Sometimes my timing just doesn’t work out too well. A shiny new BMW Z4 roadster was scheduled for my evaluation in the middle of June. I figured that would be the perfect time for a convertible, with long days of mild weather before it turned uncomfortably hot.
What I hadn’t counted on was a gloomier than normal June, with even long-time Angelinos trying to remember the last time a June had been so gloomy. Most of the days I had the car, the sun never even appeared in the sky, even in the southern San Fernando Valley. Not exactly the “fun in the sun” experience I had hoped for.
But for this particular car, that was actually okay. The 2009 Z4 is the latest in a growing list of convertibles that have a folding hardtop, for a near coupe-like experience when the top is up. With the dreary weather during my time with the car (it even rained a little), driving the Z4 with the top up was a cozy experience.
This is a significant car in many ways, tracing its roots to the BMW Z3 that marked the company’s first two-seater sold in the U.S. in decades. There had been a low-volume roadster available in the 1950’s called the 507 (Elvis Presley had one), and in Europe there was a funky sports car with drop-down doors called the Z1 but for the most part the Z3 was most people’s first taste of a BMW in such a form.
The Z3 was also significant in that it marked BMW’s first model produced in the United States, in a factory in South Carolina. When the first Z3 rolled off the assembly line in 1995, it would blaze a path for BMW to also produce its X5 SUV there, and for fellow German maker Mercedes-Benz to also open a factory in the U.S.
As the Z3 grew a little long in the tooth, it was replaced by an all-new Z4 in 2002, which offered a much more graceful profile. The new 2009 Z4 is restyled but not radically. It still looks a lot like the car it replaces, though sharp-eyed car watchers will immediately notice the new styling touches.
But the big news is the folding hardtop. The BMW joins the Mercedes SLK and Mazda Miata as two-seaters with metal roofs that fold electrically into the trunk area. (Mazda chose to make the hardtop an option so that sports car purists can still have a traditional soft top if they like.) Some years ago, it wasn’t deemed feasible to put a retractable hardtop in such a small car but engineering advances now make it possible.
In the Z4, like the Miata, the roof sort of “breaks apart” before beginning its descent into the cargo area. The driver pushes a button on the console, and the mechanical ballet begins. The deck lid hinges open from the rear, the roof’s back window separates from the top panel and then everything folds neatly into the upper portions of the trunk. Surprisingly, there’s still a decent amount of space for luggage when the top is down.
Since it’s a BMW, the Z4 also performs like a true driver’s car. My test example was the sDrive 3.5, the latter part of the nomenclature indicating the more powerful engine over the base model 3.0. (And to confuse things, as BMW has been known to do, the “3.5” has a 3.0 liter engine with twin turbochargers. The “3.0” model has a 3.0 liter engine as well, but sans turbos and with 45 fewer horsepower.)
I also got to experience BMW’s 7-speed automatic transmission, which is a semi-automatic dual-clutch design. It’s as easy to use as any automatic (after one gets used to the odd gear selector) but shifts gears underway like a manual that’s in the hands of a very skilled driver. For those who’d like to do it themselves, a 6-speed manual is standard.
This is truly a fun car to drive. The suspension is just stiff enough for spirited cornering but it doesn’t beat you up when the pavement gets choppy. The engine scoots the little car forward smartly, and while the steering isn’t quite up to former BMW standards, it offers enough feel to let you know you’re driving and not just traveling.
And for a sports car, it’s surprisingly comfortable too. Enough leg room for taller drivers, and with the hardtop up there’s a fair amount of head room too. The seats are particularly comfortable, and the example I drove had the optional leather package. Like all sports cars, climbing in and out is best left to those who are fairly limber, as the car sits low.
Base price for a Z4 3.0i is $45,750. My test car wasn’t even fully loaded, but came in at exactly $58,000. It will probably be cross-shopped with cars like the Mercedes-Benz SLK and Porsche Boxster.
And as the clock ticked down on my time in the Z4, something wonderful happened. The sun came out. Time to put the top down and go for an open-air spin… before the gloom comes back.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast, and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net.