LISBON, Portugal — When BMW introduced the Z3 in 1996, it was a big departure for the German company. At the time, the automaker was known primarily for making sober and stately sedans, but the Z3 was instead a low-slung roadster with an elongated hood, an abbreviated trunk, a rear-set cockpit and a soft top. In other words, it was the antithesis of anything else found in a BMW showroom. Performance, however, wasn’t high on its list of qualities — it was softly sprung and powered by a 138-horsepower inline-four.
The Z4 followed in 2002. It was larger, stiffer and more powerful, and it went through one generational upgrade that saw it lose its soft top for a folding aluminum roof that gave it a flowing silhouette, but also added weight. Z4 production ended with the 2016 model year.
Well, the Z4 is back for 2019. It’s entirely new, and it gets a serious boost in performance — more than any previous generation. The performance boost begins under the hood, where like on the previous generation, you’ll find two available engines. The Z4 sDrive 30i gets a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that claims a not-too-shabby 255 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque — an increase of 13 horsepower and 37 lb.-ft. The Z4 M40i, tested here, gets a 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six that pumps out 382 horsepower and 369 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s an increase of 47 horsepower compared to the outgoing Z4 35is, while torque is up 34 lb.-ft. It’s the most powerful engine to ever propel a Z4 model.
However, there’s sad news for save-the-manual proponents: The only transmission available is an eight-speed automatic. It is, however, a very slick-shifting unit, especially when you resort to shifting manually via the steering-wheel paddles. In auto mode, it shifts quickly enough to allow the M40i to zip from zero to 100 km/h in just 4.6 seconds. The 30i, on the other hand, accomplishes the feat in 5.4 seconds. Oh, and in true roadster form, the Z4 is rear-wheel-drive — and the M40i benefits from an electronically controlled limited-slip differential.
The cockpit is tidy, rich in finish and feel, and well-appointed. A revised iDrive infotainment system now displays a series of buttons in a sidebar to the left of the central 10.25-inch touchscreen, freeing the rest of the screen to display navigation and entertainment information, and car settings. The screen is configurable and you can swipe between different windows like on a tablet. A 10.25-inch TFT screen now resides ahead of the steering wheel, displaying engine and road speed and other drive-related info. The M40i also has an easy-to-read heads-up display.
The undercarriage has been reconfigured with very sporty handling in mind; wheel tracks have been widened by 98 and 57 millimetres front and rear, respectively, while wheelbase has been shortened by 26 millimetres to 2,470. Despite the shorter wheelbase, the Z4 is 85 millimetres longer than the previous generation. That contributes to a 50 per cent increase in trunk capacity, now at 281 litres, regardless of whether the lighter soft top is up or down. (The new top, by the way, opens or closes in 10 seconds at speeds up to 50 km/h). These revised dimensions give the new Z4 a broader, shorter footprint that, combined with a stiffer chassis and 50/50 weight distribution, make it a real corner carver.
And carve corners it does, as I discover after a navigation snafu had me wandering aimlessly along the twisty roads threading through Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, just west of Lisbon. Stopped at the side of the road on top of a mountain, my passenger — BMW Canada’s Rob Dexter — and I were inputting an address into the GPS navigation system when another Z4 blew past us in the opposite direction.
“They’re probably heading back to the hotel,” Dexter says. “We should try to catch up.”
“They went by pretty fast,” I reply. “I don’t think I’ll be able to catch them.”
“I’m sure you can,” he returns.
A quick U-turn points us downhill, and a push of the Sport button on the centre console firms up and lowers the adaptive sport suspension by 10 millimetres, quickens throttle response, tweaks the M Sport differential to enhance cornering, and adds a bit of exhaust sound. I choose to shift manually as I chase down the other Z4, and the transmission follows paddle commands almost instantaneously.
While keeping an elevated yet guarded pace — Dexter’s view out the side window is of a steep drop — the M40i steers around corners with effortless precision, returning communicative, confidence-inspiring feedback at the wheel. The M40i pulls out of corners with seat-compressing power, its engine pulling with a lush rush of power while returning a rich, unmistakable inline-six hum. Suspension is firm and keeps the car level through turns, while the differential does its thing and enhances my steering inputs, especially in sharper corners where the M40i turns with scalpel-like precision without a hint of understeer. The brakes impress, too, as this downhill chase is particularly hard on the binders, which slow the car hard and repeatedly with no discernible fade.
We catch up to our colleagues at the bottom of the mountain, and drive casually back to the hotel in comfort mode, softening the suspension and providing a sporty yet compliant ride with no harshness. We also put the top up, which quiets the interior to a near coupe-like level.
The Z4 has all of the conceivable safety assists BMW has to offer, either as standard or part of an optional package. These include collision and pedestrian warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go function, rear collision prevention and rear cross-traffic alert, among others. I inadvertently triggered one of the standard safety systems during the test drive and proving its worth, after being caught off-guard looking in the rear-view mirror as traffic ahead came to a quick stop. I reacted quickly enough to make the stop in time, but the automatic braking caught my error before I did and applied the brakes a fraction of a second before I got my foot on the pedal. If you scoff at these systems, no matter how simple or elaborate they are, they may one day change your mind.
BMW has dialed up the performance on the new Z4, especially on the M40i, turning it from a somewhat leisurely roadster into a true high-performance sports car with a removable top. Pricing will be announced later this month; the previous Z4 sDrive 35is, which is the closest in performance to the M40i, started at just below $78,000.
Note from WSOE.Org : This content has been auto-generated from a syndicated feed.