First Drive: 2019 BMW Z4 sDrive30i

Given that the premium roadster market in Canada is not a large one, you’d be forgiven for not being aware that BMW’s Z4 has been on hiatus for several years. Last available in 2016, the newly launched fourth-generation 2019 BMW Z4 has been a hot topic of conversation lately, mostly due to the unveiling of the Toyota Supra coupe with which it shares its ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, chassis underpinnings, and interior bits. Even more polarizing still, neither will feature the option of a third pedal. While the two rear-wheel-drive models may share basic DNA, they are vastly different kettles of fish, so to speak.

If the badges on their respective hoods don’t already ensure the unlikelihood of these cousins being cross-shopped, the Supra is only being offered as a coupe and the Z4 exclusively as a cloth-top roadster. Not only does the BMW offer more performance and a convertible top, it’s also less money and isn’t fugly.

Pricing for the Z4 30i starts at $62,450 here in Canada, while the starting price tag announced at the unveiling of the Supra at the Canadian International Auto Show in February is $64,990. A higher-spec Z4 M40i is also available, starting at $76,000.

The first-generation Z4 immediately won me over for its sleek, simple approach. It was free of frivolous techno-nannies and was a boatload of fun to drive. I can’t say I found the exterior styling overly compelling, but from the driver’s seat, it didn’t matter. The new BMW Z4 Roadster has a much more athletic, even brawny appearance and is gorgeous from every angle. The proportions have grown in every generation, including its most recent predecessor. It’s now longer, wider and taller, with a shorter wheelbase and wider track. It has also achieved a perfect 50/50 weight distribution.

The formula remains the same – front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-door, two-seater convertible, but the execution is the business. Rather than resting over the last few years, it feels like BMW engineers have been nose to the grindstone on crafting a legitimate sports car. Once arguably closer in nature to that of a more-refined MX-5, the grownup Z4 now makes a strong case for being cross-shopped with bigger toys like the Porsche Boxster S, Mercedes-Benz SLC and Audi TT RS.

While the higher-trim Z4 M40i gets a 3.0L inline-six-cylinder engine that churns out 382 hp, and 369 lb-ft of torque from 1,600 rpm, power for the sDrive30i comes from a turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder, putting 255 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 295 lb-ft of torque at as low as 1,550 rpm towards the rear wheels. The sprint from zero to 100 km/h takes 5.3 seconds. Both models come with the standard eight-speed Steptronic Sport transmission with steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles. Gone are the days when a four-cylinder should be scoffed at in a sports car. Having that torque available at low engine speed allows the driving experience to be more entertaining than you’d expect. It obviously doesn’t sound as sexy as a six- or eight-cylinder, but then it won’t be as heavy or thirsty either. Sometimes being a grownup means making more responsible choices, so if that allows you to put a new convertible in your garage, I’m behind your decision.

The interior cabin is more luxurious and modern than previous generations, featuring a fat, sporty steering wheel and a high-resolution digital 12.3-inch instrument display behind it. A 10.2-inch display features the latest-generation of iDrive which need no longer be a four-letter word. The system now offers new haptic controls on the iDrive controller, a tablet-like touchscreen, and cloud-based voice control, making it far more intuitive and usable than years past.

Sliding behind the wheel, the 2019 Z4 feels like a much more substantial car in every way. Its fit and finish feel higher quality, its seats are well bolstered, and the exhaust has a nice-sounding character, even from the four-cylinder.

Being a former convertible owner, my prerogative is that the top should be down any time it isn’t raining and the temperature is in the double digits. The Z4’s cloth top can be dropped or raised in 10 seconds – at up to 50 km/h should the skies open up and you’re not able to safely pull over. The roof comes in black but can be upgraded to Anthracite, for a price.

Being a convertible, there is an expectation of body flex when the car is put through its paces. Granted, I was abiding by the posted speed limits enforced by the California Highway Patrol, but the chassis felt composed and confident on winding roads and uneven pavement.

Variable-ratio electronic power steering comes standard, offering straight-line stability but also accurate and effortless manoeuvring in the turns. Handling is as well-balanced as you’d expect from a car weighing 1,490 kg (3,285 lb) with a 50/50 weight distribution, designed to ride the line between comfort and performance. The chassis technology in the new BMWZ4 Roadster has been developed to deliver the best possible agility and handling dynamics, thanks to a double-joint spring strut suspension up front with a new five-link suspension in the rear. Apparently, a BMW roadster first. It is also the first to offer a head-up display.

BMW’s eight-speed transmission is smooth, precise, and most certainly shifts quicker than I can manually with my left foot and right hand. But this car isn’t made to break track records, it was built to be an engaging and fun way to explore backcountry roads between wineries or golf courses and feels remiss without the option of a manual gearbox. There’s no point in companies making a car people won’t buy though, so the stick-shift is going the way of the dodo bird.

There is however plenty of standard technology included, such as the dynamic traction control (DTC), cornering brake control (CBC), and dynamic brake control (DBC). Safety technology available includes collision and pedestrian warning featuring automatic emergency braking, lane change and departure warning, adaptive cruise control with a stop-and-go function, rear collision and rear cross-traffic alerts.

Practicality and roadster don’t always fit in the same sentence, but the trunk size has thankfully increased to 281 L – 50 percent larger than the previous generation, ensuring you’re at least able to accommodate a couple overnight bags or sets of golf clubs, otherwise, what’s the point of having a trunk at all?

We look forward to spending more time with the Z4 in both trims over the coming months, but first impressions of the entry-level sDrive30i prove that it carries on the essence of the Z4 tradition. And then some.

Sorry Tesla, but BMW’s the one bringing sexy back. 3/15/2019 6:30:00 AM