Can the new Z4 finally rival Porsche’s Boxster for driving dynamics?
It’s always struck me as odd that a marque once trading so profitably on the tagline ‘the ultimate driving machine’, and which has a tradition of sharpening its mainstream cars to a formidably glinting blade under the letter M, has usually seemed a bit lost when it comes to the sports car. The Z1 should have been extraordinary, but is better known for its doors than its driving experience, and the less said about the rickety old Z3 the better. That leaves the Z4: the first generation increasingly intriguing to an aesthete, but always a step behind the Porsche Boxster from a driving perspective; the most recent car a boulevardier that barely registered a blip on the evo radar.
Yet this Z4 could be different. Why? Because when its engineering team affirms that a roadster should be, and I quote, ‘‘a raw driving experience about passion and emotion’’, and that it’s been co-developed initially with Toyota (who wanted a viable way of creating a new Supra), you listen. Gone is the lazy convenience of the metal folding roof, replaced by a fabric item that’s lighter and helps the new car achieve a lower centre of gravity and a 50:50 weight distribution. In M40i guise there’s also a raft of dynamic tech that enables it to lap the Ring quicker than an M2, and in an era when Porsche has absentmindedly mislaid two of the Boxster’s cylinders, the Z4’s potent turbocharged straight-six looks mightily enticing.
There will be a pair of 2.0-litre turbo-engined Z4s, the 145kW 20i and 190kW 30i, but for now we’re only getting to drive the current flagship, the M Performance M40i, which is only available – sadly – with an eight-speed automatic transmission. With 250kW and 500Nm, the M40i is certainly not short of propulsive force, in spite of weighing 1535kg. With 0-100km/h arriving in 4.6sec, it’s clearly not short on performance, either.
Sometimes you can tell a lot about a car simply from how it looks. In the metal the new Z4 appears wide but squat, its front overhang considerable. It’s longer, wider and taller than the old car, with wider tracks front and rear, but the actual wheelbase is shorter – at 2.47 metres, it’s the same as a Porsche 718.
Underneath the distinctive metalwork is new strut front and multi-link rear suspension with variable dampers, plus variable-rate steering and an M Sport electronically controlled rear differential. But most of all there is talk of stiffness – of a very stable structure, and rigid mountings for all the major components. The driving position is excellent, but immediately the car seems wide, the extremities hidden from view. It’s a similar story with the design of the interior, which looks and feels well made, but doesn’t suggest a sports car; the broad centre stack and fully digital instruments more suited to a 5-series.
With the six fired up and emitting a quiet burble, and Drive selected, it’s time to thread the Z onto some twisting Portuguese roads. The first thing I notice, and that remains a constant, is just how solid the structure is. For an open car without the tub architecture of an Elise or a McLaren it is exemplary. It’s also obvious that in Comfort (there are the usual Sport and Sport+ modes too) it is completely and utterly undemanding. You could commute to work and barely be aware you weren’t in a 3-series Convertible. Which is clever. But is it interesting? You can change gear with the paddles but the soft-edged responses of the torque converter dissuade you from too much involvement, and soon enough I drift into admiring the scenery, idly thinking that the Z doesn’t ride too badly at all in its softest mode.
Getting a grip, I switch modes and try a bit harder, discovering the voice at last of the 3.0-litre motor (easy on the ear but one-dimensional) and also that the steering has a rather false impression of building resistance, particularly so away from the straight-ahead.
It’s such a pity the Z is so unengaging, because if you can find the right road to really drive it hard, there’s an inherent agility and ability buried within it, the four-square stance giving it solid purchase on the road, the very occasional loss of traction at the rear flicking quickly into oversteer but soon hooking up again. When you’re driving this quickly the gloopy responses of the steering are subsumed by your ability to tuck the nose in with a snap of the wrists, and taken to an extreme on a circuit, the throttle adjustability and short wheelbase combine for a busy but much more engrossing steer. Yet in the everyday there’s precious few thrills from driving it well, or simply the man-machine interface of it.
So while it may make for an undemanding companion for those looking to amble around the lanes on the way to lunch, it’s not my interpretation of a ‘raw and emotive’ driving experience, and I suspect as an evo reader it won’t be yours, either. Business as usual, then. Shame. Adam Towler (@AdamTowler)