Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Driven #30:- '06 BMW Z4M


My grotesque 6’5 of malformed meat and gristle is hard placed to find a comfortable slot behind the wheel of a Z4M. There is only one position I can adopt; seat right back and bolt upright, steering wheel in almost its highest position and as far away from me as it can be. Although slightly unnatural to describe and recreate, it actually turns out to be surprisingly comfortable; like sitting up eating breakfast in bed, although I only spent a total of 150 miles behind the wheel, maybe a longer stint would begin to cripple me. 

I seem to remember from my time before with a Z4 that I have more adjustment available with the manual seats than with the electric memory items, all those motors and wires must take up a fair amount of space. In the Coupe, more so than the soft-top, my major issue was sideways visibility. To get a decent view out I would physically have to duck to peer out of the very top of the side-glass. That all said, once installed in the office it feels like a very driver-centric place to be. This felt like meeting up with a friend I'd not seen for ages, and suddenly remembering why we got along so well

The dashboard itself is a model of simplicity, with two main dials in pods not a lot larger than on a fast bike, together with fuel and temperature gauges, with idiot lights in the void between the two. Minor controls (heated seats, traction control) are squirrelled away some distance forward of the gearknob, lurking under the spitfire-wing shaped fascia. Just below eye level is the trio of HVAC knobs together with the controls for the audio system. This particular car was fitted with the “Professional Navigation” package, as well as the Hi-Fi Speaker package with DSP.(which, incidentally, seemed totally pointless. To my ears more bass necessarily doesn’t mean better sound, especially when it seems to be clumsily applied right across the audio spectrum).

You don’t really notice the interior. It’s just somewhere to sit. You’re far too busy looking along that impossibly phallic bonnet, with its suggestive power bulge denoting the 343hp S54 power plant beneath. The interior materials are actually very nice indeed, it’s as if the US plant were so stung by criticism of the old, E36 based Z3 that they responded by over-building just to prove a point. OK, it misses out on the tactile loveliness of the latest 5 and 7 series interiors, but it was a mile ahead of the unlovely X3 of the same era, which always had bile boiling up in my throat.

Traditional “M” touches still abound, the red, white and blue flash makes regular appearances, the gearknob shift pattern is illuminated in red, and incidentally lives at the end of a gearlever a good few inches longer than that of the 350Z I sampled the other day. The steering wheel, though, is the one bit you’ll touch the most, or rather, hang onto for dear life. It feels a little odd to start with, the rim is squidgy and of about the same diameter as a childs forearm. This is quite fitting, getting the best from the M is a little bit like disciplining a defiant toddler; it needs to be shown who's boss in no uncertain terms.

When that legendary straight-six churns into life the whole car feels connected with it. It throbs through the entire structure and doesn't feel anywhere near as insulated or deadened as when installed in the M3; but it adds to the sense of occasion. I wonder if perhaps this is what taxiing in a Supermarine Spitfire felt like? The exhaust note isn't tuneful like an Italian V6, or evocative like the deep bellow of an American V8, rather, it's a full-bodied, broadband grinding sound, it sings the same mellow song as any other straight six, but with more balls and a more mechanical edge. Given a kick with the right foot, those balls drop and the grinding is met by a howl, it never sounds like it's revving quite as high as it actually is. It sounds like the fastest, sportiest lorry in the world, deliberately made slightly unrefined and workmanlike, and utterly addictive. Further reason to not bother with the Hi-Fi speaker package.

And this is when my memories came flooding back. Four years ago, working for BMW, I had had the pleasure of one of these for a couple of weeks as a daily driver. Mine was a Roadster, in Black Sapphire metallic. I had particular delight in letting customers drive it, because driving one of these smoothly is quite a measure of a driver. Witness me, today, jumping behind the wheel and instantly embarrassing myself.

The gearstick needs a determined shove from first to second at high revs; they all do that, sir; and it suits the character of the car. The clutch is heavy, like a competition paddle item and the biting point sometimes a little tricky to find, and I found myself kangarooing and bunny-hopping down the road like an amateur, clinging on to the hope that nobody was watching. They were, though; this is a bright red sports car that makes a lot of noise. Let them laugh, I don't care, I'll never see them again.

