HERE’S THE latest version of BMW’s Z4 — now with added eyebrows. Note the silver strips topping the headlamps and adding a whole new level of discernment to the car’s already quite withering gaze.
You will be aware, of course, that the trend these days is overwhelmingly towards stringing running lights along the bottom of the headlight cluster. But BMW has decided that’s too downbeat and baggy by far for its heavily crimped roadster and, for this midlife revitalisation, is handing a debut to a more intellectual, over-lamp approach.
Well, anything that gets the customers through the showroom doors, we say. And it’s one way to woo the doubters, who even now will be shaking their heads wonderingly and saying, “You know, I never really got the appeal of the Z4. It always looked a bit on the cold and heartless side to me. But now that it’s packing eyebrows, I’m totally on board.”
In fairness, that’s not the full extent of the external revisions. There’s also some new boomerang-shaped matt aluminium trimming around the side air inlets and, according to a diagram in front of me, BMW has slightly altered the metallic landscape somewhere around the windscreen wipers, though, to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t work out where or how. Much more significantly, the range now includes a new entry-level 1.8 sDrive18i, at a bargain price of £27,610, where it can plausibly unsettle people who were budgeting for an Audi TT.
However, customers for this model must resign themselves to doing without most of the things that might make owning a Z4 fun, such as a properly noisy and unnecessarily large engine, kidney-squeezing seats in ultra-soft leather with Lamborghini-style stripes down them (available as part of the “Pure Traction Design” package), furiously off-message alloys, and so on. Once you have finished fitting all those, the price of your Z4 will be back up in the clouds again.
Where to rank the Z4 in 2013? Let’s not forget that its not-too-distant ancestor once had the power to overcome James Bond’s slightly tiresome obsession with the Aston Martin brand. The Z4’s predecessor, the Z3, the first mass-market BMW roadster of modern times, appeared, when brand new, in GoldenEye in 1995 with Pierce Brosnan — and possibly outperformed him.
Naturally, that car had been made subject to customisation by Q, so that customers were subsequently disappointed to discover that the Z3 didn’t come with Stinger missiles behind the headlights, an emergency parachute braking system and a unique “self-destruct” feature. (Manufacturers in general have remained stubbornly reluctant to explore the surely promising possibilities of self-destruction as an option, although Dacia seems to be giving it a bit of a go with the Duster.)
Yet even without the fancy add-ons, the Z3 caused quite an outbreak of lustfulness for a while. The car didn’t need to flutter its eyelashes in those days, nor even sternly knit its eyebrows. Which was just as well because it didn’t have any to knit.
Now, though, looked at dispassionately and without the lustre of a movie tie-in, the Z4 has a few mild shades of contradictoriness about it. Does it twang your heartstrings? Or is it rather numbly caught in some unresolved place between the cuteness of an open-top funmobile for sun-seekers and day-trippers, and the colder, chiselled edge of a more serious performance car aimed at nut-jobs?
I took the new version of the range-topping sDrive35is for a spin through the countryside near Munich, past the tidy houses and shiny fire hydrants of impeccable Bavarian villages where (unlike in the standard Bond test) I was neither shot at on a mountain pass nor gifted the opportunity to see how its limited-edition nuclear tangerine paintwork looked when framed against an exploding warehouse. (Pretty much perfect, one imagines. So much better than the old silver.)
Even so, I was able to appreciate that there’s abundant power in this Z4 and a wonderfully servile seven-speed automatic double-clutch transmission. But the steering seemed a bit woozy and the car never felt planted firmly on the road surface, in the classic Porsche manner. Up at these prices, the rivals would be the Porsche Boxster S and the Mercedes SLK 55 AMG. The Mercedes is even harder to love than the Z4, looks-wise, and it’s the claims of the Porsche on people’s attention that I would be most anxious about, if I were BMW. The Boxster S is probably the more precise instrument in every department.
Still, you get the kind of decently startling explosion from the 3-litre engine on ignition that you would almost certainly be expecting at upwards of £45,000. And thanks to the gratifyingly even efficiency of its brakes, I never felt the absence of an emergency parachute system — not even when stopping for a German fire hydrant that pulled out unexpectedly.
Of course, why wouldn’t this car work, mechanically? BMW has been in the business of making roadsters for about 80 years, so the company should be quite good at it by now. But have a look back some time at the BMW 328, from the late 1930s, with its doe-eyed headlamps, its bonnet bound up with leather straps like a picnic hamper, its tall twin radiator grilles, its split windscreen. It’s the kind of automatically engaging blob of metal from which you wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see a popular children’s television character animatedly waving. A properly appealing roadster, in other words. Olden days, long gone, of course. Yet one can’t help feeling that the Z4 would be an easier car to warm to if there were a bit less Bond and a bit more Big-Ears in the mix.
You’ll be neither shaken nor stirred.
BMW Z4 sDrive35is
- 2979cc, straight-six twin turbo
- 340bhp @ 5900rpm
- 332 lb ft @ 1500rpm
- 7-speed automatic
- 0-62mph: 4.8sec
- Top speed:
- 31.4mpg (combined)
- Road tax band:
- L 4239mm, W 1790mm, H 1291mm
- Audi TT RS £48,140
For Four-wheel drive as standard; fantastic sound of five-cylinder engine Against The roadholding could be more exciting
(Check Audi TT used car prices on driving.co.uk)
- Porsche Boxster S £46,112
For Thrilling engine; outstanding roadholding; competitively priced Against It’s a Porsche, so everyone will know you’re making too much money
(Check Porsche Boxster used car prices on driving.co.uk)