2011 BMW Z4 sDrive35is road test
More power has the Z4 targeting a new audience
For a company with the tagline of The Ultimate Driving Experience, and a reputation for building some of the best handling vehicles on the planet, roadsters are something of a contentious issue for BMW.
Consider its recent history: The Z3, complete with James Bond's stamp of approval and striking good looks took on the Mazda MX-5; the first Z4 took the fight to the Porsche Boxster. The former didn't measure up as a lightweight roadster, and while the latter came much closer to the mark, it was simply too harsh for its own good.
This is why for the third time in three generations the Z4's focus has shifted. This latest metamorphosis saw the roadster transform into a mature, sophisticated luxury two-seater with a folding hardtop roof, supple suspension and torque-rich engines. While it's true that a select slice of the roadster market wants a purist, no-compromises machine, BMW has gone after the bigger piece of the pie that's willing to give up some of the live-wire engagement for not being worn down after a day in the sun.
Gallery: 2011 BMW Z4 sDrive35is road test
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Though comfort and refinement are higher priorities, playing second fiddle to any premium roadster - regardless of where it lies on the sports car spectrum - isn't in BMW's plan. But neither is releasing an M Roadster; two years on, the Bavarian brand is still resolute in its belief there isn't a business case for one. In its place stands this, the new sDrive35is, the most powerful production Z4 to date.
Even more of a great thing
Although there are a host of standard-fit additions to the 35is, the biggest comes from under the hood. Shared with the also-new 335is, it builds on one of the best engines to come out of the past decade, the 300-hp, 300 lb.-ft. 3.0-litre twin-turbo straight-six. Thanks to a sizable bump up in turbo boost from 8.7 psi to 11.6 and a freer-flowing sports exhaust system, there's now 35 extra horsepower and 32 more lb.-ft. of torque. And if that weren't enough, an overboost function automatically doles out an additional 37 lb.-ft. kick in the pants which can be drawn upon again and again, provided all vital signs are showing green. And kick it does - 0-100 km/h takes 4.8 seconds, making it quicker than the previous M Roadster, not to mention the V8-powered M3.
If there's a down-side to this upgrade, I haven't found it. Fuel economy is identical to the 35i when equipped with the DCT gearbox, and there's no perceptible lag, despite the higher boost levels.
Although this version of the Z4 lacks the 35i's six-speed manual transmission, you're certainly not going to miss it. The reworked version of the M3's DCT seven-speed is about as good as twin-clutches come. Though there are only three settings, it's smoother, and gives up nothing by the way of speed at quicker settings. The only down side is BMW's silly push-pull paddles to manually control shifts (push with thumbs to shift up, pull back on the paddles to shift down). However, Drive and Sport modes are so on the ball there's no need to really shift it yourself.
Looks the part
It's difficult not to admire the design of the new Z4; low, long, lean - it's a genuinely attractive sports car, roof up or down, made even more so with the addition of a more aggressive front valance and a rear bumper with an integrated diffuser and delicate five-spoke 18-inch wheels. The silver-painted mirrors, however, I could do without.
Equally as beautiful is the interior. Though the traditional roadster seating position - bottom to the ground, legs stretched out in front, with an unhindered view over the hood - is familiar, the surroundings are not. The level of craftsmanship in the interior is simply unmatched, with the 35is adding lashings of leather wrapping the dash, polished metal accents and woven aluminum trim finish. You won't find a more stylish or better-finished material this side of Aston Martin's V8 Vantage Roadster. It's also lavishly equipped with UV-reflective seats that stay cool to the touch in summer, a heated steering wheel and BMW's latest iDrive interface system.
On the road, it's impossible to miss the power gains; this car is deceptively quick, piling on speed no matter where in the rev range you are. Nor the loud, addictive, harder-edged growl projected by the cannon-sized exhaust tips. It's all very much like the 35i, but with a bit more gusto.
That's also the case in the ride and handling department. The 35i's optional M Dynamic suspension which sits 10 mm lower, has stiffer anti-roll bars, and three-mode adaptive dampers is standard. The electric power steering has also been remapped for slightly sharper turn-in and added heft. Nineteen inch wheels are an option, although this tester didn't have them.
The thrill with the 35is isn't the sort that involves chasing the redline or attacking apexes, although that doesn't mean you can't have fun on an open, winding road. If you lean on the 35is you'll find dizzying amounts of grip; beyond that is a transition into safe understeer. Even with Sport + mode engaged and stability control loosened, it takes some serious right foot work to get the car's back to step out of line.
But that's really not its style. With this car, it's the stupid grin you'll get from surfing its tidal wave of torque, from bathing in the engine's melodic notes, and discovering just how effortless driving fast is. It's about indulging in luxury; the fact that at the (20-second) touch of a button, there's a substantial-feeling roof over your head, and the drive-all-day comfort of the seats. It's the way it can out-sprint the competition without exacting punishment on you.
We're off to a slow start for spring, but does the warmer weather make you excited about convertible season?
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- Oh yes! My convertible is garaged. Can't wait to take it out!
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