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BMW Z4 sDrive 23i

Click to view picture galleryThe BMW Z4 two-seater sports car
  has always been a muscular sports
  machine of classic proportions —
  long bonnet, rear-wheel drive and
  a canvas soft-top hood.
No more!
latest Z4 sDrive comes with
a folding metal hard-top, which is
  exactly what today
s sports car
  customers want

TODAY'S CUSTOMERS WANT MORE COMFORT, security, safety and convenience so their feedback to BMW was: make the next Z4 a folding-roof hardtop coupe-convertible instead of offering it in individual Roadster and Coupe forms. Interestingly, the soft-top Roadster version last year outsold the Coupe by six to one. The all-new Z4 is the first BMW Roadster to have a retractable hardtop, and it's also the first BMW Roadster with M Sport suspension.

Prices range from £28,650 to £37,065 and there are three, six-cylinder engine options: 23i with 204bhp; 258bhp 30i; and 306bhp 35i. Six-speed manual gearboxes are standard but there are sports automatic transmissions, which include paddleshift gear-change levers, for all three engine units. The use of the terminology 'sDrive' is something BMW has introduced on Roadster models to underscore the outright sporting character of the cars. The term sDrive is complemented in the BMW range by their use of xDrive for four-wheel-drive vehicles.

The new Z4, although having a classic shape, strong and torsionally-stiff bodyshell — especially needed for a topless model — also incorporates BMW's award-winning and much-applauded EfficientDynamics. These power saving features include brake energy regeneration, electric power steering, lightweight construction and optimum gearchange indicator for manual gearbox models.

Another new feature is the electronically-operated parking brake system so no more handbrake turns for owners of the latest Z4. Reasons for this upgrade is quite simply down to packaging: the new handbrake saves space on the centre console, does not affect the way a customer drives the car and it also provides a hill start function.

The thorny issue of BMW persisting with run-flat tyres — which give a hard and unsettled ride — always crops up at press events. The Z4 launch was no exception and BMW's answer was that the previous Z4 had a firm, sporting ride because it was a pure sports car with driving dynamics to the fore that appealed to a certain type of customer. However, I do suspect that so far as the latest version is concerned, space in the boot is the real issue because of the room taken up by the roof and the mechanism to operate it.

The new Z4 will be competing for sales against the Audi TT and Mercedes-Benz SLK in both the convertible and coupe market sectors. For good measure the Z4 has also increased slightly in size so there is more interior length, width and, most importantly for me, more headroom. In the boot with the roof up there is 300 litres of space — more than the TT and SLK; but lower the hood (it takes 20 seconds and must be done whilst the car is stationary) and the boot space reduces to just 180 litres, making it the smallest compared to the Audi and Merc.

Undoubtedly the classic
rear-wheel drive
and sports car styling
is a big plus
The electronic operation of the roof is not very quick either; opening and then stacking its various components into the boot area is a rather sluggish procedure that's no quicker when it comes to raising the roof. Twenty seconds never seemed so long, especially when it started to rain… On the plus side, the new roof does offer better rear and rear-quarter visibility although vision to the rear quarters is not that great because of the individual rollover bars and the passenger seat head restraint.

While the new Z4 may have conformed somewhat to what the market dictates, it hasn't lost any of its mean and muscular looks and perhaps it might well now appeal to more female users than before. Roof up or roof down, it still looks stunning — lean and mean and perfect proportions for a classic sports car.

The interior, although not overly well equipped, is classy. And the layout is just right; the controls and dials all where the driver needs them. There isn't quite enough length for those drivers with long arms to achieve a perfect driving position, and I couldn't get the seat back far enough for swift use of the pedals. Getting in and out of the car with the hood up for a tall person is an acquired technique which I didn't fully master and with such wide opening doors actually finding a parking space in town to open the doors to their widest position to ease access was impossible. Whilst the Z4 has lost none of its agility, I certainly seem to have.

My actual test car was the Z4 sDrive 23i, the best-selling model, priced at £28,645 on-the-road — but with must-have extra cost options, that price increased by £3,395. These extras included upgraded wheels, adaptive M Sport suspension, folding door mirrors, parking distance control (which really is a must because of the long bonnet and restricted rear vision), rain sensor automatic headlights, heated sports seats, extra storage compartments and a through-load facility into the boot. And not forgetting the much needed wind deflector — with this in place wind intrusion into the car was very low.

Other items of standard equipment for this 'starter' version of the new Z4 range includes stability control, anti-lock braking, cornering and dynamic braking controls, traction control, hill-start assist, roll-over protection, tyre puncture warning, electric windows and door mirrors, automatic air conditioning, sports multi-function steering wheel and sound system with on-board computer. For the price it is a very good and comprehensive package and it will appeal to business users who do not want to be stung for the Benefit In Kind tax which is becoming more and more of a highway robbery issue.

On that subject, the running costs and CO2 emissions are also vitally important, as are our traffic congested roads which limit the speeds at which we can actually travel. BMW acknowledges that only twenty per cent of Z4 owners actually bought the previous models for 'extreme driving pleasure'.

The 23i has a 2.5-litre, straight-six, Euro 5 petrol engine with BMW's Double Vanos and Valvetronic induction system. Without getting too technical here, the Double Vanos system determines when the valves open, while Valvetronic determines by how much. Both systems have a positive effect on an engine's output, efficiency and emissions.

The 2,497cc unit produces 204bhp at 6,400rpm and 184lb ft of torque from 2,750rpm. This is enough for a zero to 62mph time of 6.6 seconds, a top speed of 151mph, 29.5mpg (actual figure during my test drive) on the combined cycle and CO2 emissions of 199g/km for an annual road tax bill of £215.

Although this unit produces it best performance relatively high up the rev range due to its straight-six configuration, it remains flexible at low engine speeds and it is impressively responsive; ideal for today's motoring conditions. Being able to use higher gears at low engine speeds is great for real-life driving and the engine still produces enough torque to use 'block gear-changes' to restrict the need for constant changes. The Z4 with this engine definitely has enough real power when needed to match its aggressive sports car looks.

Ride comfort is not perfect. Even in the 'normal' suspension setting, rather than Sport or Sport+, the ride is firm and the car feels unsettled on poorer roads — but then it is a sports car after all. Being seated just ahead of the rear axle does amplify the firm ride but then having rear-wheel drive gives excellent traction and roadholding feedback to the driver.

The electronic power steering is not so positive in sending messages to the driver but for in-town driving it is light and easy to use. All in all, this Z4 is a bit of a compromise but realistically do we actually need — or can we even use — extreme power cars these days?

Undoubtedly the classic rear-wheel drive and sports car styling is a big plus. Other good points include agile handling, easy-to-drive engine and transmission, classy build quality and decent specification. No so great is the small boot (with the roof folded), higher running costs than the equivalent Audi TT or Mercedes SLK, fidgety ride and restricted rear-quarter visibility.

So while traditional Z4 owners might feel the latest model has gone a 'bit soft', it should now appeal to a wider buying audience — both male and female — who live in a world where security and overall driving refinement play more important roles. — David Miles

BMW Z4 sDrive 23i
| £28,650
Maximum speed: 151mph | 0-62mph: 6.6 seconds | Overall test MPG: 29.5mpg
Power: 204bhp | Torque: 184lb ft | CO2 199g/km | Insurance group 17