I waited. Hanging out with the General Manager of Bavaria BMW. Waited for the 2010 Z4 to appear from its climate-controlled underground lair. I asked only for a manual transmission, not being brave enough to ask for the N54 in the 35i. The conversation started at golf, then drifted to vacation. Then to car design. Then back to golf. Finally, the Titanium Silver Metallic 30i appeared in my peripheral vision. The top was up and under the overcast late-summer sky, it had all the presence I could have asked for – like something costing twice as much. I caught myself staring at its profile and noting the length of the hood relative to the rest of the vehicle. It’s at least a third, maybe even four-tenths. A classic, long-bonnet GT where the driver is slung back over the rear wheels. What kind of effect will those proportions have over the driving experience? Can something that looks like that still be gunning for Porsche’s mid-engined pup?
But before we get to that, let’s look at the Z4’s background, because to understand what it is today, we have to know how it got here because it did not just fall from the sky. Eliza Doolittle, the Z4 isn’t. For starters, this is the first BMW to be designed by a woman. Her name is Juliane Blasi and she had the (not so) tall order of making the Z4 appeal to a broader audience than Chris Bangle was able to. Bangle’s Z4 was probably his most attractive design but it was still as polarizing as any other. From an engineering perspective, the old Z4 was relatively uncompromised and occupied a narrow niche in the line-up of the Bavarian automaker. It was stiffly sprung, cramped, and featured questionable interior materials, but it delivered the driving pedigree that buyers had come to expect from BMW. It was meant to compete with the Porsche Boxster and it did as well as could be expected at the time, which is to say that it fell slightly short. But not as intentionally short at the 2010 model. For the new car, BMW has aimed for a meatier, broader share of the market by aiming away from the Boxster and closer to the SLK. BMW’s PR will tell you that this is the Z4 for everyone; the mature, “grown-up” Z4. And to make a long story short, they’ve hit the nail on the head. But can the car that remains be called a “BMW”? Is it truly a car from the manufacturer that takes its roundel logo from the WWI airplane propellers behind which its engines lived?
Traditionally, BMWs have been for people who reveled in the experience of driving a demanding high-performance car and driving it well. And for people who fancy the badge in the driveway, but we will ignore them for the sake of argument. Relative to their compatriotic metal, roundel-bearing cars have always been more engaging and sharper, and have therefore monopolized that corner of the luxury German car market. That was traditionally. Presently, the lines between Audi, Mercedes, and BMW are blurring. Audi has the R8. Mercedes has the CLK Black. No longer is driving enjoyment the exclusive realm of the BMW driver. Presented with this altering landscape, one would have expected BMW to redefine its niche by creating even more compromised, even more demanding road cars, thus giving people who spend their evenings talking about optimal gear ratios, trail braking, and lift-off oversteer exactly what they want. Instead, BMW has chosen the opposite path, one hundred and eighty degrees away, and thereby left that battle to Porsche. It has instead chosen to pursue what Mercedes and Audi were taking for granted, their bread and butter, the people who have no interest in talking about optimal gear ratios, trail braking, and lift-off oversteer. For those who find all that incredibly dull, BMW is now making more vehicles than ever. The latest of which is the 2010 BMW Z4.
For 2010, gone is the soft-top convertible and its hardtop counterpart. Replacing the once disparate avenues is an overpass made of a two-piece retractable hardtop. This is the first sign of SLKification. Constructed of aluminum, it unfurls or retracts in 20 seconds. The car looks elegant with the top up or the top down but I found that the best look for this young man was to have the top up but have all four windows down. This leaves an elegant silhouette that is accentuated by the departed B-pillar. The lack of B-pillar is further highlighted by the convergence of the front character line that starts at the medial aspect of the headlight, sweeping laterally across the bonnet, and the crease that runs along the top of the taillight and over the rear haunches. This is flame surfacing at its finest. And if we’re not calling it “flame surfacing” anymore now that Bangle is gone, then this is the “successor to flame surfacing” at its finest.
I spent most of my time in the 3.0i model with a manual transmission but I also sampled the manual/35i combo. Starting out in the 30i, I noticed how well the ride was judged. There was scarcely any of the scuttle shake or harsh ride that I had feared. I flicked on the sound system with a CD I had brought and after about a minute, I turned it right off again. Not only was the straight-six more interesting to listen to, but it also didn’t sound tinny and inept – the music did. Music off, then. Cruising along with the top down in order to attract the most attention, I kept a keen eye out for admiring glances. Did I look good? Did I look like a spoiled punk-ass brat? I made a trip to a shopping mall construction site to garner the opinion of the blue-collar working class. Their take? Nice looking car that they would all put in their driveways. They were even pleasantly surprised that it only cost around 60k. That would put them in the loaded Silverado but this seemed to be a much more fashionable, if less utilitarian, choice. Thumbs up. This is the second sign of SLKification because a guy can look good in one. Try that in a Boxster.
Next stop was to one a local park where kids on their summer break spent their days. The apparent magic of the retractable hardtop did not fail to impress. The new BMW was certainly winning the popularity contest with observers, but it is never as easy to impress the driver.
I glided over to some curvier roads and on-ramps to see how the Z4 handled the more demanding city landscapes. Instead of the expected sharp responses were Marcell Marceaux steering, a Terrell Owens front end, and Rita McNeil body roll. This is the third, and final, sign of SLKification.
Befuddled and confused, I pulled the car over so I could stop and think about what I had just experienced. As the car radiated heat and the engine ticked-ticked, I realized that this car was not meant for me. It never was. The Zen-like moment was completed as I realized that BMW is an extremely capable company, almost too capable. When they go for something, they hit it square between the eyes. They set out to construct a convertible that was attractive, well-built, comfortable, and easy to live with and the Z4 is a success by all of these measures. They never set out to make a convertible for drivers who enjoy driving, they set out to build a better SLK. And the three signs of SLKification have shown that they succeeded.
At best, the 30i with a manual is the choice for those individuals who enjoy driving. Why not the more potent twin-turbo model? I was surprised to find that the table-flat torque curve of the 35i left me cold. Like a diesel engine, it just did not want to be worked. The 30i was more rewarding in the sense that there was gratification to be obtained in the upper rev range. So save the eight grand and go for the smaller engine, you will look just as good and feel better behind the wheel.
Still, at the end of it all, we are left with a BMW for the everyman. The accessibility being brought to BMW is refreshing and an excellent strategy for the company and its coffers, the only problem is that the true car enthusiasts, the cognescenti, are not the everyman.
Price as tested: $61,400 (30i)/$69,700 (35i)
Summary: BMW makes a convertible for the rest of you, not us. SLKification indeed.
Interior Design: 8/10. Clean and well-organized. Exactly what you are looking for.
Exterior Design: 9/10. You look good and you know it.
Engine: 7/10. BMW makes phenomenal engines. Period.
Transmission: 5/10. If only you could get the DCT with the 30i.
Value: 5/10. Who are you kidding? You are not looking at this car because it represents a good value.
Special thanks to Mike Beck and Micah Dueck of Bavaria BMW Edmonton.