Progress report: BMW M Roadster vs BMW Z4 M40i | Top Gear
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Monday 4th December

Progress report: BMW M Roadster vs BMW Z4 M40i

A pair of muscular M-badged roadsters provide a real tale in quick car development

  • It’d be easy to kick this off by immediately talking grille size, but that’d be a lazy comparison to jump to. It’s what lies behind those grilles that matters.

    The 1998, BMW Z3-based M Roadster on the right possesses a 3.2-litre straight-six with 321bhp. Its 2019 equivalent, the Z4 M40i, utilises a 3.0-litre straight-six turbo with 335bhp. Not much progress between the two, you might ponder, but that’s rather the point; as the Z4’s rivals flock to tax-evading four-cylinder engines, it’s stuck steadfast to the M Division rulebook. Sometimes more is more.

    Images: Rowan Horncastle

    Big thanks to The Hairpin Company (, 01249 760686) for letting us use their M Roadster

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  • The Z4 may not be a ‘proper’ M car, yet it comfortably possesses the most tricolour badges of this pair, with one on each brake pad to accompany the Ms emblazoned across the wheels, kick plates, wings, dials… One doth protest too much.

    But then perhaps it justifies them, being nearly a second quicker to 62mph than the Z3 M (4.6secs playing 5.4secs) and possessing three extra gear ratios, the whole lot managed by the familiar suite of electronics that really tell the story of the last 21 years of performance car development.

  • So it’s much more nannying, but only if you want it to be. Press the right buttons and the Z4 can still feel savage, especially next to its older relation. The Z3 M may look ready to rip your head off, all muscle and no bullsh*t, but it’s actually more of a comfy cruiser than you’d expect, and a contemporary M3 will prove to be a much bigger handful.

    Its five gears are long and its power delivery is languid. No nasty surprises lurk when you press the throttle. No random tests of your reflexes arrive without warning.

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  • The Z3’s still fun, of course. It’s a 321bhp rear-driven roadster. Of course it’s fun. You just have to look harder for its limits than you might imagine, and even extracting the best out of its naturally aspirated engine requires fighting instinct to change up early.

  • You’ll only reach the top of second gear on the road, in truth, but the snarling rasp right at the top of the rev range is pure six-cylinder BMW. Without an accompanying whooshing of turbos it feels like a real trip back in time, too.

  • In comparison, the Z4 serves up its entertainment like you’ve inputted a PlayStation cheat code. Loads more torque to get the rear axle squirming, super short gears to make wringing out the revs much easier, lots of helpful electronics to massage your ego along the way. Despite carrying another 235kg over the Z3 M it also feels much, much quicker.

  • The steering is super quick, too. It’s devoid of feel and a real let-down on first acquaintance but there’s such inherent balance to the car that you’ll learn to trust in what’s happening beneath you quite quickly. It never shrugs off its lardy 1.6 tonnes, but take the time to get acquainted and you’ll really relish grabbing it by scruff of its neck.

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  • In isolation the Z4 feels a bit of a softie, and like the not-quite M car it is. With a bit of late Nineties context, though, you realise BMW roadsters have never been hardcore, even proper M products like this Z3.

    Joyous though it feels to revisit simpler times – its classic analogue dials, titchy proportions and saucer-sized alloys are a delight – the Z4 unarguably extends the cruiser mentality with a load of cosseting technology. While also acting as a real barometer of how much quicker and easier to drive performance cars have simultaneously got in the last two decades.

  • 1998 BMW Z3 M Roadster

    Engine: 3246cc 6cyl, 321bhp, 258lb ft
    Transmission: five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
    Performance: 0-62mph in 5.3secs, 155mph top speed
    Economy: 25.4mpg, 258g/km CO2 (est)
    Weight: 1375kg
    Price: £15,000 to £40,000 (used)

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  • 2019 BMW Z4 M40i

    Engine: 2998cc 6cyl turbo, 335bhp, 369lb ft
    Transmission: eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
    Performance: 0-62mph in 4.6secs, 155mph top speed
    Economy: 33.2mpg, 165g/km CO2
    Weight: 1610kg
    Price: £49,050

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