We spoke a few months ago about the new Toyota Supra and hinted at its brother in BMW clothes, so this month we took decided to check out the convertible from Bavaria with the smaller engine. Well, actually we wanted the bigger engine of the M40i, but we were happy to with the sDrive20i as a point of different.
The other reason is that the base model Supra and base model Z4 tick in at about the same price, and to get the same outright speed from the BMW may cost you an extra $40k. So, dollar for dollar, this a fair chat.
What isn’t fair is the skin of the BMW, it is evocative and downright beautiful. You have to either really hate BMWs or convertibles not to fall under its spell. For mine, I love the wind in the hair, always have. Convertibles take me back to a time when we had the freedom to enjoy our roads without idiots, pushbike riders clogging up our beautiful mountain roads and speed limits that would put you to sleep. The old Lotuses, MGs, Austin Healeys and the like were always special to me, even if they weren’t that great a car. The Mazda MX-5 perhaps changed all that, because even from day dot it was a great car, and pretty much every evolution since has taken it a step further.
But like the not so great English cars, the MX-5 wasn’t overburdened with power. It was all about the handling and the sublime connection between driver and machine.
BMW has been in this playground for most of its existence, but in the last two decades has perhaps struggled with the need to appease the huge US market. It drifted away from groundbreaking designs like the 507 from the 50s or the 328 from earlier times where unbelievable looking cars also matched the looks with the drive. Americans though have never really liked cars that handle, and their idea of aesthetics is questionable. BMW has tried for many years to recapture this glory and was a bit hit and miss at times, but this latest version of the Z4 is a box ticker in every sense of the word. Let’s go through the boxes.
Looks. We touched on it above, this car is a stunning piece of kit. The nose starts the purpose. The large kidney grille has been tweaked with a couple of angles where once there were just curves, and it works superbly with the air intakes below the grille line. This pushes back down the body with enough purposeful cuts to say, look at me. And those little cuts all do something, we spoke months ago about the ‘air curtain’ BMW sets up around the front wheels, it is here too.
The waistline is just high enough and tucks neatly into the well-shaped rump. Top-up or top-down it works.
Inside it is perhaps typical BMW, functional and clean with ergonomics that are logical and class leading, if not awe inspiring from the dazzle. There’s plenty of room which is good for a two-seater and I imagine you’d have to be very tall not to fit. The drivers view is clean and simple. The steering wheel has the buttons you expect in the spots you expect and the dash has the customisability that modern LED dashes bring to the table. It is not a clean BMW design with dials that do a perfect job, but it works and brings a little pizzaz to the table.
The centre console has cup holders that are useless, just in front of the traditional manual gearbox that is only available on this smaller engined car, the rest of the range gets the full sequential treatment. The manual box is slick with a pretty easy to use clutch and it is nice to be engaged with the car again in a world where tech has made things faster but also more clinical.
The infotainment system is the OS7.0 set-up that is used in the latest crop of BMWs, so it all works with the rotary dial just near the gearstick, complete the touchpad that lives in the centre of the dial.
On this, the lowest spec model, the sound system is just OK. The bass distorts, which made my daughter was happy with playing Billy Eilish, but didn’t cut through the noise at speed on the highway – top down or up.
The top is clever too, up or down in 10 seconds and capable or working up to 50km/h, which can be a little bit of fun.
So, there’s a few boxes ticked, looks, functionality and comfort all big wins.
What about the drive? We touched on the manual gearbox, and there is no doubt it elevates the driving experience. It is a slick box and is fun up in the hills – when you don’t have to wobble around some push bike rider struggling with the climb on a road barely wide enough for two cars – easily swapping between the cogs. Heal and toe down changes are not easy, but in sport mode the engine management system can be programmed to step in and do the throttle blip for you. Not as much fun, but smooth.
You do notice the lack of outright power as compared with the Supra, as well as the scream of that gem of an engine. It shifts the fun factor from blistering speed and just try to hang on, to the point where you can appreciate the suppleness of the chassis and the controllability of the drive. This is a beautifully sorted car that never shocks and rarely scares, and the fuel economy is great as well given it is just a small 4-cylinder turbo.
At a similar price which direction do you go – ballistic Toyota Supra with a fixed roof, or sublime Z4 with a manual box and convertible roof. Both cars are built in Austria by an external supplier to both, so there’s no difference in build quality. You can feel at times the looseness of the convertible chassis which loses a little rigidity because there is no roof, but nothing alarming.
The Z4 is a classier affair, less Ninja and more Teutonic efficiency, and while both cars make a clear statement one is more subtle in its aesthetic charm and its little plastic bits that look like air intakes or outlets, actually are.
For mine, if I had $100k to dump on an indulgent sports car, I’d take the one without the roof and drop a little of the adrenalin rush.