- Tight hardtop
- Velvety, responsive engines
- Excellent dual-clutch automatic
- Phenomenal poise, with good ride quality
- Storage bins!
- Tight cabin and low windshield header
- Steering ratio feels too quick
- Unimpressive standard sound system
- Bluetooth is optional
The 2009 BMW Z4 isn't a lightweight, basic roadster anymore, but it's a comfortable and exhilarating touring sports car that leaves a lot of flexibility.
BMW's modern Z roadster started its evolution as the Z3 back in 1996 and was reconceived as the Z4 for 2002; now it's been thoroughly redesigned. The new 2009 BMW Z4 has revamped styling, a new retractable hardtop, and a raft of new high-tech performance features.
Overall, the new Z4's appearance is lean yet voluptuous, though a bit more conservative than the version that preceded it. The long and low hoodline, with the seating position near the back wheels, still screams out that it's every bit a roadster. The front grille and headlights are now more in line with the look of BMW's other sedans and coupes, and the sides no longer have the aggressive creases and carved-out appearance from the fenders back into the doors. Instead, the silhouette is more flowing, with long, smooth arcs continuing from the hood to the rear fenders, where a rear arc brings out the wheel wells and flows downward to the almost Porsche-like rear lamps. The lamps, combined with a lifted, aerodynamic crease at the tail, give the Z4 a more aggressive outline from the back. The side view of the Z4 exposes some differences from other BMWs: the bubble of the top's roofline, but also, most notably, the overhangs. BMW says that they're short, but relative to the otherwise tight proportions, they seem the longest for the automaker in years, especially at the back, where the automaker needed to add length for stowing the retractable hardtop.
Inside, the 2009 BMW Z4 has a more sophisticated, upscale style than you're going to find in almost any other small roadster. Gone is the straight-across, elegant shelf of the dash in the previous Z4, replaced now with a curvier, more rakish profile. Center controls are now slightly canted toward the driver, while allowing a little more spaciousness for the passenger, and climate controls are arranged above the sound system. A smoother center console design houses an electric parking brake, along with the iDrive controller. A nav screen, when so equipped, pops up from the top center of the dash. Overall, the look inside is a little more cluttered but much more useful.
Two variants of the 2009 Z4 are offered; the sDrive30i gets a 255-horsepower, 3.0-liter inline-six, while the sDrive35i model steps up to a 300-horsepower, 3.0-liter twin-turbo inline-six. Both models come with a standard six-speed manual gearbox, though the optional automatics are quite different between the two. On the 30i, there's a conventional six-speed automatic, with a manual mode, but on the 35i there's something better: the new seven-speed dual-clutch sport automatic transmission. It's the first time the transmission has been offered on a non-M car. The auto box includes steering-wheel paddle shifters; a tap with your thumbs on the front of the paddles orders a downshift, while the paddle face at the back of the wheel allows an upshift. The paddles can be used in Drive, reverting to automatic mode after a short time, or you can lock in manual mode by shifting to a separate gate to the left.
The standard engine in the 2009 BMW Z4 sings BMW's familiar straight-six song and builds steam steadily through the rev range, even well past 6,000 rpm. The turbo engine develops more of a guttural intake growl but brings an extra hammer-like punch in the low-to-mid revs that makes high-speed passes effortless, even if you don't bother to downshift. Most will find the normally aspirated engine plenty strong, even on steep, sinewy mountain roads, and we prefer the lesser engine with the six-speed manual for its predictability and a personality that better fits the classic-roadster feel. For sheer exhilaration, the pick is the turbo engine with the sport automatic, which shifts so quickly and smoothly, without any jolts, that the turbo stays spooled up and most drivers will be considerably faster. BMW says it shifts gears "without the slightest interruption of power," and that's how it feels. All out, the 35i can get to 60 mph in just 5.1 seconds, or just 5.0 with the automatic, and the 30i can reach 60 in 5.6 seconds; top speed is 150 mph with the Sport Package, 130 without.
Fuel economy is quite impressive in the 2009 BMW Z4, ranging from a high of 19 mpg city, 29 highway for the 30i manual to 17/24 mpg with the 35i and dual-clutch. TheCarConnection.com averages 23 mpg in about 200 miles of aggressive driving with a 30 and about 19 mpg in about 50 miles of driving in a 35 with the automatic, including several full-throttle runs.
Also new—and standard on all Z4s—is BMW's Driving Dynamics Control. The system brings just three powertrain and suspension settings: Normal, Sport, and Sport+. The system controls the way the throttle responds, the steering boost, how the transmission shifts for automatic models, and how the stability control system intervenes. If equipped with the optional Adaptive M Suspension with Electronic Damping Control (part of the Sport Package), it also controls the suspension damping.
