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SPARTANBURG, South Carolina — BMW whiners and Bangle bashers beware. To drive the Z4 roadster is to wish you were on a ribbon of California's Pacific Coast Highway with the impressive convertible top down rather than alongside the cotton fields of Dixie on a cool day with rain threatening.

The hoots and yowls over BMW's 7-Series styling are old news. But churlish criticisms aimed at the Z4 since photos were released last August have been drowning out 7-Series catcalls. With the 7, it was the over-complicated iDrive system and the dining-room table trunk lid that have drawn the brickbats. With the Z4, it's the sharp crease lines on the body sides, a few too many cut lines and the integrated duckbill spoiler.

Whether Z4 is aesthetically correct and whether BMW designer Chris Bangle's new design language works for BMW fans is highly subjective — and beside the point. The issue for BMW is whether these cars are correct for the BMW brand. And the Z4 rocks.

Rocking and rolling

2003 BMW Z4

2003 BMW Z4

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The first thing to notice when sitting in the Z4 is the lower seating position relative to the Z3. Driving the Z4 was more akin to sitting in a Mazda Miata. The higher waistline on the Z4 is more pleasing, even if the egress is a little tougher when the engine stops and its time to get out and buy some dried fatback at the roadside stand, as we did. What hit me in the face after that, and not in an especially good way, was the slabby dashboard dominated by a brushed aluminum surface.

At first, I missed the cockpit feeling of past BMWs. The clock, tach and temperature gauges were in the center console of the Z3, and gave that car a classic, near-British feeling. This dash, with its ultra-simple, almost stark look is a study in modern design. I'd still opt for wood over the aluminum, but we're told the Europeans prefer the aluminum. Let 'em have it. They don't even have their own currencies any more.

"The gauges are now in front of the driver, and recessed in cans," notes Z4 exterior designer Anders Warming, who said the design was not meant to de-emphasize the driver as pilot. "But we tried to bring the passenger more into the design," said Warming, steadfastly defending the design as "risky, yes, but we can't afford to play it safe."

That's a huge change of thinking for BMW that purists are having tough time with. The company's mantra, "The Ultimate Driving Machine," could just as easily be "The Ultimate Driver's Machine." It's risky to tinker with that. But in truth, they don't think they are. And to be fair, no one so far has criticized how the 7-Series or Z4 drives. It's the suits they are wearing that are the target.

Technical questions

In the Z4, BMW has the Boxster beater it was looking for when people realized the Z3 was a Miata challenger. Cheaper than the Boxster, I'd argue that the Z4 is more of a BMW than the Boxster is a true Porsche.

2003 BMW Z4

2003 BMW Z4

Enlarge Photo
There are two engines, two transmissions (the SMG paddle-shifted gearbox is on the way) and a good chance of breaking 140 mph in all of them, if you’re inclined. Zero to 60 in the 184-hp, 2.5-liter in-line six comes in 7.1 seconds, while the 225-hp 3.0-liter gets you there in 5.9 seconds. That's in manual transmission. Add a second for the automatic transmissions for both. The base price of the 3.0-liter is $40,945, while the 2.5-liter starts at $33,795. Save appropriately.

The Z4 is more than 100 percent more rigid than the Z3. Thicker door framing and cross pieces under the car and in the engine compartment do the trick effectively if a little inelegantly. Proportions are greater, with room for driver and passenger longer and wider.

The Z4 is far and away a better driver than the Z3, and it is, despite the early styling criticisms, a Bavarian through and through. The super taught ride, the snappy acceleration and attention to build detail makes either version a worthy weekend car and a decent value.

In addition to stability control, Z4 buyers can choose an optional Dynamic Drive Control. Push the Sport button on the dash and DDC gives you better acceleration, quicker steering and more aggressive automatic shifting. As we played with DDC and went back and forth with it off all together, it performed well, especially on the few zig zag roads we found on our route.

Run-flat tires come standard on the Z4 to get rid of the spare and free up space in the trunk for the often talked about "two golf bags." The Z3 trunk barely had room for a bowling ball bag. The run-flats gave us a few jolts as we ran over road kill on a few South Carolina back roads, but the trade for the trunk space is fair.

The Roadster is more pleasant for the big-butt brigade, though I found the seat a little crampy when we stopped for lunch. I'd vote for lumbar support as a mid-cycle improvement, too.

The convertible tops were superb. The electric roof was a breeze, lowering and raising in ten seconds. And the manual was easy as the Mazda Miata manual roof.

The 10-speaker audio system in the 3.0 I drove had Carver brand "long-stroke technology,” which helps the Hank Williams tunes cut through the wind noise when the top is down. It's a good gimmick. And when compared with sound coming from the standard stereo, it seemed like a worthwhile upgrade for audiophiles.

Electric slide

2003 BMW Z4

2003 BMW Z4

Enlarge Photo
All the harsh words directed at BMW and Bangle over the new design direction, especially among BMW faithful, remind me of the protests over Dylan going electric. Not everyone is going to like it, but BMW has to define itself in a new era after so many years of its competition benchmarking its design and engine growl. Speaking of which, the Z4 has a clever adjustment that actually lets more engine noise into the cockpit if that's your thing.

BMW's Carl Flescher, formerly the company's U.S. marketing chief and now part of the manufacturing staff in South Carolina says, "BMW is zigging while the rest of the industry zags." I know what he means. After years of Lexus benchmarking Mercedes, does anyone notice how Japanese-looking the new E-Class looks? And no, BMW is not adopting a design language that's different simply because no one else wants it, as Cadillac has done with its Flintstone styling from Bedrock. It's a styling that is different from what BMW has done before, and one that the management board is comfortable with. Let's not forget that both the 7-Series’ and Z4’s styling were baked before Wolfgang Reitzle left for Ford. So, criticisms that BMW has gone to pot since Reitzle left are not valid.

I don't buy gripes like a letter published in the current Automobile: "Slap four wheels on an orange crate, and as long as it wields the blue and white logo, it'll sell to the status-driven crowd. They bought the X5, they're buying the new, homely 7-Series and they're even buying the bland 120,000 Z8," wrote Jack Stanley in a letter to the magazine. The X5? Geez. Though pricey at the upper end, the X5 is the cream of the car-based SUVs and light years better performing than the M-Class or Lexus.

But there is something in that letter that is worth noting. BMW does have the brand. The Infiniti G35 and Acura CL and Mercedes C-Class can benchmark the 3-Series all they want. But when you get right down to it, the blue and white propeller staring back at you from the steering wheel gives the driver and owner a bigger sense of belonging to a driving tradition.

Not everyone has to go along with the direction BMW is going. But the Z4 is an indication that those who do will be rewarded with some pretty hot driving days.

2003 BMW Z4
Base price: $33,795 (Z4 2.5); $40,950 (3.0)
Engines: 2.5-liter in-line six, 184 hp/175 lb-ft; 3.0-liter in-line six, 225 hp/214 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic or six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 161.1 x 70.1 x 50.1
Wheelbase: 98.2 in
Curb weight: 2932-3042 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 21/29 mpg (3.0 manual)
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front and side airbags, four-wheel anti-lock braking, four-wheel traction control, Dynamic Stability Control, Dynamic Traction Control
Major standard equipment:Electric power steering; power windows/locks/mirrors; tilt/telescopic steering wheel; ten-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

 

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