New & Used BMW Z4: In Depth
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Today's BMW Z4 is a rear-drive, two-seat convertible with a retractable hardtop. Comfortable and sporty, the Z4 competes with the Porsche Boxster, Jaguar F-Type, Chevrolet Corvette, and Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class.
See our 2014 BMW Z4 review for pricing with options, gas mileage ratings, and specifications
Tracing its roots back to the lighter, simpler Z3, the Z4 is now in its second generation. This time around, BMW's small convertible dropped the Miata-fighting tack and grew into a more luxurious, more powerful car. The previous version of the Z4, and also the Z3 that came before it, used a retractable cloth roof instead of the power-operated hardtop offered today. All have been roadsters from the start, while the Z3 and first-generation Z4 were available as fixed-roof coupes as well.
The original BMW Z4, introduced for 2003, wasn't that much larger than the Z3 it replaced, but it was much more refined and luxurious. It made a tremendous leap design-wise, graduating from British roadster disciple to something much more complex, inside and out. Originally the Z4 was sold in 2.5i and 3.0i variants, with 184 horsepower and 225 hp respectively, but a mid-cycle update in 2006 brought more powerful engines. Models from 2003 through 2005 could have an optional SMG gearbox, which was never well received and didn't function as well in the Z4 as it did in several of BMW's other cars of that era. The rest of the 2003–2008 models were offered with excellent manual or Steptronic automatic transmissions. The 2006–2008 models were available in a curvy, nicely proportioned hatchback coupe body style that added a little cargo capacity, but coupes weren't that much quieter inside than convertibles were with the top up. From that period, there's also the Z4 M, a model powered by a version of the 3.2-liter six that was also used in the contemporary M3, with output down slightly to 330 hp.
The current car, the second BMW roadster to be called Z4, is markedly different from that first generation. Only a convertible is offered, and it is a folding hardtop instead of the cloth roofs of before—better to compete with Mercedes-Benz's SLK. There are also a lot of visual and technological influences from the limited-run Z8 roadster. The current Z4 is a more upscale affair, with a greater focus on comfort than on driving dynamics or all-out power. The price went up with all of those changes, as well.
The latest Z4 does a better job as a grand tourer than any of its predecessors. As a result, it puts less emphasis on sports-car chops and instead focuses on a rich cabin, sweet engines, and its well-engineered retractable top. It's still put together in sporty driving but manages to be comfortable for long hauls in a way that many other small convertibles aren't.
BMW began offering an almost-M version of the third-generation car from launch in 2011. The sDrive35is features the same turbocharged inline-six engine as the normal sDrive35i, but it has had the boost cranked up to the tune of 35 extra horsepower, for a total of 335. The "is" car also gets a specially tuned exhaust and scads of M parts, including an adaptive suspension, unique wheels, a body kit, a sport steering wheel, and sport seats.
In 2012, BMW introduced a new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine in the sDrive28i model, replacing the previous sDrive30i. Despite the smaller displacement, the new engine generates nearly as much power while returning much better fuel economy. For the 2013 model, BMW sweetened the Z4's feature set by adding power front seats (with driver-side memory), dual-zone automatic air conditioning, a universal garage-door opener, and ambient lighting to the standard feature set—all while lowering the price somewhat.
For the 2014 model year, BMW added a more feature-packed ConnectedDrive infotainment system with advanced safety and connectivity features; new exterior and interior appearance elements; a new wheel design; and a new chrome "swoosh" to the front fender.
Light on substantive updates, the Z4 moves into 2015 with a new design package called Pure Fusion Design. The package includes a Sparkling Brown Metallic exterior paint, which is offered exclusively with an Ivory White and Burnt Sienna leather interior.
With the second-generation Z4, BMW moved production from Spartanburg, South Carolina, to Regensburg, Germany. A smaller Z2 roadster has been rumored to join the BMW lineup for some time, to occupy that more affordable portion of the market that the Z3 and Z4 once tapped. A new Z4 M remains a possibility, but it hasn't yet been confirmed and so is not likely for this generation. BMW's latest GTLM race car is based on the Z4.
Looking to the future, a new BMW Z4 may be on the way around 2017, possibly sharing a platform as a joint development with Toyota's next Supra.