Both of the Z4s that TheCarConnection.com sampled in an extensive drive in the steep hills and canyons near and north of Malibu had the adaptive suspension; it's capable of readjusting the rear dampers by the time the rear wheels reach a rough surface reported from the front wheels, BMW says, and it gives the car a remarkably flexible character, soaking up patchy bumps and even coarse, jiggly surfaces but tightening up for the esses and quick maneuvers. All said, the Z4 maintains a prodigious level of grip without jostling you.
The one thing missing from the 2009 BMW Z4 driving experience is communication back through the steering wheel; as we passed from smooth to coarse surfaces, we couldn't feel any difference through the steering wheel. The ratio for the steering is also very quick—too much so at times. Brakes feel just right and hit a happy middle ground in feel: responsive but not touchy, firm but not unyielding.
The retractable hardtop in the 2009 BMW Z4 is made of lightweight aluminum and folds with surprising finesse—smoothly and quietly, in about 20 seconds. It doesn't make the unsettling graunching sounds we've come to expect in some models. The only hitch this tester found was that the rather flimsy divider separating the area where the top stows from the rest of the trunk wouldn't always click easily into exact position required to operate the top. The trunk is actually plenty big for a couple of carry-on suitcases plus a camera bag, or several duffel bags.
The Z4's top arrangement includes power front side windows along with smaller power rear windows that can be adjusted separately. In top-down motoring, we find the best wind buffeting with the main front side windows up and the small back ones down. Though not completely serene and turbulence-free, it's better than most. Take the 20 seconds or so at a stoplight to put the top up and you're in for a surprise. With the top up, you can carry on a quiet conversation at 80 mph—which wasn't possible in the previous Z4. Another big advantage of the new top design is that it allows larger side windows. Compared to the previous Z4, the side windows are 40 percent larger and the back window is 52 percent larger. What this means is that you don't get the visibility issues that make it a pain to drive in the city with the soft top up.
The cabin in the 2009 BMW Z4 isn't all that spacious; it's just adequate for most adults. The seats now have extending thigh bolsters, but taller occupants will find their knees splayed upward. The windshield header is rather low, which will leave some taller drivers hunching.
One pleasant surprise in the 2009 Z4, versus other roadsters, is that there are plenty of places to stow small items. A small cargo shelf just behind the seats, with a low cargo net that keeps most goods from falling forward, can fit a few petite items like purses or CD cases. There's also a tray in the center console, a small closing compartment at the lower left of the dash, and clamshell door pockets. Models without a pop-up nav screen get an extra storage bin top and center. The Cold Weather Package includes fastening nets at the rear of the seats, compressions straps in the trunk, and a bulkhead storage box. There's also an optional ski pass-through to accommodate items up to 67 inches long. The only nitpicky issue we found was that if the passenger has a drink as well, you need to lift the center armrest; in that position, there are some sharp plastic edges for elbows to hit while shifting.
Just as in the previous Z4, the materials are a step up from most roadsters. Trims are done in Satin Silver matte, Brushed Aluminum, and Ash Grain Wood—the last two especially lending a classy look, and seats are finished in a supple Kansas leather. An Ivory White Leather Package adds sport seats and Anthracite wood trim; there's also an Extended Leather option on the 35i that brings hides to the upper instrument panel, doorsills, and sun visors.
Prices have gone way up from the '08 Z4 to the new '09 model. The new sDrive30i base model is priced about $12,000 higher than last year's model and about $3,000 higher than the outgoing Z4 M Roadster. The standard-equipment list has admittedly been expanded, the retractable hardtop is standard, and features like Dynamic Drive are included. But shoppers should keep close watch of options; they can push up the price rapidly. For instance, just adding the Sport Package and Cold Weather Package to the 30i moves the Z4 just short of the $50,000 mark, and a fully loaded 35i bottom-lines at more than $69,000. The standard features list includes dynamic cruise control and xenon headlamps with cornering lamps, but items like satellite radio and a USB plug are optional. Bluetooth is also optional as part of the BMW Assist service; to make smart phones compatible, that's another option.
The available premium sound system gets 14 speakers and 650 watts, and the base system has 10 speakers and subwoofers, though we weren't very impressed with its top-down sound. Aux-in ports are provided; a disc changer and iPod interface are also available. Bluetooth is part of the $750 BMW Assist option, and there's an additional smart-phone integration option. The nav system includes iDrive, along with an 80-gigabyte hard drive—15 gigs of which are partitioned for personal music storage. The available dual-zone climate control goes into a separate mode with the roof open.
Crash-test results aren't yet available for the new 2009 Z4, but the former BMW Z4 didn't fare very well. BMW has reengineered the Z4's structure, so it should greatly improve on the disappointing three-star results of the former version in federal tests. Standard safety equipment on the Z4 includes seat-integrated head and thorax side bags, along with strengthened windshield pillars and tall roll hoops just behind the occupants. In addition, BMW's Dynamic Stability Control simulates a limited-slip differential to aid in cornering; the system also incorporates Brake Drying and Brake Standby.