Pros: Excellent turbocharged engines; impressive mpg with the turbo four; accomplished handling; civilized ride; wonderful optional M sport seats
Cons: Fancy automated-manual transmission hurts fuel economy; driving enthusiasts might prefer something more focused
What's New: The 2013 Z4 can be equipped with a BMW Individual hardtop in one of two contrasting colors: Black or Titan Silver.
When you hear a bad word spoken about the 2013 BMW Z4 retractable-hardtop roadster, it usually has to do with the handling. Some critics complain that the electric power steering system doesn't transmit enough feedback to their sensitive palms; others grouse that they were unable to execute a powerslide.
We humbly submit that they may be missing the point.
The reality is, most Z4 drivers don't take their roadsters to the local autocross club every weekend. They're more likely to go for a spirited drive along a scenic byway or boulevard, reveling in the car's combination of luxury, technology, elegance and hardtop security. In a word, it's the Z4's sophistication that draws people in, not its tough-guy racetrack credentials.
So although the 2013 Z4 is a Porsche Boxster competitor on price, it's more of a compact, bargain-priced Mercedes-Benz SL-Class in spirit. And you know what? We dig that concept, and we bet you will too. Steering feel and tire smoke may sell magazines, but when it comes to building appealing luxury roadsters, BMW appears to have its finger on the pulse.
Comfort & Utility
The 2013 BMW Z4 hardtop convertible is offered as the 4-cylinder sDrive28i, the 6-cylinder sDrive35i and the highest-performance sDrive35is.
The sDrive28i starts with 17-inch alloy wheels, electronically adjustable throttle and steering response, auto stop/start (requires manual transmission), adaptive xenon headlamps, fog lights, heated mirrors, leatherette upholstery, push-button start, cruise control and iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity.
The sDrive35i adds different 17-in alloy wheels, leather upholstery, 8-way power seats with driver memory and dual-zone automatic climate control. The sDrive35i tacks on 18-in wheels, a lowered suspension with M-tuned adaptive dampers, M sport seats with 12-way adjustability (including power side bolsters and manual thigh support) and various M-themed styling cues.
Notable options include iDrive with hard-drive-based navigation, the sDrive35is model's standard M sport seats and M suspension (available on both sDrive28i and sDrive35i), a Cold Weather package with heated seats/steering wheel and a premium audio system.
In our interior evaluation, we deemed the Z4's standard front seats adequate in a straight line, but they don't do much to hug you in place around corners. As such, we consider the available M sport seats almost mandatory. Unless you plan to avoid corners at all costs, you'll want the M seats' exemplary adjustable side bolsters.
The view of the road ahead is complemented by the Z4's classic long nose, which is fully visible from the driver's seat. You're really almost sitting on the rear axle in this car, like an old goggle-wearing racer from the 1930s. It's one way in which the Z4 and Boxster could hardly be more different, as the mid-engined Porsche situates the driver practically in between the axles.
The Z4's gauges have unusual stylized circular hoods, but they're otherwise in the traditional BMW mold, with simple white numerals that turn orange at night. The controls are straightforward too, though we found that the base sDrive28i's manual climate controls took a little getting used to, if only because it's so rare to find a BMW without automatic climate control.
Although the interior materials aren't as nice as the ones you'll find in some other BMW products, they're still identifiably premium. We appreciate that the iDrive infotainment system (see "Technology," below) remains optional, as not everyone wants a roadster with every possible computer aboard.
The Z4's power-folding hardtop really is a work of art, doing its intricate origami folding act in minimal time and with minimal fuss. Trunk space isn't bad at all for a compact hardtop roadster, measuring 10.9 cu ft with the top up and 6.3 cu ft with it folded down.
The base sDrive28i model comes standard with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, but that's about it, so you can have a reasonably elemental Z4 if you want it.
Otherwise, prepare to pony up for the optional hard-drive-based navigation system, which brings with it a beautiful pop-up 8.8-in wide-screen display and the familiar console-mounted iDrive control knob. The latest version of iDrive is markedly improved from the old days, boasting a simplified interface with a number of physical buttons that allow direct access to common pathways. There's also room on the hard drive to store your digital music.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The Z4 sDrive28i is motivated by a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 that's officially rated at 240 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. We say "officially" because we know the turbo four actually puts out considerably more oomph than BMW's letting on. Acceleration is strong well into illegal territory, and we enjoy the four's enthusiastic noises, which evoke the exuberant MINI Cooper S. The default transmission is a satisfying 6-speed manual; an ultra-smooth 8-speed automatic is optional.
The Z4 sDrive35i gets a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 that sends 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque to either the 6-speed conventional manual or a responsive 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual. That's a bunch of power for a diminutive roadster, and the inline-6 is also considerably underrated by BMW, so the 35i really gets up and goes, with a snarky exhaust note to boot.
The sDrive35is goes faster still, boasting a tweaked version of the twin-turbo inline-6 that cranks out 335 hp and 332 lb-ft, increasing to 369 lb-ft for brief stretches at full throttle. The 35is is only offered with the 7-speed automated manual.
All Z4s are rear-wheel-drive. Fuel economy ranges from a remarkable 22-mpg city/34-mpg highway for the sDrive28i (22/33 mpg with the automatic) to just 17/24 mpg for both the sDrive35is and the sDrive35i with the automated manual (19/26 with the regular manual).
The 2013 Z4 comes with standard stability control, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, a rollover protection system and six airbags (front, knee, and side). It has not been subjected to any crash tests on American soil.
The Z4 has BMW's trademark solid feel at speed, and the cabin is downright quiet with the top up. You could take a chatty road trip with a friend and not raise your voice once. The top-down ride is quite civilized too, with wind buffeting kept nicely in check.
On the handling front, it's true that the Z4's somewhat numb electric-assist steering doesn't channel the mechanical spirit of older BMWs, but you can still have a lot of fun in this car when the mood strikes. The grip and body control are certainly there. The Boxster is sharper, yes, but it's not as good at being a top-up touring car. Decisions, decisions.
Other Cars to Consider
Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class: We've mentioned the SL, but that roadster's twice the Z4's price. The direct rival from Benz is the pint-sized SLK-Class, recently restyled and offered in AMG trim with a glorious V8.
Porsche Boxster: As a driver's car, the brand-new Boxster is even more of a revelation than its illustrious predecessor. If it's a pure sporting roadster you're after, the Boxster is an easy choice.
Chevrolet Corvette Convertible: Believe it or not, the Corvette and the Z4 are price peers--different philosophies, to be sure, but you might become a 'Vette convert after some quality time with the standard 6.2-liter V8.
We never thought we'd be saying this, but the 4-cylinder Z4 is actually a really compelling package. We'd save our money--well, as much of it as we could--and get a Z4 sDrive28i with the basic Sport package (which includes the sport seats and adaptive dampers).