For the last few years, BMW has been hosting their Ultimate Drive event to benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. The deal is to come in for a test drive, and for every mile that you drive BMW will donate $1 towards breast cancer. Seemed like a great deal to me. Besides, I got invited this year.
The Ultimate Drive was held at Monster Park (originally Candlestick Park, then 3Com Park)—or at least that is where registration and the start/end point was. One signed in at a makeshift BMW tent—which had a 3- and 5-series sedan on display, along with a couple of couches and plates of fruit and hors d’oeuvres—and waited until one’s name was called. Then, one was handed a 7-mile route sheet going through the streets of South San Francisco, which included 0 highway miles. I had an 11:00 am appointment for a Z4 and a 12:00 pm for a 3-Series sedan, but as it turned out 3-Series sedan was available for me at 11:45 am.
I test drove a Z4 2.5 with a 189-hp 2.5-liter inline-6, for 2 reasons: 1) so I could fairly compare the car with my former Z3 2.3 (which had the same 2.5-liter engine but with 13 less horsepower—never mind BMW’s naming scheme in 2000.), and 2) if I were to get a Z4 in the future, it would be the most-miserly engine of them all, because quite frankly I always felt my Z3’s base engine was far more than adequate.
To my utter dismay, the vehicle (like all of the others) was not equipped with a manual transmission. The car did, however, have BMW’s “manumatic” transmission, which is basically an automatic transmission that you can shift manually by tapping the lever up or down. While much better than a transmission that was strictly automatic, the tranny left me wanting. Gripes include 1) the actual upshifts and downshifts lag the nudge of the lever by a significant fraction of a second, and 2) the transmission would sometimes “take over.” Now, “taking over” is fine in the case of self-preservation, as in the case of potentially over-revving the engine by downshifting when the revs are already near the redline. However, this particular tranny would automatically downshift sometimes when it “felt” that “too much” throttle was applied. In other words, there were scenarios when I felt an automatic downshift was unnecessary, and in any case, certainly caught me by surprise.
Now, the drive. Most recent articles had lauded the Z4’s new suspension, saying that it was a “great improvement” over the Z3’s. (Never mind that these same publications had heaped accolades on the Z3’s just a few years ago). Now, how a “great improvement” manifests itself over an already great suspension is beyond me, and after the test drive, I was still left wondering. Maybe it would be best felt at the limits, either on a race track, or, say, really irregular surfaces where “superior” suspension might make a difference? In any case, try as I might, I could discern no perceptible difference (better or worse) between the Z4’s steering or suspension and the Z3’s. If anything, the Z4’s was a little harsher.
Regarding the engine: the Z4 supposedly was capable of putting out 13 more horsepower out of the same engine as my old Z3, and hence should be faster. Of course, with this “manumatic” transmission, I could not make a fair comparison—my Z3 with a stick felt more direct and responsive, as I’m sure a Z4 would with a proper transmission. However, according to BMW’s own promotional material, the Z4 takes 7.1 seconds to go from 0-60 mph, whereas the Z3 required only 6.9 seconds.
Finally, onto the subject of styling. While the Z4 looks pretty good from some angles, most notably from the rear or rear three-quarters with the top down (it looks atrocious with the top up), it still has not grown on me. For sure, it is not nearly as beautiful as a Z3. Even today, when I see a Z3, I look and think “what a great-looking car,” whereas the Z4’s aesthetics are interesting, but not beautiful. According to BMW, the Z4’s shape is the result of “twisting planes” and is “a dance between light and shadow”. Now if only Chris Bangle’s styling artists could create a shape as well as BMW’s marketers can write.
The same applies to the interior: whereas the Z3’s was classic, evoking the chrome-faced gauge-laden dashes or many older British sports cars, the Z4’s tries hard to look stark and avant-garde. By having “knee-airbags” the need for knee bolsters is eliminated, resulting in a thinner-looking, more minimalistic dash, the interior looks a little plain to me, though I concede it does have some elegance.
I drove this sedan to see if a sedan could ever do it for me. For some reason the 3-series I drove seemed more powerful than the Z4 even though they had exactly the same engine; maybe I got that sensation from being able to hear the engine rev better in the sedan (I drove the Z4 with the top down of course). Otherwise, even with the sunroof fully open and handling that was as good as just about any sports car, the quick and short answer was: no. At least not as a replacement for a sports car—I will always have to have at least one two-seat convertible in my stable.
While it was fun to be able to test-drive BMW’s latest offerings and truly appreciate them inviting me to try them out (and esp. applaud them for contributing to breast cancer research funds), I came away thinking if I ever had to choose between a Z3 and a Z4, I would choose the Z3 in a heartbeat. Z3s are also a lot more affordable since there is a large used market for them now.
That said, I don’t have to choose between a Z3 and a Z4, as a couple of years ago I already replaced my Z3 with another convertible I love—my ’91 Alfa Romeo Spider. While the Spider cannot match either of those in terms of raw handling or speed, the Spider has about twice as much cargo room as either of them and gets as much as 35 miles per gallon, all while providing a very satisfying motoring experience. It doesn’t depreciate, and eludes a certain Italian charm that neither of the Bavarians have (in contrast, the Bimmers scream “yuppie.”) Furthermore, I greatly prefer my Spider’s styling over the Z4. Like the Z3, the Spider’s styling is simply classic and timeless, rich with heritage and low on gimmick.