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Another BMW Design That Rocks the Boat
By DAN NEIL

AUTOMOBILE owner's manuals are probably among the least-read books in existence, right after any novel by Sir Walter Scott. And anyone who buys the 2003 BMW Z4 roadster, successor to the popular Z3, can certainly get away without poring through the leather-bound volume in the glovebox. When it comes to ease of operation and intuitive design, the Z4 is as close to plug-and-play as cars come. Its simplicity is especially welcome after the sphinxlike BMW 7 Series, whose cryptic computer controls keep owners up at night trying to figure out how to tune the radio.

The Z4's manual provides real information: the trunk - large enough with the top down to hold two weekend-size pieces of soft luggage - can be enlarged when the top is up by turning two knobs flanking the compartment's upper panel. The panel rises into the shallow space where the top would be stored, providing another four inches or so of vertical space. Houseplants go there.

BMW designers get high marks for smart packaging. At the touch of a button on the console, the motorized roof of my sapphire-blue Z4 3.0i test car smoothly folded into tidy pleats and vanished behind the metallic roll bars, which look like the grips of a futuristic pommel horse. The leading edge of the roof creates a taut tonneau cover integrated into the rear deck. This fuss-free, one-touch, one-piece power roof is well worth the $750 it adds to the $33,795 base price of the 2.5i model or the $40,945 of the 3.0i.

Of course the car's designers, headed by an American, Chris Bangle, could have simply made the trunk bigger, and one wonders why they didn't. The car's proportions are perplexing; the Z4 is yet another BMW that demonstrates Mr. Bangle's determinedly contrarian design philosophy.

Like his 7 Series, with its raised rear end, the Z4 has derrière issues. Like a playwright who struggles to tie up the loose ends of his plot, Mr. Bangle's cars seem to lose focus at the rear. Although he had a couple more inches of wheelbase to work with, compared with the Z3, he truncated the back end, so there is little visual balance for the long, voluptuous hood and nose. The Z4 looks like a salamander with a broken tail.

The logic of incrementalism - the Z4 must be better than the Z3 - implies that the styling of the new car trumps that of the old one, but a comparison only points up the presence and completeness of the previous, curvaceous design. While a handsome car for the most part - mostly the forward part - the Z4 doesn't seem to have quite arrived at whatever its destination was to be.

Behind-the-wheel comparisons are equally problematic, mainly because Z3's, especially those with the 3-liter in-line six-cylinder engine, were just as fun to drive. The Z4 is a slightly bigger car, and the ease of entry and exit suggests that the extra centimeters uncramped the passenger compartment; the new car also seems much stiffer.

But the cars feel similar in day-to-day driving, which is surprising considering that the Z4 has electric steering, whereas the Z3 had hydraulically assisted power steering. The logarithm writers at BMW did a fine job emulating the classic BMW steering feel; the turning response is instant and micrometer-precise, and the power assist fades nicely at speed to give the driver more connection with the road.

The steering wheel is a splendid piece, small and thickly padded under supple leather, and it both tilts and telescopes. Mercifully absent in this purist's sports car are buttons on the wheel for the stereo or phone.

The engines are essentially carryovers from the Z3, in-line sixes that displace either 2.5 or 3 liters. The smaller engine generates 184 horsepower and 175 pounds-feet of torque, peaking at 3,500 r.p.m., and the larger six (the one in my test car) puts out 225 horsepower and 214 pounds-feet at the same peak. Yet thanks to variable valve timing, the torque doesn't peak so much as plateau from 3,000 to 6,000 r.p.m., so the engine feels limber at most speeds

The 2.5i comes with a five-speed manual transmission or an optional five-speed Steptronic, which is also available on the 3.0i. But the connoisseur's choice is the six-speed manual of the 3-liter car. In first gear, the 3.0i sprints out of the blocks nicely, and when you snap the short-throw shifter into second and catch the r.p.m.'s just right, the car finds its stride and squeezes you into the sports seats with raucous abandon - raucous because BMW built an acoustic tunnel into the passenger compartment so you can hear the engine growl.

