Review
A redesign is never really complete until you have the full engine lineup involved. With last year’s redesign of the Z4, BMW left the iconic inline 6-cylinder engine on the shelf, leaving only 4-cylinder power for the punchy little roadster. This year, the I6 returns with the M40i trim, promising plenty of power to please the people.
Look and Feel
It’s been 25 years since BMW got into the roadster game, and in that time, cars have transformed into something nearly unrecognizable. Electronic conveniences and luxuries coupled with mandated safety features mean the attractive simplicity of the original Z3 has been made an impossibility in 2019. As a result, the Z4 we see today weighs nearly 600 pounds more than the Z3, an increase of more than a fifth of the original car's curb weight.
That's bad news for driving enthusiasts, but it's good news for those who like the finer things in life. The Z4 has taken its sports-car roots and headed in a more luxurious direction. If you’re looking for a comfortable, cruising, GT roadster, look no further—the Z4 does top-down touring with style.
Starting with the base sDrive30i—where “sDrive” denotes BMW models sporting 2WD—the Z4 offers the driver myriad amenities for the starting MSRP of $49,700. Automatic LED headlights, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming mirrors, and automatic climate control set the stage for hands-free conveniences and tech. Sitting in the 14-way power- and memory-equipped seats, you’ll find a 10.24-inch touchscreen running BMW’s iDrive system, and a virtual instrument panel that’s a truncated version of the unit you’ll find in larger BMW models. Navigation and HD Radio are standard, along with 20GB of storage, but Android Auto is missing here; only Apple CarPlay is offered.
For a bit more luxury, the Premium package ($3,050) will get you heated seats with lumbar adjustment, a head-up display (HUD), a Wi-Fi hotspot, and wireless charging. The Executive package ($5,550) adds premium leather, a 12-speaker Harman Kardon stereo, and adaptive headlights with auto high beams.
You can also add the Track Handling package to your sDrive30i to get M Sport Brakes, suspension, and differential—all for $2,450. Or add any number of the above options individually to decide the exact character you want your Z4 to communicate.
With the sDriveM40i (starting MSRP of $63,700), many of these features are already included, most specifically the Track Handling package. Outside you’ll notice 19-inch alloys with non-run-flat Pirelli tires, as opposed to the 18-inch wheels with run-flats you get with the sDrive30i. Because things are optioned differently here, the package prices change as well. Here the Premium package costs $1,400 and gets you remote engine start, an HUD, and wireless charging with a Wi-Fi hotspot. The Executive package is $2,500 and gets you full adaptive LED front lights with auto high beams, ambient lighting, and the Harman Kardon stereo.
Of course, the big difference is in the engines. While both trims get the magnificent 8-speed ZF automatic, the sDrive30i is powered by a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine boosted by a twin-scroll turbocharger. The “less-powerful” engine certainly holds its own with 255 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, but those who are looking for a little performance pleasure will love the 382 hp and 368 lb-ft the M40i’s 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 delivers. Thankfully, that’s exactly what I got to experience during my week with the Z4. With the starting MSRP of $63,700, my Z4’s sticker was inflated by a $550 Misano Blue Metallic paint job, the $500 Driver Assistance package, $1,400 Premium package, and $2,500 Executive package. Unique double-spoke, 19-inch wheels were another $600, but other than the $995 destination charge, everything else was included. My test car’s total price would be $70,245.
The Z4 gets double blessings in the U.S. this year. Not only does the inline 6-cylinder engine return in the M40i, but because of increasing restrictions overseas, this version is actually 40 hp more powerful than the one they get in Europe. That’s uncommon enough to deserve not just notation, but celebration. The 4-cylinder engine is not to be ignored, however. It’s a sprightly, eager power plant, producing 255 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. That's enough to get it to 60 mph in about 5.5 seconds—and that is fast. It should also be noted that this engine weighs about 100 pounds less than the inline-6, and in a very important location as well. The 4-cylinder has certain limitations—namely its passing power on the highway—but otherwise, this is a fun little engine that can offer a slight handling advantage over its bigger brother thanks to its reduced weight.
But let’s be honest—are you really going to notice that 100 pounds when the inline-6 offers an extra 127 hp and 73 lb-ft of torque? Probably not. The engine pushed far back into the bay means there’s no understeer to be found, and the M Electronic differential means oversteer is a completely controllable affair that peeks its head into the party, says its hellos, and then disappears before dinner is served. And if you turn off the traction control, then yes, the 383 hp and 368 lb-ft are more than enough to smoke the tires, not to mention get you to 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds.
Owners can configure multiple drive modes to their preference. But the Sport and Sport Plus modes are so well set up, I found the only time I strayed was when I got into my neighborhood and wanted to quiet down the frequent pops and burbles that spewed from the exhaust every time I let off the accelerator. The one performance picadillo that I’ll mention is the rear end's tendency to hop around a bit when cornering hard over rough pavement. It almost acts like it has a solid rear axle, like you’d get in a pickup truck or an older Mustang. It’s fun and exciting in a slightly scary way, but I have to wonder if this is something I should even be talking about in a vehicle whose sticker price exceeds 70 grand.
