In a break from regular programming, I’m going to take up one of my readers’ suggestions from a flickr comment and review something different for a change: a car. There are a few automotive journalists I admire and whose work I enjoy for various reasons; the Top Gear trio, Chris Harris, etc. But I’m going to approach this in the same style I approach my camera reviews: from an unashamedly practical standpoint and with some nice images. I’m an enthusiast and nothing more. Read on if you dare.
Firstly, there’s no point in debating ultimates: practically, it matters nought whether your car hits 100km/h in 4.2 or 4.3 seconds; you’re never going to use it anyway. In fact, you’ll hit 100km/h in at best the same time as the laboring lorry with the cracked exhaust that’s one car ahead of you in the same traffic jam: never. So, cars are even more frustrating than cameras: even if we have the skill, conditions almost never allow us to realize their full potential – and unlike cameras, we don’t risk our lives and the lives of others if we make a mistake.
I’m reviewing this car – a 2013 model year (in the US, who like their cars to feel newer than they really are; 2012 in the rest of the world) BMW Z4 28i sDrive M sport. It’s a pre-facelift model (though the facelift only adds LED DRLs and slightly redesigned headlights). For a start, what a mouthful and a naming disaster – though the extra letters bring specificity, they’re also pretty much ignored most of the time. Because they are meaningless. Long ago, BMW used the last two digits of the model name to signify the engine capacity in 100cc increments; i meant fuel injection. So the 28i is supposedly a 2.8-litre, fuel injected engine. And being a BMW, you’d expect a straight-six. Except it’s really a 2.0 litre, twin-scroll turbocharged, direct injection engine. ‘SDrive’ is superfluous – ‘xDrive’ being the other alternative, signifying 4WD and being pointless because it’s not an option on this car anyway. Why on earth would you want a small sportscar/ roadster that’s front wheel drive? Or even four wheel drive, for that matter? (Audi fans aside.)
A car needs to do a few things well. Firstly, operate reliably; secondly, be aesthetically pleasing; thirdly, be coherent: if it looks fast, it should be fast. If it looks roomy, it should be roomy. And I think the Z4 is mostly all of these things. The design of the thing is pretty gorgeous – in my opinion, at least; it was the only BMW in recent history designed entirely by an all-female design team; somehow they managed to make a car that looks not only masculine but also appeals to a masculine buyer; either that or perhaps I’ve got more estrogen than I thought. The proportions are classic roadster, exaggerated somewhat and reinterpreted in the modern post-Bangle BMW gestalt; a very, very long hood with crisp lines and creases swoops down over the front wings, extending into a very high shoulder line that follows the length of the doors. It serves to exaggerate the width of the car, make the cockpit appear more compact and purposeful, and terminates before the bulging rear haunches – which in themselves bring to mind the hindquarters of some animal that’s about to spring. Without the sharp creases, the proportions would look a bit too grotesque; instead they form visual breaks in the overall shape which both give an impression of modernity and tautness; as though the sheetmetal is spread over something mechanical and functionally purposeful. At the same time, it retains the brand DNA and is instantly recognizable as a BMW – the obligatory kidney grilles, the quad headlights with light rings, the bonnet creases and peripheral lower front bumper lips – are all present. I suppose in matte-gray it would probably look like a stealth fighter.
I actually suspect the narrowness of the glasshouse is a consequence of its having to fold into the rear, which is slightly generous; the Z4 previously came in coupe and convertible variants, but for the E89 generation, both were merged into a single version with a folding hardtop. This gives you the best of both worlds – a roof-up coupe with no squeaks or rattles and a feeling of solidity; and a top-down convertible for when the sun shines. Interestingly – and as a credit to its designers – the car looks just as good with the roof up or down. This is something few convertibles can manage; save perhaps the new Ferrari 458 Spyder. The whole process takes about 30 seconds and can be accomplished up to 20km/h; I suppose it might work at higher speeds, but frankly I haven’t had the guts to try. It looks like a bit of a Rube Goldberg mechanism at best. There are two downsides to the roof: firstly, the mechanism adds weight (the panels themselves are aluminium and weigh just 7kg, most of which is glass); at ~1,480kg, this is a heavier car than you’d expect. Secondly, it eats up boot space – dropping from 310 to 180l with the roof stowed. And worse still, when the roof is in place, you can’t access anything in the boot unless it’s small and can be removed via a portal about six inches high and two feet wide.
But that’s not the point. This is a car you buy because a) it’s fun, and b) it’s not a rational purchase – that said, I did have to make sure I could use this car on assignment since it would be my only vehicle; I’m pleased to report that it’ll fit one lighting bag the size of golf bag, one tripod bag that’s a bit smaller; two roll-on suitcases and a backpack – all without intruding into the passenger compartment. It’s definitely fun with the roof down; what I didn’t expect was that the driving experience with the roof down would be so different. It doesn’t urge you to go faster, though you certainly can if you want to; instead it’s more of a cruiser. You drive at a moderate pace and enjoy the scenery and the feeling of being in your environment rather than merely passing through it. I can imagine owning this car in a place with spectacular scenery would be immensely enjoyable indeed.
