Monday, 25 October 2010

Driven #5;- BMW Z4 Sdrive35i

BMW used to be quite good at preserving their principles. They promised they wouldn’t produce a front-wheel-drive car, a promise they have worked around by using the MINI name. M Division never used to like the idea of turbocharging either, finding that it took the sharpness out of throttle responses. They preferred to use highly strung normally aspirated engines like the legendary S54 engine from the M3. It looks now as if the next M3 will be a turbo.

And they denied they’d ever put a folding hard-top on a Z4. A sports car didn’t need one, they said. With the 3-Series they had held off from folding hardtops until they found a way of packaging one effectively without it ruining the weight distribution. They finally managed, and you have to assume that they worked some kind of witchcraft to fit one on the new Z4 without it totally ruining the recipe.

The Z4 has always been a sharp little car. The folding canvas top was actually quite apt, fitting in with the slightly raw appeal that the car sought to evoke. Stylistically it was one of Bangles happier efforts, the lines from the headlamps to the rear of the doors taking your eyes on a visual tour of the whole car. Clever stuff. The new car, while not so contravertial as the last, is still a very attractive piece of kit. You could argue that it looks more understated, perhaps less poised, but it still has that shark-nose grille and low bonnet line which shouts Fire Me Up and Take Me For A Drive.

Fire it up, then, and, after split seconds of low-hydraulic pressure chaos, the three litre, twin-turbocharged engine of this car settles to an aviation hum somewhere in the middle distance, with just the faintest suggestion of a straight-six drone. With more application of throttle this unique sound becomes ever more acute, you soon realise this could only be a machine from Munich. At higher revs, and calling upon maximum effort, the warble becomes a war cry, a broad howl which sends your mind scurrying for superlatives. This is a very nice sounding engine indeed, not sounding overtly force-fed, just incredibly rev-happy and playful when you trouble the top bit of the tach.

The previous generation, E85 Z4 was frequently criticized for the artifice of its electrically assisted steering. I never saw it as much of an issue, yes it was nowhere near as information rich as a Boxster, but it was at least quick and precise, and hey, I’ve still had plenty fun on arcade machines with similar control interfaces. Nowadays steering is better, but still not perfect. 

More worrying for some would be the gearbox, an automatic with paddle-shift control. A good many enthusiasts still vomit at the thought of a slushbox in a sports car, but I’m not one of them, at least not these days. For me it depends on two factors, how much power the car has, and how intelligent the box is. Old-school automatics, spending their time hunting for ratios, not kicking-down when you want and blunting the performance are responsible for much of the bad rap. Today, an automatic box can typically shift more quickly than you or I, is almost guaranteed to be in the right gear and doesn’t harm the fuel economy or the reflexes of the car, especially when you have over three hundred horses to deploy.

In the Z4 I am ready to declare the auto box A Good Thing. Stick it in sport+ and it does at least as good a job as I could have done, even if I ignore the paddles. This gives me two hands gripped hard on the wheel to concentrate on direction changes, something the Z4 is still very good at, scything its way along country roads as if it knows every bend. It feels slightly alien at first, though; where the previous car had ridiculously unyielding suspension the new car feels a little soft. You pretty quickly realise that this is how the car should have been all along. The little bit of give in the springs has translated to a tiny, almost imperceptible extra allowance of body roll, but this serves to reduce the instance of understeer; you now feel you can push a little harder before you reach the limits. 

A little bit of the Z4s naughtiness has been taken away, and again, I really don’t mind. This is now a car that you can still enjoy at ten tenths, but which you now have the choice of throttling back and relaxing in. Previously you’d only put up with having your spine turned to dust if it was in exchange for some serious back road entertainment. Nowadays you might take the scenic route for the views, not just the roads. Let the deep buckets embrace you and sit back, roof down as that mellifluous exhaust warble surrounds you.

It all puts me puts me slightly in mind of the Z8, that ill-conceived retro roadster on E39 M5 mechanicals that never quite delivered what people though it ought to, but somehow the Z4 doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be anything it’s not. Inside, the cockpit has a similar layout to that of the Z8, a central row of dials and controls, emphasising the width of the cockpit and creating a far more spacious feel. The Z4 was always a car you sat in, rather than on and with your posterior close to the rear axle you feel firmly connected with the machine, looking out over that class-longest bonnet. 

You’re hard pressed to find any shortfall in quality, either. These days BMW, Mercedes and Audi have become difficult to split in terms of interior fit and finish, and the Z4 maintains that reputation. The whole thing looks like it has been built to be enjoyed. Somebody in the design department really cared about the driving experience, not just flashy controls and technology overload.

How do you define sports car? Well, if for you it means driving hell-for-leather and pushing the performance envelope on every journey, there may well be other cars out there more suited to your requirements. A Lotus Elise, for example. Chances are you’ll still find the Z4 Satisfying. Alternatively, if your view of the definitive sports car is something like a Triumph TR6 or Big Healey, where being out on the road, judging every turn, feeling the weight of the car shift in your hands and listening to a big throaty engine warble, then you’re sure to find a friend in the BMW. Especially when the promise of scintillating performance is just a button press or a toe-twitch away.

To be honest, even if you don’t like sports cars at all, if you find them too noisy, too uncomfortable or too uncivilised, the Z4 may well convert you with its beguiling looks and pan-European refinement. It could well be every car you ever needed.