Form and Function
Many have criticized the Z4 for becoming too comfortable, too easy, too devoid of drama or theatre to really be exciting. This is wrong. While the original Z3 was a pure sports car with very little compromise, today’s Z4 is a more versatile creature. What you have here is not a sports car anymore, but a luxurious cruising convertible that just happens to do a very, very good impression of a sports car. The seats are supremely comfortable while still providing the secure bolstering necessary for spirited driving. The top comes down in less than 10 seconds, but up or down, the cabin is quiet at any speed. Were it not for the overall lack of space and storage, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were sitting in a luxury coupe.
And while storage will be an issue, it won’t be as much of an issue as it could be. With 9.9 cubic feet of trunk space, the Z4 absolutely stands out amongst the competition. Stack it up against the Miata and it’s got twice as much. Compared to the Audi TT, you’ll end up with an extra 2 cubes in the Z4. Even better: Putting the top down doesn’t impede on that space at all. There’s a little passthrough into the cabin that is one of the only flimsy-feeling pieces of equipment in the whole car, and I can’t help but think it would be more useful with a slightly bigger opening and a lock.
But keep in mind, if you’re looking for this to be a bare-bones sporting roadster, you’re going to be disappointed. While it can handle itself quite well in the twisties, it’s even happier when cruising along gentle curves with some pleasant scenery in the background.
Even in base form, the Z4 offers plenty of unique tech. Adaptive or automatic everything, from headlights, wipers, and mirrors to the climate and cruise control, things only get better once you start adding the options. The driver information center is clean, crisp, and easy to read, although switching between screens isn’t exactly intuitive or easy. I’m a big fan of BMW’s interiors of late—they are hitting a really nice compromise between clean design and ease of use, with the right amount of nostalgia tossed in. And there are little details that make the Z4 an especially nice place to spend some time. For instance, the presets for the radio aren’t just for the radio. Rather, you can program them to any screen or function, so you won't have to hunt for your most-used features and pages. And the keyless entry here is truly hands-free, meaning the car locks and unlocks itself based merely on your presence. No need to touch the door or a button on the handle for things to engage. These are little touches that make a world of difference, and they are some of the few things that distinguish the car ownership experience from one manufacturer to the next.
But things aren’t all great. Android Auto is conspicuously absent, and the connection issues with Apple CarPlay are so prevalent that I’m reluctant to even mention it as a feature. The optional Harman Kardon stereo sounds great with some powerful bass coming from the trunk, but the little speaker pods attached to the A-pillar look cheap and feel loose, and that’s not something that should be acceptable at this level. Otherwise, things just keep improving with regard to BMW's technology, though I’d say my favorite feature is the ability to scroll through the radio stations and see which songs are playing without actually changing the channel. That’s a game-changer.
The redesigned BMW Z4 has yet to be tested by the government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
Standard safety features include frontal collision warning with emergency braking and traffic-sign recognition, though this can be supported with the Driving Assistance package ($500) to add blind-spot-monitoring and lane-departure-warning systems, or with the Convenience package ($1,450) for rear cross-traffic alert, along with an automatic parking system, satellite radio, adaptive cruise, and smartphone key pairing.
The Z4 sports one of the clearest cameras on the market, and that’ll help with the relatively poor rear visibility when the top's up. I found that the wind deflector made rearward visibility a bit difficult with the top down, but it certainly did its job. And since fatigue from getting assaulted by the wind for a few hours is a safety issue in and of itself, I’m going to call it a wash.
The 2020 BMW Z4 can be had for less than 50 grand in the sDrive30i trim, but it can easily go over $70K after you start adding options to an M40i. Any discussion about the cost-effectiveness of the vehicle has to be had in terms of the competition, and since the Mercedes SLC has been discontinued, there really… isn’t any. The Miata and Fiat 124 Spider may be able to keep up with it in the corners, but the power difference alone leaves them behind (not to mention the BMW's higher-end luxury). The Audi TT comes closer, but it’s front-wheel drive, and while the Mustang or Camaro might have the power and the correct wheels moving things along, they’re very simply different beasts than a small, European roadster. The closest might be the Porsche Boxster, and BMW actually benchmarked the Boxster while developing the latest Z4. But in order to get 6-cylinder power and performance in the Boxster, you’re looking at nearly $100,000, meaning the Z4 is an absolute steal.
A CarGurus contributor since 2008, Michael started his career writing about cars with the SCCA - winning awards during his time as editor of Top End magazine. Since then, his journalistic travels have taken him from NY to Boston to CA, completing a cross-country tour on a restored vintage Suzuki. While his preference is for fine German automobiles - and the extra leg room they so often afford - his first automobile memories center around impromptu Mustang vs. Corvette races down the local highway, in the backseat of his father's latest acquisition.
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