BMW reports a zero to 60 m.p.h. time of 5.9 seconds (7.1 seconds for the Z4 2.5), but that sounds a wee bit conservative to me.

Back to the trunk: One reason there is almost 9 cubic feet of space is that there is no spare tire; all Z4's come with run-flat tires. The 3.0i with the optional ($1,200) sport package are shod with low-profile Bridgestone Potenzas wrapped around cast alloy 18-inch wheels. These are excellent tires that maintain a lamprey-like grip on the road. Should you exceed even their grip, the car has BMW's stability-control system with antilock brakes and something called Dynamic Traction Control, which is a little less rigid in prohibiting wheel spin, making it easier to slide the car around corners with the power on.

But these tires, and the sport package's stiff shocks and springs (and half-inch lower ride height), give the Z4 a vivid ride - oh, let's be honest and call it choppy - that the front MacPherson struts and multilink rear suspension can't really attenuate. Road imperfections zing through the car like a jolt of electricity. I hit a bit of broken asphalt that bottomed out the suspension. This car is stiff, all right - it was like getting hit in the back with a 2-by-4.

Sports cars shouldn't be entirely penalty-free - discomfort helps to keep away the parvenus - and the Z4's static-filled ride is a small price to pay for a car so nimble in hairpins and so heroic in high-speed sweepers. When the fun has to end, the four ventilated disc brakes rein in the roadster nicely. As for the oft-repeated assertion that BMW makes the best-handling cars south of Porsche, you won't get an argument here.

And what about Porsche anyway? The Z4 is not as hot-blooded as the Boxster, nor does it have the curb appeal of that midengine scarab. But the Z4, particularly with the bigger engine, is a serious sports car with a predatory glint in its eye.

It's a car you will look forward to driving, rain or shine, for years to come. Maybe by then you will be used to the styling.
 

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I wish I could have a 530i and a Z4 3.0i. :cry:
 

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nate328Ci said:


Why a 530i over a 330i?
I like bigger, more solid cars. I'm more than willing to give up a little agility for that.

BTW, S-03s feel GOOD.
 

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Discussion Starter #5
Nick325xiT 5spd said:


I like bigger, more solid cars. I'm more than willing to give up a little agility for that.

BTW, S-03s feel GOOD.
Isn't the 330i w/o fold downs about as stiff as the 530i?

You like the S-03s? Not too stiff/loud? :)
 

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nate328Ci said:
AUTOMOBILE owner's manuals are probably among the least-read books in existence, right after any novel by Sir Walter Scott. And anyone who buys the 2003 BMW Z4 roadster, successor to the popular Z3, can certainly get away without poring through the leather-bound volume in the glovebox. When it comes to ease of operation and intuitive design, the Z4 is as close to plug-and-play as cars come. Its simplicity is especially welcome after the sphinxlike BMW 7 Series, whose cryptic computer controls keep owners up at night trying to figure out how to tune the radio.
:lmao: :lmao: I love that paragraph, and very true on both counts :thumbup: :thumbup:

I like the way how it said its not as good of a roadster as a boxster, but its still a fun little car. And that was my initial impression of it.

FWIW, i heard the trunk can accomodate two golf club bags..not bad at all:thumbup:
 

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nate328Ci said:


Isn't the 330i w/o fold downs about as stiff as the 530i?

You like the S-03s? Not too stiff/loud? :)
The S-03s could be stiffer. :p I think 225 is a little wide for 7" tires. Noise is very good, but they're new.

The amount of grip now available is going to get me into trouble, I'm sure. :p

As for the 330/530, it's not a matter of physical stiffness. The 530 just has more heft. I like that.
 

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Discussion Starter #8
Nick325xiT 5spd said:


The S-03s could be stiffer. :p I think 225 is a little wide for 7" tires. Noise is very good, but they're new.

