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No question about it, BMW’s new Z4 is more fashionable, upscale, and grown-up-feeling than the Z3 that it replaces. But will that mean it will appeal to more people? That remains to be seen, but, no question about it, the Z4 is better in just about every way.
Introduced just a few months ago, the Z4 keeps the Z3’s same basic dimensions. The wheelbase is slightly longer, and it’s also slightly longer and wider.
Looking at the Z4’s engine specs, you’ll find that the same basic engine lineup is featured on the Z4 as with last year’s Z3 models and the current 3-Series. The two engines even produce the same power and torque figures. A 184-hp, 2.5-liter in-line six powers the 2.5i model, while a 225-hp, 3.0-liter in-line six moves the 3.0i. Both engines are all aluminum, with double overhead camshafts, the company’s Double VANOS variable valve timing, an electronic throttle, and an electronically controlled engine cooling system.
The two engines can be paired with several different transmission choices. The 2.5i model has a standard five-speed manual, with a five-speed ‘Steptronic’ automatic as optional. In the 3.0i, a new six-speed manual is standard this year, while a six-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox (first introduced last year on the M3) will be available as an option on either model beginning in April.
End of the similarity
So just what else is new? While the Z4 is basically the same size, and has a similar powertrain lineup as the Z3, that’s about where the similarities end. Everything else about the new roadster is, well, new.
2003 BMW Z4
2003 BMW Z4
All Z4 models have a new electric power steering system, which provides assist via a servo motor to the upper portion of the steering column — rather than near the steering gear — depending on vehicle speed, operating only when needed.
The Z4 carries on with a similarly configured strut-type front suspension in front, but the old trailing-arm setup in back, admittedly one of the original Z3’s weaknesses in high-performance driving, has been replaced with a new central-link type suspension similar to that in the current 3-Series, which with three links per side bears some similarity to several other automakers’ multi-link setups.
An optional ($1500) Sport package comes with the Dynamic Driving Control system, which reduces power steering boost, changes the electronic throttle to a more aggressive calibration, and provides a sport-shifting mode for automatic-transmission vehicles.
The newest version of BMW’s Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) is standard on all Z4s. The system functions much like other stability control systems, but it also includes a new Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) setting, which allows a slight amount of wheel spin at lower speeds in slippery conditions before interceding.
But wait, there are plenty of other safety gizmos. A run-flat tire system is standard on all models; and the adaptive brake lights, which shine more brightly during panic stops to signal drivers behind, are a new safety feature inherited from the 7-Series.
The new Z4 has front knee airbags, a technology also borrowed from the 7-Series, as standard, along with front and side bags. The front bags are of a two-stage, “smart” design that allows deployment according to the impact conditions.
2003 BMW Z4
2003 BMW Z4
It sounds like it’s faster, though. Considerably louder than the 3-Series, which has the same engines, the Z4 brings out the best of the six’s natural sound with its refined but throaty exhaust note. You can hear it with the windows and top up, but it’s never obtrusive.
The electric-assist steering feels more direct and fluid than ever, like night and day compared to electric-assist units on some other new vehicles that will remain unnamed. The Z4’s handling is immensely capable, and it felt stuck to the pavement whether it was wet or dry. We didn’t push the limits too much, but on a rough-surfaced, rainswept country lane, the back end felt very well composed.
The ride is a bit improved, but still choppy, and the performance tires in our car tended to tramline (follow grooves and contour surfaces in the pavement) quite strongly, requiring your hands always firmly on the wheel. But that’s where they’re supposed to be anyway, right?
Carolina on its mind
The Z4 is built at the same Spartanburg, S.C., assembly plant that made the Z3. Assembly quality and overall fit and finish seems much improved in the Z4, and we didn’t notice any of the panel rattles that were characteristic in several Z3 test drives.
Gone also is the driveline noise and tire hum that was just considered to part of the Z3’s compact roadster package. Somehow, the engineers have quelled both, making the Z4 remarkably isolated from the road.
