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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.