The cars we loved.
It’s been argued that BMW does not build sports cars. As blasphemous as that might sound, there could be a bit of truth in the statement. Consider that the typical M car excels at being a high performance sedan or grand touring coupe. Then of course there are the two seat Z8, Z3 and a host of historic cars like the 507 that might suggest otherwise. But consider the lower end of list. Cars like the Z3 and Z4 occupy an interesting place in the market somewhere between the cuteness of a Miata and the serious hard-core performance of a 911 (in M guise). The Z4 offers considerable performance, style and the cachet that comes with being a BMW (including the high price), while offering performance that falls short of some less expensive cars. In short the Z4 is parked in the middle of no man’s land where “sports cars” are concerned.
Even BMW labeled the E85 Z4s as a “luxury car-sports car-roadster”, a title that implies that luxury was the first order of the day. The move from the sport car classification peaked when the E89 was introduced in 2002. The class had moved to personal luxury car, a term that once described cars like the Thunderbird and Monte Carlo.
The Z4’s predecessor, the Z3 was successful in its own right as an expensive sporty car for those who would rather show than shift. It never had the serious performance associated with the Z8 or M series cars, but it appealed primarily to a big part of the market that simply wanted a more exclusive “Miata-like”car. In spite of being a BMW, with the driving dynamics to match, it was still seen by the masses as nothing more than an expensive boulevard cruiser (one that handled very well). The first M Coupe, based on the original Z3, convinced many that a true sports car did exist in the Z3 line, although it’s styling was a hard sell for some. After years of steadily declining sales, BMW did a radical redesign of the Z cars with the Z4 in 2008. A hard-boiled E86 M Coupe followed, establishing the potential of the Z4 as a true sports car.
Now with a beautiful and flowing design that looked every bit as graceful as a compressed Ferrari, the new Z4 came in coupe form as well as convertible (with soft or retractable hard top). While bigger and heavier than before, the driving dynamics were tilted in favor of comfort. You could still get powerful 3.0 inline six cylinder engines, but due to the increased heft you needed to do more revving in the higher rpm ranges to make it as fun to drive as a Audi S4 or even BMW’s own 335i. The term sports car would certainly apply if considering packaging, but was the Z4 really that?
The lush interior with higher grade materials than previous Z cars, suggests luxury. The raw numbers suggest sports car. The old Z4 M Roadster (E89) was capable of a 0 to 60 sprint of 5.8 seconds and a top speed of 156mph (electronically limited of course). Similar numbers for the hard-edged E85 M Roadster confirmed true sports car performance with the harsh ride to match. With no E89 M variant, buyers looking for Z4 performance have to make do with the new sDrive35is. With 335hp, its twin turbocharged engine is slightly more powerful than the previous generation’s M car, but forgoes the harder edge driving experience for a more softly spring gran tourer. The ride and driving dynamics are more luxury car like compared to the outgoing Z4 M Coupe. Of course if sports car like dynamics are not your thing, the base model sDrive28i offered a still impressive 240 hp from a 2.0L four-cylinder engine.
Don’t let the lack of an M badge fool you. Even with a softer gentler luxury emphasis, the sDrive35is finished behind the Porsche Boxter S and ahead of a base Corvette, TTS, SLK and 370Z in a 2009 comparison test from Car and Driver magazine. The 0 to 60 figures are impressive at 4.7, but top speed is limited to 155mph. All this performance comes with subtle hints of M influence. There are plenty of M touches cosmetically with M pedals, carbon fiber trim and other bits. The engine features M touches also with internally (tuned engine). By not labeling the top model M, BMW was free of the constraints (and expectations) that come with balancing high performance and luxury at a price point that might cannibalize on future M6 or whatever higher end convertibles that may come along.