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The Top Gear car review:BMW Z1
What is it like on the road?
When driving at speed, there’s an insanely, beautifully reckless frisson to be got by tugging at your door handle. Then, because it’s a small car, reach across to do the same to the passenger’s side. The doors motor down to shin level, with the windows retracting as they go. Now you’ve got one of the very most open of open cars. Not far off a no-doors Caterham.
A piece of Top Gear advice. Do not do this if you’re wearing a loose skirt. There’s some serious blustering coming from low down. Whatever you’re wearing, running like this at 50-plus is all rather unnecessarily gale-force.
Sub-50 though, you’ve a boundless sense of freedom. It makes things feel faster than they are. No bad thing on speed-restricted roads. Plus you’ve got a clear view of the roadside, making the Z1 easy to place in tight city streets.
Any road, any speed, it’s a delight to aim the Z1. The steering is a highlight: one of the last before the oddball early Servotronic arrived. Narrowish 225/45 16 tyres and light nose weight anyway, mean it’s you, not the assistance, doing most of the work. The rack is fairly indirect so you have to flail your arms, but the precision and feel are just sweet as.
Pile into a bend and there’s slight understeer. Be more sympathetic and it balances a treat. The whole performance comes up through the wheel-rim in high fidelity, a loading of the effort as the tyres take the strain, an unloading as they reach the limit, and a self-centring as the back end moves out.
That last thing won’t happen in the dry, but in the wet it doesn’t take long to dawn on you there’s no traction control. Prod the throttle in second and the backside does a proper twerk, and then you need to get busy with that low-geared steering. It’s all nicely telegraphed and tidily sortable.
The feel and sensations remind you it’s an old-ish car; the precision and general tidiness say it’s a new one. Somewhere in between is the damping and roll angles; they’re soft-ish, though not drastically more so than an MX-5. In fact the roll onto the outside rear is probably more progressive and contained than in the Mazda.
The ride’s nice and quiet, thanks to that softish chassis and moderate tyres. The fabulously rigid structure isn’t only the enabler of the steering precision, it also means nothing’s ever shuddering after a bump.
Your doorway to that lovely chassis is the engine. Which isn’t to say it’s no more than that, because it’s actually got a lot of charm in isolation.
Torque shows up all over the place. It peaks at 164lb ft at 4,300rpm. OK that isn’t actually a whole lot, but it makes up for it in keenness, always fronting up the instant you ask. At low speed when you fling down the pedal there’s an agreeably deep, slightly vintage straight-six intake roar.
But it’s worth travelling higher up the revs, because that’s where the actual power is, and because it just sounds so lovely. The cliche was always ‘turbine smooth’, and it was firmly rooted in fact. Strangely then, the red-line is only 6,500rpm, as per the modern turbo units. It was the intervening generation of 24-valve jobs that revved higher.
Alpina, Hartge and others made 2.7-litre conversions that took it to just over 200bhp, but the standard 170 does rather leave you wanting more. It’s handicapped by a surprisingly porcine 1,250kg kerbweight. The zero-to-62 is 7.9 seconds.
What’s more the five-speed gearbox has the typical old-school German characteristic of a yawning gap between second and third ratios, so tight bends are often too quick for second but leave you short of wind in third.
Still, it’s a very agreeable box to use, with a long throw but the endearing sensation of actual cogs making a celestially ordained engagement with other cogs.