Tuesday, 07 April 2009 10:17
By Neil Dowling couriermail
PERHAPS it's a sign of the depressed global economy or just a change in buyer taste. BMW this week in Spain launched its second-generation Z4 model, noticeably less confronting in design compared with its predecessor and far more comfortable on the road. Unashamedly, BMW says it expects the new car to increase sales to at least match those of its rival, the Mercedes-Benz SLK.
Though distinctly Z4, the new model's lines are less abrasive and clearly signals the departure from BMW of its original designer, Chris Bangle.
BMW admits the previous Z4 won and lost customers with its looks.
Now, with two women, Juliane Blasi and Nadya Arnaout, heading design in the Z4's exterior and interior respectively, the face of the car remains bold but in keeping with its road manners, subtly softer to catch a bigger audience.
Bigger, beefier and subjectively beautiful, it also gets 225kW of bi-turbo 3-litre performance and a dual-clutch gearbox borrowed from the 335i models. And that's just for starters.
Arriving in Australia in May, the Z4 comes only - at least officially - as a retractable alloy-panelled convertible. To prevent confusion with its other rag-top models, BMW now calls this latest Z4 a Roadster and it comes in three models - sDrive23i, sDrive30i and sDrive35i.
It also has a choice of three engines - 2.5 and 3.0 from the previous Z4 and the bi-turbo 3.0 - and three transmissions that comprise six-speed manual and automatics and the seven-speed dual-clutch box that is optional only on the sDrive35i.
Pricing jumps $8000 for the entry-level sDrive23i - despite its numbers, it's actually a 150kW/250Nm 2.5-litre six - which will enter Australia at $86,200 as a six-speed manual and $89,500 as the auto.
Step up to the 190kW/310Nm sDrive30i at $98,100 ($101,400 auto) compared with the outgoing 3.0si at $91,400/$94,000, and the 225kW.400Nm sDrive35i at $116,900 as a manual and $120,400 with the dual-clutch box.
Though some buyers see the new Z4 as lining up against the Boxster, BMW sees it differently. It compares the 23i roadster with the Mercedes SLK200K, Audi TT 2.0 Roadster and the Alfa Romeo Spider 2.2.
The 30i challenges the Alfa Spider 3.2 V6, Audi TT 3.2 V6 and the Boxster. Here, up against the Porsche, BMW figures show its Z4 is quicker - 0-100km/h in 5.8 seconds compared with Porsche at 6.1 - and on par for fuel economy despite weighing 115kg more and having a 300cc bigger engine.
Up against the Porsche Boxster S, the Z4 35i is quicker to 100km/h by 0.2sec at 5.2, and more frugal at 9.8 litres/100km compared with 10.6 L/100km.
However, data provided by BMW Australia for the comparisons appears to be based on the previous Porsche model. Porsche updated its Boxster range in January with its dual-clutch PDK transmission, direct petrol injection and weight reductions.
The bigger body of the Z4 compared with its predecessor allows more cabin and boot space, though the intervention of the roof panels into the snub tail of the Z4 more than halves luggage capacity from 310 litres to 180 litres. However, there is an optional kit that creates a luggage hatch from boot to cabin to take a golf bag.
ON THE ROAD
Hunting the thousands of hills outside of Alicante in Spain in a bi-turbo Z4 shows that the company has striven to get its 225kW engine to be all things to all drivers in a chassis that also has to be sporty yet comfortable.
Then it must be safe, fuel-efficient and roomy - all nearly impossible targets, yet BMW comes very close to pulling it off.
In Spain, BMW handed out the keys only to its sDrive35i - the convoluted name for the 3-litre bi-turbo version - with its seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
It is clearly a good thing. Quite beautiful in the metal and bigger than pictures convey, it sits low and wide and not too distant in appearance from the company's more lavish - perhaps more excessive - 6-Series.
The beauty of the bi-turbo engine is its breadth of power and torque delivery. It can rumble along in low revs and yet recover quickly to make gear upchanges and downchanges seemingly unnecessary. That makes it easy to drive but difficult to pick a sweet spot.
The cabin is surprisingly spacious, has a good range of storage spaces and the light-coloured plastics and fabrics - together with expansive glass - make it bright and airy, even with the roof up.
The dual-clutch box drives through BMW's now ubiquitous PlayStation gear toggle in concert with double-action steering wheel paddles for the manual mode.
Like the Porsche PDK paddles, it's not the best system and certainly doesn't enhance manual gearshifting. The gearlever action, however, is spot-on.
BMW offers three gearshift modes - Standard, Sport and Sport Plus - with the last two also sharpening up the response of the steering, accelerator and suspension systems.
Sport gives a little bit of leeway before calling in the electronic stability and traction control nannies, while Sport Plus lets it all rip by disengaging everything. I found flicking the console button to Sport and using the gearbox manually just made it a bit more fun and slightly more engaging.
And here's the thing - this car has an engine that will put most of its rivals to shame and the Z4 35i clearly has the performance to awaken any jaded soul. But the whole package is wrapped in cotton wool.
You can push this car hard - very, very hard - and it will scare you so much your teeth will sweat. But it's held together by sophisticated electronics that are working overtime to keep the car on the road and its increasingly over-confident driver as safe as possible.
These electronics create something akin to an artificial driving experience. The rawness of the car is polished out and in its place is a package that while a tad surreal, perfectly suits a broader range of drivers.
BMW has rid itself of the overly assisted Active steering system and in its place is a better feel that delivers the best of parking and high-speed manoeuvres.
Parking aside, the driver may find the car a bit wide in some circumstances, but once familiar, will be in awe of its directional stability and comfort.
Thanks to electronic dampers, the Z4 rarely puts its occupants in pain. The suspension monitors road surface changes and instantly adjusts. If the front wheel encounters a pothole, the damper valves open to reduce the thump and while doing that, tell the rear wheels that a bump in on its way.
The seats are short on the cushion and that is normally a problem. However, it doesn't impair comfort and actually gives the driver a bit more space to move around in the seat.
Also, don't expect a fixed roof model Z4. Product manager of BMW's Z4 Roadster project, Wolfram Cueppers, says a hardtop isn't on the cards.
But he won't dismiss an M version of the Z4 Roadster with more power and race-tuned suspension.
Though he rules out a V8 engine for the Z4 on the grounds that the six-cylinder engines available have better economy, lower emissions and lighter weight.
He said BMW, like most carmakers, was searching for smaller engines, but there will be no Z4 with a four-cylinder power plant