BMW’s third-generation Z4 owes its aggressive look to an Australian designer, but can the 250kW, 500Nm drivetrain and all-new chassis live up to the aesthetic promise?

Despite the Accompanying photographic evidence to the contrary, the launch of BMW Z4 range was held in drought-breaking rain in country Victoria, a launch that was shared with the M850i xDrive on the preceding pages. While the sodden conditions didn’t worry BMW’s bruising and brilliant all-wheel-drive coupe, driving rain and slick roads are hardly ideal when assessing a rear-wheel-drive roadster. As such, I acknowledge that the following review is very much tempered by the fact that I don’t think I’ve really gotten to know the new, third-generation Z4.

Designed by Australian ex-pat, Calvin Luk, BMW’s new roadster is longer, wider and taller than the previous Z4, but while its tracks front and rear are also wider, its wheelbase is actually shorter – something that’s obvious if you study the proportions in the photos. The firm has chosen to return to a simpler fabric roof, saving weight and lowering the centre of gravity. There’s also a new front suspension set-up to go with the five-link rear.

BMW certainly hasn’t been shy in talking up the dynamic focus of the new-gen car, and that the Toyota Supra shares the same basic underpinnings also adds to the pressure to perform as a drivers’ car. The first-gen Z4 offered reasonable competition to the contemporary Porsche Boxster, but the second-gen Z4 grew up a fraction too much and was more interested in politely squaring off with the Mercedes-Benz SLK. Unlike the first-gen Z4, and telling of the shift in priority, the second-gen Z4 was not available with a range-topping M model. There’s no word yet that the M division will get their hands on the new car, but hopefully the Z4 will rediscover some of the first-gen’s performance focus.

The three-tier range starts with the $84,900 2.0i and walks up in $20K steps to the $124,900 M40i that we’re focusing on here. With 145kW and 320Nm, the 2.0i entry-level model feels light on its feet and is good for a 0-100km/h dash in a claimed 6.6 seconds. In outright terms it’s as quick as most hot hatches but softer in its attitude. It’ll hardly set your hair on fire, but for most buyers, it’s entertainingly quick and feels like reasonable value for your $85K.
Take a $20K leap and the $104,900 3.0i boasts 190kW and 400Nm, and its 5.4-second 0-100km/h time will see off all but the most extreme hot hatches. Like the 2.0i, the 3.0i feels light over the nose, but now sends plenty of poke to the rear tyres. On the wet roads of the launch, the 3.0i was happy and easy to slip into shallow and controllable slides that didn’t awaken the stability and traction control systems so long as you were smooth with all inputs. It’s certainly punchy enough to have some fun but it never feels like it could get away from you either.

The final step (at least for now) takes you to the $124,900 M40i pictured here. Unlike the four-cylinder variants that sit on the rungs below, the M40i boasts a traditional BMW in-line six-cylinder engine. Boosted by a single, twin-scroll turbocharger, the 3.0-litre six makes 250kW and 500Nm and propels the ultimate Z4 to 100km/h in just 4.5 seconds.

Regardless of engine level chosen, all Australian-bound Z4 models use an eight-speed ZF torque-converter automatic gearbox. As in most applications in which it’s used, the ZF is a fine gearbox in the Z4. However, and is the case in the M850i, the ZF isn’t as crisp as a dual-clutch gearbox (again, most noticeably when asking for a manual downshift) but it does such a solid job in all other circumstances that you’d forgive it this one little foible.

We often wonder if all of the drive modes are worth the bother, but the M40i exhibits probably the largest difference between comfort and sport/sport plus modes of any car that we’ve driven recently. Left in comfort, the M40i is very easy to live with but it’s probably a little too demure and easy for our tastes, with the engine barely whispering as the gearbox slips through the ratios to maximise fuel economy. Only the ability to lower the roof brings a sense of occasion to the M40i when it’s in comfort mode.

Press sport, or better yet, sport plus, and the M40i is enlivened. The engine produces a bassy note that’s not especially musical and certainly not a match for the classic, hard-edged yowl of BMW’s old school naturally aspirated straight sixes. But there’s no discounting the power and torque of the turbocharged unit, with its mid-range delivering a seamless shove towards the horizon. The M40i is genuinely quick and in the wet conditions of the launch, the huge thump of torque could shock the back axle and awaken the traction and stability control systems.

Regardless of drive mode selected, the steering of the M40i (all third-gen models for that matter) isn’t BMW’s best effort. It’s too light and inert in comfort mode and the sportier options just add a weighty gloopiness but fails to bring an extra layer of involvement or information. Again, it’s hard to be definitive due to the conditions, but I preferred the lighter front ends of the four-cylinder models.

Again, the wet roads are probably to blame, but the M40i never felt like it settled into the road, rather it seemed to tippy toe across the surface. While free of feel, the steering is quick and when coupled to a relatively short wheelbase and a readily available whack of torque, the M40i tended to feel nervous when pushing on. We’ll reserve final judgement until we have a proper drive on familiar and dry roads, but our UK colleagues had similar experiences.

Beyond the obvious Porsche Boxster (which starts at $117,700), the Z4 M40i faces opposition from the likes of Audi’s TT S ($105,001), Mercedes’ SLC300 and 43 ($102,500 and $137,300) and Jaguar’s often-forgotten F-Type. Along with the Mercedes, it’s the latter that provides the Z4 with the most direct competition. Sitting just above the M40i on price, Jaguar’s 221kW 2.0-litre F-Type ($132,900) feels closest in character to the new BMW roadster. Jesse Taylor

Engine In-line 6-cyl, 2998cc, turbocharged
Power 250kW @ 5000-6500rpm
Torque 500Nm @ 1600-4500rpm
Weight 1535kg (163kW/tonne)
0-100km/h 4.5sec
Top speed 250km/h (limited)
Basic price $124,900