Reviews

2011 BMW Z4 Walk Around

Classic roadster proportions give the Z4 a long hood and short decklid, shoulders over the wheel arches and tapers in three axes. Creases begin at the inner edge of the headlight housings, roll over the front fenders and lead back to bisect the door handles, while opposite lower sweeps started at the front bumper curve upward to the rear wheels.

In side view it looks like someone traced a French curve over each wheel, the forward one twice the length of the rear, and from the driver's perch the hood seems to rise from the windshield base before falling off forward. We think it looks better with the top down but it's still relatively sleek top-up, and its closed profile is similar to that of the Mercedes SLR. Gills behind the front wheels carry the substantial badges, and the side signal repeaters are located behind opaque panels in the gills; the BMW propeller logo is still here, but no longer serves to disguise the turn signal repeaters.

A variety of wheel sizes and finishes are offered, and while the Z4 is light and well-suspended enough that even 19-inch wheels can deliver decent ride quality, they might not work well on rough roads, and some wheel styles will require more cleaning effort.

From dead-on at either end with the top down, the Z4 has strong resemblance to a scaled-down version of the 6 Series and its roadster precursor, the Z8. Sections of the taillights look like horizontal light tubes and appear to ramp up like theater lights when the lights are switched on. Adaptive brake lights deliver more red light when you hit the brake pedal hard than when merely slowing mildly. The center brake light is midway between the rear window and the tail on the trunk lid where it will not interfere with rear vision but will be covered up by an inch of snow. A single side twin-exhaust outlet signals a 30i, while the 35i and 35is have a single outlet on each side, a la Z8.

Exterior trim varies among the three models. The shape of the front of the car is the same for all models, illuminated with BMW's trademark corona daytime running lights (programmable). The sDrive30i has black vanes in its grille and a silver slash across the outer lower grilles, while the 35i has matte silver grille vanes and perimeter frames for the outer grilles, and the 35is has wider spacing of its grille vanes. While the Z4 is close to the ground, it is not prone to scraping at every speed bump or mild driveway entrance because the front overhang is shorter than that of many other sports cars. Short overhangs are better for handling.

The Z4 sDrive35is gets some other exterior changes. The M Sport package is standard, so it has a 10 mm lower ride height and different front and rear styling. The 35is modifies that styling with horizontal bars in the front outer air intakes and a body-color rear apron with a black lower diffuser. It also has oxide silver mirror caps, and a unique design for both the standard 18- and optional 19-inch wheels.

The Z4 is longer than the Audi TT and Mercedes-Benz SLK, and it's shorter than the Porsche Boxster, though the difference among them is only a few inches. In height and width, they are much closer, so exterior dimensions should not factor into purchase decisions.

The Z4 is built in Regensburg, Germany. In BMW fashion, many systems on the Z4 have been proven in other recent BMW models, including the higher-output engines, transmissions, and suspension design.

Interior

The Z4 cabin is immediately familiar to any BMW owner, with many of the Munich builder's hallmarks: Simple white-on-black analog instrumentation, sweeping driver-centric lines, functional controls, and a high level of fit and finish (apart from the molding seams on the map pockets).

The sDrive35is has dark gray-faced gauges with lettering on the tachometer face identifying the model. The 35is also has a thick-rimmed M leather steering wheel with shifter paddles, driver's footrest (dead pedal), and sport seats. Additional interior features include the Anthracite BMW roof lining, M doorsill strips, floor mats with colored piping and model designation, and M trim in Aluminum Carbon.

The sDrive30i comes with leatherette upholstery (vinyl), but that is available only in black. Black may not be the best in sunny areas where you're likely to park the car with the top down. Order leather and the palette increases to five colors with only one of them dark. The leather was selected with a convertible in mind. You can also opt for the 35i or 35is models and choose from nine colors of leather; you can even extend the leather coverage for the ultimate in premium feel. The low-gloss brushed aluminum or ash wood trim (which we found does reflect a bit of glare with the top down) of the 35i may be added to the 30i.

There is plenty of space for two people in the Z4, the head and legroom being about what you find in a full-size SUV. Unlike an SUV, where you sit upright, though, you sit much lower and with your legs stretched out in front of you in the Z4. Standard manual seats and tilt/telescoping steering column provide enough adjustment to suit many driver sizes; slender types will appreciate the side bolsters on the seats and larger bodies will be framed as much by the door and console. While they may not look like thick armchairs, the seats offer excellent support over multi-hour drives; the sport seats are a bit more confining for those of wider girths yet superb for a spirited drive. The driver's footwell is large enough for size 13 shoes to comfortably operate three well-positioned pedals and there's a good dead pedal on which to rest or brace your left foot.