I suddenly remembered what this car was all about, and that you can't just jump into a Z4M and drive it well. It doesn't like drivers who pussy-foot around, preferring definitive, authoritative commands. Kick that clutch, boot that throttle, take it by the scruff of the neck and it will kiss you behind the earlobe and produce a tingle in your 501s. My journey today took me right through the tourist traps of Central London, along the banks of the Thames and out past the manufacturing home of Ford of Great Britain. The daylight had begun to fade when I took the saddle, it was fully dark by the time I anchored for the night; before very long the M and I were getting on very well.

I don't instinctively know my way through the heart of the capital, so I called on the use of the Professional Navigation system this car was optioned with. It's functional enough, with a reasonable level of on-screen detail, though limited by not having postcode functionality. In the four years since I had last played, though, I had totally forgotten how to operate it; it's not in the least bit intuitive. Of course, these days BMW SatNav systems are linked to the famous and much maligned I-Drive control system. For all the hatred poured over that famous interface in all its years, we have to wonder what the state of the art would be like without it. The fact is that Audi's MMI system and Mercedes-Benz's similar offering are all derived from BMWs work. I wish I had it tonight.

No matter, soon I was on familiar roads and the low London speed-limits had released their stranglehold. For the rest of the trip the little red neon on the SPORT button would be permitted to glow. I had been deliberately waiting before deploying this, to somehow extend my period of excitement and ensure that I don't have too much fun all at once. In fact, the difference is small but noticeable. It makes that already sensitive throttle even more so, adding a Cadbury's Flake to the already cherry-adorned Ice Cream that makes up the Z4 M Driving experience.

And that experience is something totally different to a regular Z4. That they look all but identical from the outside is almost a shame, the M car suffers in comparison with its plebeian relative. This generation of Z4 was always intended to be accessible. It's everyone's sports car. It could be bought in flavours from 2.0 to 3.0, with various dress-up kits and ever more elaborate specification options. Whatever your purpose, from pilot to poseur, the glove would fit. Want to drive hard, a 3.0si with the manual box will entertain you. Want to cut a dash at the new salon on Kings Road? A 2.0SE will more than suffice.

Not so the Z4M. It quickly gets to the bottom of what kind of driver you are. If you're a poseur, in it for the image and the glamour, chances are it will chew you up and spit you out, and you'll get fed up very quickly. It's less a car, more a sparring partner. This is a car that demands commitment and effort. The gearchange and that clutch, combined with an engine so keen to rev that it can run away with you; if you're not fast on your feet you can end up with spinning wheels, swapped ends and with the whole world revolving. Compared to the Z4, the M is savage. Wholly uncompromising. Brilliant.

And, yeah, it handles too. Not Elise agile, it's far too muscular to be a ballet dancer; instead it majors in involvement and entertainment. It encourages you to muscle in; it doesn't do anything on your behalf, but when you and it are working as a team it feels like there's no limit to what you can do together.

I'm going to have to stop myself here, because there's a danger that the rest of this report will consist of me eulogising how amazing the Z4M is. I'm sorry. Well, no, actually. I'm not.

It almost defies evaluation, this car, you simply can't grade it in the same way as you would so many other cars or products. The things I've been yammering on about, the clutch, gearchange and inaccessibility are the Z4Ms defining characteristics. And they're flaws. They're imperfections, and would probably somehow have been finessed and polished out by any other manufacturer, but BMW have wisely allowed them to remain.

And that makes it. As a modern sports car it has more soul and definitive character than pretty much anything else I've driven. Everything else seems suddenly too obedient, too normal. So that's it. This recent little strand of me exploring what I want from a Sports Car has concluded that I want a car with lots of faults.

I feel like I've been having too much fun lately. I promise to do my best to review something utterly miserable next time.


Click here to read about my drive of the Z4 2.0 SE, in August this year.


  1. One of the very few cars that has left my heart racing after driving it....I loved every second!

  2. Fantastic review very well written and I couldnt agree more with "It quickly gets to the bottom of what kind of driver you are. If you're a poseur, in it for the image and the glamour, chances are it will chew you up and spit you out, and you'll get fed up very quickly. It's less a car, more a sparring partner." SO SO SO true!

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