Part of the reason you don’t feel like belting flat out is that I think this is an 8/10ths car; partially because some things aren’t fully resolved in stock spec, it’s best enjoyed with a bit of spirit but nothing too much. I find the suspension a bit too soft front-rear for the wheelbase even in Sport+ mode; (I have the optional M Dynamic variable suspension) the car squats under strong acceleration and as a result, actually understeers under power; it turns in more sharply under braking as the weight transfers back onto the nose. This is bizzare behaviour for a rear wheel drive vehicle, and baffling until you get used to it. I personally haven’t gotten used to it, because it simply doesn’t work the way I expect it to. So, I’ve installed stiffer H&R springs and dampers and anti-roll bars front and back, which have cured the handling and restored the expected rear wheel drive steer-it-on-the-throttle response. It has a very short wheelbase, and so demands some respect when driven with traction control off; but because you’re also pretty much sitting on the rear axle, your buttocks have a pretty good sense of when the rear is going to start sliding – even if the somewhat numb and light electric steering isn’t giving you as much feedback as you would like. I can understand why they killed hydraulic steering in the mass market models, but for a car that’s supposed to be about irrational driving enjoyment – it’s criminal.
The drivetrain, on the other hand, is absolutely magnificent. It is undoubtedly the showpiece here – very much doing justice to the external design – and good enough to allow you to forget that there is no longer a straight-six under the bonnet. Though purists bemoan the slow death of the venerable 2.5 and 3.0 litre NA sixes, I’m not as picky: so long as it delivers the goods, sounds good, and is preferably reasonably economical, I’m happy. The N20B20 2.0 twin-scroll turbo used here is part of BMW’s new engine family that uses a modular 500cc cylinder architecture; they’ll all be direct injection, double-VANOS, turbocharged, and it’ll spawn a future 1.5l triple and next-generation 3.0, and in various states of tune, confuse buyers with 14i, 16i, 18i, 20i, 28i, 35i and 40i nonclementure. The basic formula will even be applied to the next generation of diesel engines.
I don’t really care, though: what matters is that it’s a superb engine. In standard tune, it puts out 245bhp and 350Nm; it wasn’t quite enough for me, so I’ve modified it slightly with a piggyback ECU. New figures: ~310bhp, 460Nm. That’s more like it; diesel-like torque for the low end, petrol-like responsiveness and a very willing high end. It’s even a good 30kg lighter than the outgoing 3.0 six it replaces. Whatever BMW have done with the exhaust design, it sounds fantastic; not at all like an inline-4 – if anything, more like a baby V8 under load – even if there is a very faint tappety diesel sound at idle due to direct injection. The gearbox it’s mated to is the much-vaunted ZF 8HP70; an 8-speeder with a conventional torque converter, but lightning-fast shifts and the ability to lock the converter completely at higher speeds. Coupled with the wheel-mounted shift paddles, it delivers power seamlessly; who needs the complexity of a double-clutch setup when you have a gearbox this good? Acceleration is brisk in any gear; there is some slight turbo lag, but it’s much more responsive if you have already allowed revs to build to about 3k and have some boost in the turbos; if not, just pull the paddle for an almost immediate lower gear. It will go higher, but things are mostly over by about 6000RPM.
Practically, I’d say there are a few disadvantages. There isn’t a whole load of adjustment range in the cockpit due to the fairly small size; it may not fit larger people. I’m a small Asian, so by the time I’ve adjusted the seat and wheel to my preferred position – close to the wheel and fairly upright – I can fit another briefcase or suit bag behind my chair. It isn’t at all claustrophobic by any means, though; and the trimming and finishing details are nice enough that the car feels special when you’re in it; it’s a great place to spend time, and makes our never-ending Kuala Lumpur traffic less painful, though of course it would be better not to have it at all. My car has the optional iDrive and navigation screen; it’s nice to have, but frankly, Waze is far more practical because it has realtime traffic information, and that makes a huge difference here. It’s also easier to enter text to search for things with the iPhone’s keyboard rather than a rotary controller.
To be honest though, it’s not something I pay a lot of attention to. I’ve now owned this car for four months; it’s enough time for me to get to know its moods, foibles and figure out if I like it long term. I’d been looking for a new car for about six months beforehand, and tried and dismissed several credible alternatives including – the Porsche Cayman R, the Lotus Exige, the BMW 520d, the BMW 328i, a used Audi RS6. I couldn’t bring myself to sign the papers either immediately, or after contemplation; it wasn’t the fault of the cars. They just weren’t quite right for me. But I actually bought the Z4 en-route to an assignment within about half an hour – stopping off at a dealer because I was a bit early. Never mind what the experts say – it just felt right. And since, like a camera, that feeling matters more than the spec sheet – I’ve had no regrets, shortcomings and all. I’ve even put more miles on this car than anything else I’ve previously owned; I look for excuses to drive it. And perhaps that is the best testament for anything. MT
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any Amazon or B&H links to the Z4, so I’ll have to pass up the 4% of whatever US sticker price is if one of you decides to buy one of the back of this review…
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