The BMW Z4 hit the Melbourne Motor Show in March 2003, and in August of that year it was launched to a flurry of excitement and more than a few question marks over its ability to stand up against its intended competition, the Porsche Boxster.
Based on the Z-axle from the 3-Series of the time, the first-generation Z4 delivers a low centre of gravity with 50:50 axle load distribution and sports the long bonnet and short boot format with plenty of moulded indents and superficial curves in keeping with the contemporary BMW styling of the time. As a convertible, some may have expected a modern-style metal folding roof option, but BMW stuck with the traditional cloth, fitting it with built-in power operation as standard and featuring a heated glass rear window to up the looks and spec. This was changed in 2010 with the E89 Z4, which ousted the cloth top in favour of the folding panel metal hard top, and with it also ousted the familiar Boxster styling in favour of a more traditional cruiser style.
The year 2006 saw the addition of a coupe version to join the Roadster, reminiscent of the Z3 M coupe of some years before, with the same long bonnet, short back, and a small hatchback feature to carry minimal luggage.
The Z4 came to market with a choice of two inline 6-cylinder engines – a 3.0-litre rear-wheel drive with 6-speed manual transmission or 5-speed automatic that delivers 170kW of power, and a 2.5-litre with 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic that puts out 141kW.
April 2006 heralded the arrival of upgraded 2.5si and 3.0si models with magnesium-alloy Valvetronic double-vanos 6-cylinder engines giving 160kW and 250Nm and 195kW and 315Nm respectively, accompanied by either a 6-speed automatic paddle-shift gearbox with sequential control or 6-speed manual transmission. A Z4 M Roadster also arrived, with a 3.2-litre in-line 6-cylinder engine giving 252kW of power and 365Nm of torque and achieving 0 to 100km/h in a feather-light-footed five seconds flat. High performance brakes, a new hydraulic steering ratio, and revamped suspension tuning completed the upgraded Z4 M model.
Models from 2010 onwards boast a folding hard roof, which provides significantly more visibility via the larger rear window and a longer glass area to the side. Engine specs are different too, and include a 2.5-litre sDrive 23i that gives 150kW and 250Nm, a 3.0-litre sDrive 30i giving 190kW and 310Nm, and a top-of-the-range sDrive35i featuring a 3.0-litre twin-turbo direct petrol injection inline 6 engine giving 225kW of power and a whopping 400Nm of torque. An sDrive35is model followed later the same year offering yet more power in the form of an additional 25kW and 50Nm of torque. These models are accompanied by a 7-speed automatic transmission with a launch control function that delivers 0 to 100km/h in even less than the impressive five seconds of their predecessors.
The first-generation Z4 comes with plenty of standard and optional kit, with power-operated cloth roof, climate control air-conditioning, CD audio, run-flat tires, dynamic stability control system, rollover safety system, and interior leather trim as standard. Equipment includes a 16:9 display sat nav system, car phone, and upgraded audio system.
Post 2010 models offer automatic windscreen wipers and headlights, parking sensors to the front and rear, dynamic drive control system, bi-xenon headlights with wipers, heated bucket sports seats with leather trim, air conditioning with climate control, power windows and mirrors, trip computer, quality audio system with USB and disc facility, and alloy wheels.
As with all BMW models, the Z4 scores high on safety. Post-2010 models come complete with twin front and side airbags, fixed rollover hoops, electronic stability control system, traction control with ABS (anti-lock brakes), cornering brake control, cruise control, and run-flat safety tires.
BMW was open about their intention for the Z4 to compete directly with the Porsche Boxster, and in many ways it does so quite successfully, with a lower price tag in the bargain. There is something about the badge appeal of the Boxster, but if you are looking for value for money combined with performance, the Z4 is certainly a very viable option. Strong competition also comes from the Honda S2000 – without the badge appeal, perhaps, but packing a serious poke with performance.
Since adopting the folding hard roof, the Z4 has turned its sights on other competitors, too, such as towards the Mercedes-Benz SLK.