Too, wind noise is now quelled when the top is up, even at 80-plus mph. With the top down, wind buffeting seems to have also improved, though as much as we pined for top-down motoring the cold weather couldn’t afford us to leave it down for long.
2003 BMW Z4
2003 BMW Z4
While BMW is known for bucking trends in favor of a straightforward cockpit design, such as with the new 7-Series, the Z4’s interior shows the company’s newfound desire to be different. In short, the interior design looks very cool and distinctive, but it just isn’t as instantly functional as in the Z3. Instead of the company’s simple, cockpit-style layout and a set of clear, round, white-on-black gauges, the Z4 has recessed, silver-faced, not-quite-round gauges, which are still easy to read but not as straightforward. Lesser gauges are interspersed among and between the speedometer and tach dials.
Another attempt at the upscale, the optional sycamore wood trim package ($500) on our test car, was elegant-looking, but seemed a bit out of place in the Z4 — a little more stodgy than stylish — like it had been lifted out of a near-luxury car. Most roadster buyers will probably find the silver-toned standard material more to their liking.
Seats are still inferior compared with the seats in the rest of the BMW line. The side bolsters are improved, but the seats are too thinly padded and oddly curved for this writer’s tall, lanky frame. It was difficult to find a comfortable, upright driving position: the curvature of the seat warrants hunching forward and invites neck strain. Head room seems to have been improved slightly since the Z3, but it appears to be due to a lowering of the seat position. On the plus side, the steering wheel does both tilt and telescope.
2003 BMW Z4
Stow and entertain
The trunk isn’t huge, but much larger than you might think. The new curvature of the back end helps make for more useable space, and the very generous trunk opening helps make loading easy. We were able to fit a very large suitcase without too much wedging, and a couple of bulging golf bags would likely now fit with no problem.
There’s a cavernous storage bin behind, and several smaller bins for doodads. But the cupholders are barely adequate for the morning coffee: They wouldn’t grasp a standard café to-go cup firmly enough, leaving it to shift (and slosh) around.
A manually operated top with one-hand release and a strut mechanism that helps ease operation is standard, while a full-power top is optional ($750). All models have a heated glass rear window.
In keeping with the more upscale image, an expanded options list now includes both automatic climate control and a new DVD-based navigation system, among many other items. However, the standard audio system included in the Z4 was inferior to the sound systems that come in many cars half the price, and was sorely inadequate with the top down, becoming garbled at the volumes you’d need at highway speeds. If you like music, you’ll have to spring for the $875 premium Carver sound system.
Head-to-head with the Boxster and S2000, the Z4 is now a very different animal than the Z3. The Z3 was originally introduced as a four-cylinder competitor to Mazda’s Miata. Since then, the Z3 moved gradually upscale and eventually discontinued the four-cylinder model. But the Z3’s country club cachet was always a half step below that of the Mercedes-Benz SLK and Porsche Boxster.
There’s definitely more attention to detail in the Z4, and BMW will likely recapture a lot of sales that the Z3 lost due to its more plebeian interior. On the other hand, it may lose some sales to traditional BMW buyers who are put off by the glitzy new gauges and controls.
But will enough people be drawn in by the edgy styling and greater luxury to offset those at odds with the interior? Think so: Just a short drive in the Z4 will win them over.
2003 BMW Z3 2.5i
Base price: $33,100 base, $39,690 as tested
Engine: 2.5-liter V-6, 184 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 161.1 x 70.1 x 50.1 in
Wheelbase: 98.2 in
Curb weight: 2998 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 21/28 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front two-stage airbags, side airbags, active knee-protection system, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, stability control system, run-flat tire/wheel system, adaptive brake lights, Cornering Brake Control, Dynamic Brake Control
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors, air conditioning, tilt/telescope steering wheel, cruise control, CD player, heated glass rear window, manually operated convertible top, keyless entry
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles