Red Zed redemption
The aim was to see if the Z4, at BMW’s third attempt, could finally emerge from the shadow of the Porsche Boxster. An open goal if you’ve ever heard a 718 under heavy throttle, but the result on the pools coupon was a score draw, the victor of our comparison test dependent on whether you prefer sensational handling or a sonorous engine. I’m a chassis man, yet in the six months I spent with the BMW, its bigger-hearted, more heavy-handed approach almost won me over.
While I adore a hedonistic blast along a favourite road, in reality those make up five per cent of my driving. In a good month. The rest is split evenly between tedious motorway miles and exasperated crawling through London traffic. The kind of driving which the Z4 excelled at, its eight-speed automatic gearbox feeling smoother and smarter as the mileage soared and fuel economy always higher than BMW’s own claims, and never short of astounding. The benefits of downsized engines are a fallacy.
Those are tremendously grown-up things on which to compliment a straight-six, rear-drive roadster, I’ll admit, but it rather sums up where the big Zed’s strengths lay. A meeting with the BMW M Roadster of the late Nineties – an ancestor that’s considered a bona fide M Division product where this M40i is more of a halfway house – proved a bit of subtle muscularity wasn’t out of character. If anything, the newer (and crucially turbocharged) car felt sprightlier, keener and more aggressive at the kind of commitment levels you can actually deploy on a road. Especially in the wet, when the Z4 came excitedly to life as its grip limits lowered. Yep, this is a roadster I preferred in rain to sun.
The roof didn’t come down as much as it probably ought to have – I’m a shy sort, and there could be a fair bit of bluster at motorway speeds – but I heartily approve of its switch from metal to fabric. Cutting weight and complexity and lowering the centre of gravity make this a tangibly sharper car than the Z4 before it.
And the residual softness of the M40i’s handling felt expertly countered by a stupendously good powertrain, one I’d swear was pumping out more than its claimed 335bhp. The numerous videos emerging online of its Toyota Supra engine-mate on dynos suggest a reality closer to 400bhp is entirely possible. A few days in the £12k-cheaper Z4 sDrive20i – which uses a 197bhp 4cyl turbo – revealed a more athletic car with a less likeable engine, but also welcome proof the Z4 is still thoroughly appealling without its big-ticket 6cyl.
Criticisms are limited to unreliable CarPlay connection – a problem not limited to BMWs – and the simple fact the Z4 stopped short of wowing me. I never once set my alarm early to let it loose with the roads all to myself, and I rarely took a longer, more interesting detour when a few tranquil hours on the motorway with my podcasts was the alternative.
A faithful friend rather than a wild drinking buddy, if you will. A fact evidenced by just how flipping easy it was to live with. It left the Top Gear Garage on 13,100 miles, still 8,000 short of its first service, the only maintenance required being a top up of washer fluid and a quick visit to the local garage when an errant stone got rather noisily stuck in a front brake disc.
This is a shrunken GT car as opposed to an outright thriller, a crucial difference that’s left many disheartened by the Supra it shares so much with. It’s a role I think the Z4 fills more harmoniously, though. It’s crept out of the Boxster’s shadow alright, but by offering an altogether more mature experience.
Mileage: 13,100 Our mpg: 33.4