The amount of grip now available is going to get me into trouble, I'm sure. :p

As for the 330/530, it's not a matter of physical stiffness. The 530 just has more heft. I like that.
It's not the tires that need stiffening now, but your monster truck suspension :p

And, I find the 530i rather soft. (only PP) The 540i SP that I drove for a week was also much softer than I'd like. The amount of brake dive was incredible..
 

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nate328Ci said:


It's not the tires that need stiffening now, but your monster truck suspension :p
That too. However, the tires do NOT seem particularly hard, either. And wrapping 225s around 7 inch wheels gives it a little bit of sloppiness that might not be there if I'd gone with more optimally sized tires. I LIKE the grip, though.
 

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Nick325xiT 5spd said:


That too. However, the tires do NOT seem particularly hard, either. And wrapping 225s around 7 inch wheels gives it a little bit of sloppiness that might not be there if I'd gone with more optimally sized tires. I LIKE the grip, though.
What's wrong with 225s on 7" rims :dunno:

And, specifically what sloppiness are you referring to? Steering, handling, ride?
 

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nate328Ci said:


What's wrong with 225s on 7" rims :dunno:

And, specifically what sloppiness are you referring to? Steering, handling, ride?
Steering and handling. If I push and pull on the roof rails, the tires themselves will shift side to side. Upping the pressures to 42 all around largely cleared it up, but I feel a little bit of weight redistribution going into corners that I did NOT feel on RE950s. (Not even on ContiTourings!) My presumption, since I could feel this in low force turns, is that it's the size of the tire. The S-03s are certainly stiffer than either of those other two tires. :p
 

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Nick325xiT 5spd said:


Steering and handling. If I push and pull on the roof rails, the tires themselves will shift side to side. Upping the pressures to 42 all around largely cleared it up, but I feel a little bit of weight redistribution going into corners that I did NOT feel on RE950s. (Not even on ContiTourings!) My presumption, since I could feel this in low force turns, is that it's the size of the tire. The S-03s are certainly stiffer than either of those other two tires. :p
hmm...

That's strange that with just you pulling on the rails that you can induce enough weight transfer for the tires to roll over a bit. Is that what you're describing?

It is obviously easy to get sidewall rolloever in hard cornering, but that happens to guys running R-comps on M3s with more than 1.5 deg negative up front. Just a function of weight transfer. I find it hard to believe that you can induce this by just pulling on the roof rails, unless your suspension is softer than I imagined :dunno:. I can only get the shoulders to wear during agressive cornering, even get rear wear with more than 2 deg negative...

Obvious sidewall rollover on my 225/50/16s, both front and rear...
 

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It was very apparent at 38PSI. I've upped to 42 all around, and it's pretty much gone (although present). It's sidewall shift, that I'm feeling, not rollover. The tread is staying in place.
 

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Nick325xiT 5spd said:
It was very apparent at 38PSI. I've upped to 42 all around, and it's pretty much gone (although present). It's sidewall shift, that I'm feeling, not rollover. The tread is staying in place.
If you were moving, they would rollover
 

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nate328Ci said:


If you were moving, they would rollover
In hard cornering, yes. For most of it, though, there was not and would not have been any rollover.

Sometime, I'll try to take pictures of it.
 

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Nick325xiT 5spd said:


In hard cornering, yes. For most of it, though, there was not and would not have been any rollover.

Sometime, I'll try to take pictures of it.
FYI:

All tires will shift with weight transfer (yes, even around town). It is impossible to avoid no matter what wheel/tire combo you use. The slight sidewall shift you describe is normal, but I don't know if it is really related to width. Maybe just a bit more visible :dunno:
 

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nate328Ci said:


FYI:

All tires will shift with weight transfer (yes, even around town). It is impossible to avoid no matter what wheel/tire combo you use. The slight sidewall shift you describe is normal, but I don't know if it is really related to width. Maybe just a bit more visible :dunno:
I never said it wasn't normal. :p I still think the effects are exaggerated by the narrow width of my wheels and the lowish profile of the tire.
 

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Nick325xiT 5spd said:


I like bigger, more solid cars.
The word is:

"Trendy" ;)
 

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