Winter road test: 2019 BMW Z4Dec 7th, 2019
The middle of the winter – and the start of a snowstorm, no less – isn’t really the ideal time to be experiencing the new, two-seat, rear-wheel drive Z4 roadster from BMW. On the other hand, if a car’s satisfying to drive in those conditions, you’re pretty much guaranteed that it’ll be that much better on a gorgeous summer day with the roof down, your favourite passenger next to you, and the tunes cranked up.
All-new for the 2019 model year, the Z4 sits on a brand-new platform co-developed with Toyota, and is a distant cousin of the exceptionally well-reviewed Supra, also launched earlier this year. Proportionally, it is quite different from its predecessor – short, wide, and with a stubby wheelbase that gives it an aggressive bulldog character quite unlike the longer, narrower, leaner Z4s of the past. The detailing – from quad headlights that are now stacked instead of laid out horizontally, sharky side air vents, and pointy rear lights that really emphasize the rear end’s width – also has a lot more attitude than before.
The first few kilometres, stuffed behind a chunkier steering wheel and into an aggressively-bolstered seat, staring at an all-screen instrument panel with hexagonal digi-dials, do not necessarily reinforce this aggression. Fire up the Z4 (this is the $66,000 255-hp 30i version; a $80,000 381-hp M40i is also available) and the buttery-smooth four-cylinder, familiar from the new 3 Series, settles into a calm idle; pull away in comfort mode, and it’s only the aggressive shifts of the eight-speed automatic that dilute the refinement. The ride quality is excellent, wind and road noise hushed despite the fabric roof, and the steering is light and easy.
Like many modern cars, the Z4 has multiple personalities, accessed through a set of switches next to the automatic shifter. Tap Eco Pro, and you dull and quiet the car even further, making for a smooth and remarkably economical cruiser (go easy on it and you’ll easily average less than 8 L/100 km, remarkable for a sporting car). Or tap Sport to firm up the shocks, add some weight to the steering, add some aggression to the throttle response – and pump more noise into the tightly-packaged cabin. Do so and you discover what seems to be a totally different vehicle, one that leaps forward with every twitch of the throttle, cracks quickly between gears, and, thanks to the abbreviated wheelbase, zips around corners like a go-kart.
If you’re not prepared for all that aggression, it can all be a little much. But, delve into the vehicle setup menus with the iDrive controller (praise be, while there’s a touch screen, BMW has chosen to keep what is now the industry’s best user interface), and you discover the ability to customize each mode. On the street, the Z4 really drives best with its powertrain set to sport but its suspension and steering calmed down a touch, in comfort mode – though I’ve no doubt it would be a riot in max-attack Sport Plus on the track. In all modes, the brakes are terrific, sharp and easy to control, and the chassis systems give you a fair bit of leeway to play before intervening.
The Z4’s ability to provoke you into driving like a bit of a jerk is somewhat in conflict with its fairly aggressive active-safety systems, which on this vehicle included lane departure warning, automatic pre-collision braking, active cruise, and more. More digging into the iDrive is required to turn off the automatic intervention that tries to keep you between the white lines, the steering wheel vibration that comes along with it, and the flashing red lights and warning alarms that sound if it thinks you’re coming up on other cars too quickly. Conversely, all of those features are a boon in daily driving and on long trips.
As you would expect, The Z4 is packed with all of BMW’s latest gadgetry, as well. Download an app and you can operate most of its functions with your smartphone, including pre-warming the cabin on cold winter days (something you’ll find remarkably useful if you drive it all year). BMW’s latest infotainment setup has wireless Apple CarPlay that includes wireless charging of your iPhone, and the sound system is terrific. Dig into the menus – yes, there’s more – and you can adjust the colours of the LED accent lighting. While my own physiology didn’t get along 100% well with the highly-styled seats, most passengers thought they were great, and there are plenty of handy storage spaces in the compact cabin.
It’s a car full of surprises and personalities, the new Z4. On the one hand, a comfortable cruiser with the refinement, technology, and conveniences that make it a perfect, economical daily driver; and on the other, one with the attitude and chassis setup to be an entertaining summer sports car. In my few days with it, I spent more time in the former mode dealing with snow and slush and the daily commute – and all I could think of was how much more fun it will be when the roads are dry and open, the temperature on the other side of the freezing mark, and the sun out for more than a few hours a week.