Some cognoscenti sniff at BMW's Z3 roadster because of its somewhat soft lines and an appearance that is closer to cute and cuddly than to mean and muscular.
Still, next to Mazda's Miata, also sniffed at by some as too gentle-looking, the road- ster seen most often around Southern California is the Z3. Someone must like it.
Now, though, the Z3 is gone, replaced by BMW's Z4. And nobody will be able to stick this nifty two-seater into a gender cubbyhole.
The Z4 is a great car to drive. It's even fun to be a passenger in it, although roadsters are about driving, not riding. It takes everything that made the Z3 good and makes it better. When the Z3 arrived in 1996, it provided a step up from the Miata. Then came Porsche with the Boxster and Honda with the S2000, and the Z3 no longer sat at the top of the heap.
The Z4, born in BMW's Designworks USA studio near Thousand Oaks, helps fix that.
Various enthusiast books have called it as close to the Porsche Boxster in handling and scoot as it could get without being a Boxster. The base Z4 with a 2.5-liter, 184-horsepower engine starts at almost $10,000 less than a Boxster, albeit with a manually operated ragtop versus the Porsche's standard power top. (An electric-powered convertible adds $750 to the Bimmer, but the top is so easy to operate, it's almost silly to spend the extra money.)
Price-wise, the Z4's $33,795 base model is just $735 more than the Honda S2000, and I'd bet there aren't many who will cross-shop the two.
The four-cylinder, 240-horse Honda is designed by and for those who love the high-revving, edge-of-seat performance of a racing motorcycle in sports-car drag. The Z4 is a solid Teutonic road machine, not quite capable of matching the gutsier Honda's performance numbers but a lot more fun to drive at lower speeds -- which, after all, is where most people who use their cars as daily drivers spend most of their time on the road.
For those not satisfied with the 2.5i (for fuel-injected) Z4's numbers, an extra $7,200 will put you into the 3.0-liter, 225-horsepower version, which also has bigger tires and wheels and a standard six-speed manual transmission instead of the 2.5i's five-speed.
A clutch-less six-speed sequential will be available as an option in both models in April, and right now there's a five-speed automatic available with the driver-selectable shifting option that BMW calls Steptronic.
Back to the 3.0i for a moment -- it will beat the Honda S2000 in a sprint to 60 mph, but $7,000 is a lot of scratch for boasting rights to that accomplishment.
The Z4's fuel economy is estimated at 20 miles per gallon city and 28 highway for the manual transmission 2.5i and 21/28 for the 2.5 with an automatic transmission. The 3.0i is rated at 21/29 with manual (a benefit of the sixth speed) and 20/28 for the automatic model.
I drove the 2.5i and 3.0i in both manual and automatic, and although I have a definite bias toward manuals in sports cars, I found the 3.0 with automatic to be quite acceptable. The 2.5-liter with automatic -- well, let's just say the ho-hum factor was pretty noticeable at higher speeds.
The 2.5-liter with five-speed manual was as quick as the 3.0 with automatic up through second gear, but the car got a bit sluggish in fourth at 70-80 mph on the freeway and needed to be downshifted if a surge of acceleration was needed.
Handling was, well, BMW-like in both models. The Z4 rides on a modified version of the current-generation 3-Series suspension, whereas the Z3 used an older 3-Series setup that already was out of date when the roadster was born.
Though the 2.5i with standard suspension felt a bit light at speed and could have used wider tires upfront to help anchor it, there was nothing twitchy or nervous-making about it. The base model rides on 16-inch rubber, the 3.0i on 17-inch tires. BMW's Dynamic Stability Control, which includes traction and brake-force controls and anti-lock braking, is standard on both models.
The Z4 has nearly perfect 50-50 front-to-rear weight balance, and although there are no real mountains to scoot around in South Carolina, where BMW staged the press introduction, the car hugged the curves with all the stickiness anyone could ask for.
Acceleration is great in the 2.5i and terrific in the 3.0i, particularly in models with manual transmissions. While I didn't get to top speed in either version, I've no doubt the 2.5i will hit BMW's claim of 146 mph while the 3.0i should have no trouble topping out at its electronically limited max of 155 mph.
The optional sports suspension ($1,500) is a must for those who want to push things as far as they will go. It offers stiffer shocks and springs, a slightly lower ride height and Dynamic Driving Control, which reduces power assist to the electric power steering, punches up acceleration response and provides sportier shifting in models with automatic transmissions.