2009 BMW Z4 sDrive35i: First Drive
By James Wong
I never quite accepted the fact that I sold my NA MX-5 Roadster for little more than paltry money not too long ago. It offered all I could possibly want from an 18 year old car – good handling, a rear-wheel drive platform, sublime looks and the wind-in-your-hair feeling. Okay, so maybe its roof leaked sometimes. And yes, maybe it is really underpowered. But no car is perfect, yes? And as far as good cars go, the MX-5 really stayed entrenched in my heart, even up till today when I am driving a different car.
So I got out of my seat and took notice when BMW finally released its replacement Z4. Sporting looks that I was drooling over, a stonking twin-turbocharged inline-6 engine with 306bhp and 400Nm of torque, RWD and the roadster profile, I just had to have a go in it. Feelings I had when I owned the MX-5 started welling up in my heart as I rose in the escalator and greeted the new Z4 for the very first time.
While the previous generation Z4 drew flak for being too radical, it was a striking car which had a specific divide of people who liked it and those who simply hated it. Born in the Bangle era of BMWs, it had a design that was ahead of its time, a futuristic (if unconventional) look that instantly made a statement. The new Z4, however, sports a new fascia that is instantly pleasing for any onlooker. There are no contradicting lines or awkward angles here; this car is simply beautiful from any angle you can imagine. I would call this a progressive futuristic design that comes to terms with itself and evolves with the times. The front sports a shark-like look, ready to pounce and yet ever so slightly feminine. The side profile has lost the sharp curves that the previous Z4 was so well-known for; instead, there is now gentler and more gradual bodywork that blends well to the car and adds to its bulky and wide look. It is still, however, distinctly Z4 with the BMW badge cleverly placed just in front of the A-pillar to act as a side indicator light. The rear is curvaceous and, if I may add a touch of spice, sexy.
Step into the cabin and it continues to impress. While the old Z4’s interior might look a bit Spartan in dull colours, the new Z4’s cabin is both refreshing and, surprisingly, an ergonomic showcase of how an interior should be. Controls are straightforward to use and easy to reach, with the air-conditioning buttons placed neatly in a row on the dashboard. The radio is a simple rectangular affair below that. There is no i-Drive here (not in this model tested, anyway) to confuse the driver and to complicate matters; this again reminds me very much of my MX-5 – simple and to the point. I am already won over. The stitched leather dash also adds a touch of sophistication to the ambience and, coupled with the right combination of colours, can look downright delicious. Visibility from the driver’s seat is respectable, although I must mention that the rear-view mirror is shaped like an oval and thus restricts rear visibility by quite a bit. Otherwise, the driving posture is perfect and the dials are a joy to read. Moving to the rear boot, the space is disappointingly narrow and deep with the roof folded in it, but you trade it for the comfort, rigidity and assurance of a hard-top roof. Right then, now let’s go drive this thing…
On idle, the car emits a low grunty growl that is slightly different from the naturally aspirated engine of the same displacement. Stepping into the car, I am welcomed by an array of red instrument lighting (it was a night drive) that was pleasing to the eye. Since it was a cool night, we had the top popped down which took a surprisingly short time to do. Like most modern convertibles nowadays, a climate is maintained within the cabin itself so you do not actually feel much of the heat of the atmosphere as the air-conditioning acts as a curtain to the elements. Brilliant. Putting the car into D, I moved off slowly onto the main road, unsure of what to expect.
The Dual-Clutch Transmission (DCT) of the Z4 comprises of 7 gears and works very much like VW’s DSG or Porsche’s PDK. Now I have driven a Tiptronic 335i Coupe of the same engine before, but the DCT changes the characteristic of the car completely. The car simply pulls harder, changes more aggressively, and moves so eagerly that you just want more and more when you drive it. The seamless gear changes means that the turbochargers are always kept on boost, and the transmission loss is greatly reduced as compared to a torque converter automatic. The difference is plain to see and feel. The century sprint (in km/h; that’s 0-62 mph) is completed in a little over 5 seconds, and fuel consumption improves with the 7th gear overdrive.
Steering is nicely weighted and chucking the car around is a cinch. The car starts to feel smaller the more you drive it as you get used to its dimensions. You then increase your confidence as the engine offers on tap performance – there is simply no lag here and you go where you want to. I drive a turbocharged car myself and although the manufacturer claims there is already minimal turbo lag in my car, the twin-turbo of BMW is in a totally different league. It doesn’t feel very much different from a naturally aspirated engine – on steroids. Even on the 7th gear on a 70km/h cruise, the car just pulls fantastically. BMW has really hit a homerun with this engine.
Taking the car into corners, one has to be aware of the slightly long wheelbase and the RWD configuration and adjust his/her driving style accordingly. The car however feels composed and never flustered, flowing with the road with a seemingly careless ease. Putting the car into Sport + mode, the ride instantly stiffens (but never too harsh) and a few gears are dropped. Using the paddle-shifters was counter-intuitive at first as I didn’t know how to use them. But after figuring it out – push to downshift, pull to upshift – the gearbox really became its own element. Downshifts are done perfectly with blips to accompany them, showing no sign of hesitancy or slow-wittedness, followed by a ‘pop’ in the exhaust note that is now so commonly associated with dual-clutch gearboxes. The DCT really transforms the Z4 into an amazingly fun car to drive. It reminds me vaguely of a computer racing game where shifting is so easy and the laws of physics are often ignored – the Z4 gives me that kind of superpower feeling that is unparalleled and beyond any car I have ever driven.
So maybe the 335i can offer what the Z4 offers, and then some. It has the same engine, and sampled in convertible guise, you can have an earful of that awesome exhaust note too. But there is just something about a roadster that makes it that extra special. That selfishness that you accord when you only have space strictly for two instead of four. The long, seemingly endless bonnet and pert rear that makes you feel as if you’re driving a hot-rod. And the low seating position making you feel like you’re sitting just above the road that the 335i convertible can never rival.
I may sound like I am just praising the Z4 to no end but trust me, it really is that good. The golden combination of the engine, gearbox and chassis is second to none. I can honestly say, with trembling fingers on my keyboard, that this is by far the best car I have ever driven. It dethrones the TT-S in my books easily. Now to look for the car which can give this car some competition. I have a feeling it’ll take a long time.
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