Cubby storage has long been the bane of roadsters, so particular attention was paid to that. The door pocket walls tilt out for access, and in doing so make excellent coin catchers for the change flying out your pants pocket at the first hard bend. A bin ahead of the shifter has good containment properties. Cars ordered without the navigation system get a cubby atop the dash (and that's how we would order ours). Other storage areas are behind the seats, and there is a pass-through door available for carrying skis or golf clubs. The armrest lid conceals two cupholders, the lid stays up on its own and clears even lanky elbows, and a third cupholder clips into the right side of the console right about where the passenger's left knee rests. Cupholders are not the priority here; driving is.

The multifunction steering wheel is thick enough to feel good and thin enough to receive all the feedback the suspension delivers. The M Sport wheel is thicker, but it feels great in the driver's hands. Ahead of the wheel are a large speedometer and tachometer, with smaller fuel and oil temperature gauges (more useful than coolant temperature) in the bottom. Digital displays in the center handle outside temperature, mileage, trip data, and, on automatics, gear indication.

Outward visibility is good, and a major improvement with the top up. The windshield curves across the top and the pillars are no impediment, but taller drivers will have to look around the inside mirror on up-and-down winding mountain roads. The three-quarter view right behind the seats is mostly unobstructed because the folding top design includes two small windows. Even the 8.8-inch stowable navigation display (1280x480p) is easy to read in direct sunlight, polarized sunglasses or not.

Climate control is manual in the 30i and automatic dual-zone in the others with an automatic recirculation mode that senses air contaminants. With the heated seats and steering wheel option, the close-the-top temperature goes down 10 degrees or more. Turn the control wheel from warm to cool and the response is immediate, as is the case with most of the controls. There is no need to hold the trip odo button to reset it, and some controls are designed as multifunctional with one result from a quick tap and another by depressing and holding.

Audio options include HD radio, satellite radio, a glovebox-mounted six-disc DVD changer, iPod and USB ports, and 14 speakers driven by an amplifier capable of delivering 650 watts. iDrive is standard in navigation-equipped cars, and it absorbs much of the audio control, but common requests can be handled by steering wheel buttons as well. Cars with iDrive have an 80GB hard-drive with 15GB allotted to music storage.

The Z4 was the first BMW with the newest generation of iDrive, and it is much improved. Buttons have been added around the controller to speed access, making operation much more intuitive while maintaining the myriad functions. The controller is located between the shift lever and the armrest and on gear changes we frequently bumped the controller, often executing a command or changing the radio station in the process. Cars without navigation or with the automatic or DCT transmissions and paddle shifters won't have this problem. While the iDrive system is improved, we are not fans.

On manual shift cars, concerns about starting on a hill without a lever to work are addressed by the start-off assistant that keeps the brakes applied momentarily while you engage the clutch and throttle. The buttons for the Driving Dynamics Control are located to the left of the shifter, so your hands never have to travel far. The parking brake is electrically operated by a switch behind the manual shifter, and it does get hot in sunshine, even when on the road.

Z4 sDrive35i and sDrive35is models with the DCT have a shift lever shared by some other new BMW products that's a bit unconventional and looks like a cross between a video-game controller and a beer tap. Neutral is the default position and Park is a pushbutton; push the lever forward for Reverse and backward for Drive. In manual mode, it shifts like a racecar with downshifts forward and upshifts back, allowing g-forces to assist the driver with shifting. The same goes for the steering wheel buttons. While this setup would seem to make sense, we much prefer the steering wheel paddles in other BMWs. They are larger and the left paddle is for downshifts and the right for upshifts. easier to use.

The top opens and closes in 20 seconds without any fear it will bump you on the head. Once up, the Z4 feels just like a coupe in terms of noise abatement. Raising all four windows (use the master switch on the driver's door) allows conversation at 75 mph with the top down, and most window-down wind noise comes from the area around the seatbelts. There is no wind-blocker panel for between the headrests, as specified in early option sheets, though we have seen photos and it may become available through your dealer.

Cargo room is about average for the class, but better with the top up (8.0 cubic feet). On cars with Comfort Access you can, through the key fob, lift the stowed roof out of the way for easier loading and unloading.

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