BMW Z4 Review
After a few years away between 2014 and 2018, the BMW Z4 returned with a bang. Although it was created as part of a joint venture with Toyota (the Z4 is almost identical to a Supra under the skin), it had its own character and its own sense of purpose.
It’s softer and more comfortable than a Porsche 718 Boxster, it’s bigger and more practical than a Mazda MX-5, and it’s more poised than an Audi TT. It is the ultimate mash-up of those cars, so could it be the one roadster to rule them all?
Select's rating score* - 3.6 / 5
The Z4 is exactly what it looks like. A two-seat convertible sports car that’s brilliant to drive. It has all the right ingredients, from the powerful engines to the rear-wheel-drive layout, and it adds a dash of BMW’s incredible steering and suspension know-how. The result is a great driver’s car, but don’t think it’s an out-and-out race car for the road.
Instead, the BMW blends 90% of the Porsche 718 Boxster’s driving dynamics with the space and build quality of an Audi TT. Then it takes the comfort of the Toyota Supra to create something unbelievably capable. The situation is almost irrelevant – the Z4 has an answer.
Of course, the looks won’t be to everyone’s taste. The old Z4 was a pretty, taut little thing, but the newcomer is a bit bolder, a bit more muscular and generally less subtle. But whatever you think of the exterior, the cabin is brilliant, and the engineering under that skin is even better.
The overbearing, unavoidable feature of the Z4 is its electrically powered folding roof. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about it per se, but the way it affects the car and the way you feel is incalculable. It’s such a cliche, but there’s something incredibly appealing about cruising around with the roof down.
With the roof up, the Z4 has this kind of Jekyll and Hyde personality. At normal speeds, it’s a quiet, comfortable BMW, with a lovely interior, supple ride and plenty of high-tech gadgets. But when you’re going fast, it becomes a lively sports car again – only this time it’s one with a roof that isolates you from the grey, drizzly world outside. The Z4 is at its best without the roof, but it’s still great when the rain is falling.
That’s partly because it has all the attributes of every other BMW. There’s a well-built cabin that’s packed with equipment, plenty of space to stretch out in and comfy chairs to perch on. You even get a big boot, which somehow makes the Z4 a practical driver’s car. Go figure.
The Z4 comes with a choice of three different engines. The basic sDrive 20i is a 2.0-litre petrol engine that’s turbocharged to produce 197hp. With the power heading to the rear wheels via a standard-fit eight-speed automatic gearbox, that’s enough to get from 0-62mph in just 6.6 seconds. Or you can have the sDrive 30i, which is essentially the same engine, but it’s tuned to produce 258hp.
Although the 30i cuts the 0-62mph time by just over a second, it’s no match for the daddy. The M40i boasts a 3.0-litre straight-six petrol engine with 340hp. Like its stablemates, it sends its power to the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic gearbox, but unlike its brethren, it takes just 4.5 seconds to race from a standstill to 62mph.
The choice is yours, but we’d recommend the mid-range 30i. It’s more than fast enough, and the 2.0-litre engine is lighter than its 3.0-litre counterpart. That said, there’s no substitute for the lovely howl of that silky six-cylinder engine. If those two are pushing your budget, the 20i is still perfectly adequate for most drivers.
No matter which you choose, you’ll find yourself driving a fine sports car. The Z4 feels very much like a big Mazda MX-5, and compliments don’t come much better than that. You get this fabulous sense of agility and poise, mixed with sharp, feelsome steering and a responsive throttle. It all feels beautifully balanced, as though the car will bend to your whim without losing its composure.
Of course, if you drive it like an idiot – stomping on the throttle mid-corner and generally poking the bear – it will bite back. The tail will slide and the front end will wash wide if you don’t treat it right. But you really have to try if you want this car to misbehave, and it’s generally quite easy to correct when it does.
Despite that sportscar-y-ness, it feels as stable and as supple as any other BMW when you drive at normal speeds. With the roof up and the rain pouring down (why else would the roof be up?) it could be a 2 Series Coupe. Or a sort of shrunken 5 Series. Or even a working model of an X7. It rides almost as well as a sports saloon, the steering is well weighted and the interior is almost identical. It’s brilliant.
Despite their power outputs, the Z4’s petrol engines are relatively economical. The basic sDrive 20i is the one to choose if you want to avoid petrol stations, with its economy of around 40mpg on the official test. The 30i is barely any thirstier, managing just over 39mpg. The M40i, however, drinks a little more than the 2.0-litre engines. At 35mpg, however, it’s hardly a gas-guzzler.
In terms of emissions, the two 2.0-litre engines are the most eco-friendly. Both emit something in the region of 160-165g/km, according to the official test. That puts the Z4 in the 36% company car tax bracket for 2021/22, but that will change in 2022/23. Then it will rise to the top-end 37% rate, where it will join the majority of its rivals.
The Z4 cabin is largely lifted from other parts of the BMW range, but that’s no bad thing. The German company’s build quality is impeccable, and the materials used are excellent. Everywhere you look, there’s cool chrome or soft plastics, and everything feels weighty and substantial. It’s exactly how a car interior should be.
BMW has also managed to create one of the best infotainment systems on the market, and that’s replicated in the Z4. With a central control wheel and a logical layout, you can learn your way around quite quickly. Once you’ve done that, you needn’t shift your eyes from the road to change the track, open a sub-menu or choose a new radio station.
But the iDrive system is supplemented by a digital instrument display that’s less of a triumph. It isn’t bad – the display still works in the sunshine and the display is crystal clear – but the information isn’t especially well laid out and the whole thing can look a bit fussy. Thankfully, the optional head-up display is much clearer and gives you all the information you really need.
Nobody buys a Z4 for the practicality, but the little BMW is more spacious than many of its rivals. The boot measures 281 litres – only slightly smaller than you’ll find in a Ford Fiesta or Vauxhall Corsa. It isn’t huge, but it’s big enough for suitcases, shopping, school bags or anything else you might reasonably want to carry.
The space compares favourably with the Audi TT and the Porsche 718 Boxster, which offers a similar total amount of room, but it’s split between two tiny luggage bays. It’s roomy inside, too, with plenty of adjustment in the seat and room for even tall passengers to stretch out. You don’t get that from a Mazda MX-5.
Sadly, the BMW does lack internal storage. With no rear seats and just a few cubby holes and storage bins, it isn’t great for hiding the paraphernalia of modern life. That said, the same is true of other cars in this class. It’s just a feature of two-seat sports cars.
The latest-generation Z4 is unbelievably safe. With a five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating, it isn’t just safe for a roadster; it’s safe full stop. The little BMW scored a massive 97% for adult occupant protection and 91% for protection of vulnerable road users. And it scored 87% for child occupant protection. To put that into context, the current 5 Series – itself a very safe car – scored fewer points in all four sections of the test.
Despite that, we’d all rather you never have to test the protection levels out. To that end, the Z4 comes with BMW’s Active Guard safety equipment. That includes lane departure warning and front brake intervention, which automatically stops the car if the driver fails to respond to a hazard. If you want, you can also add goodies including adaptive cruise control, which maintains a safe distance to the car in front.
The Z4 range comprises just three trim levels, with plenty of equipment included with each. Which you can choose does depend on your engine choice, so you can never pick from all three at any one time. Opt for the entry-level 20i engine and you get a choice of Sport or M Sport trim levels. Going for the 30i leaves you with the M Sport or nothing, while the M40i gets a high-end kit list all of its own.
Choose the Sport model and you get 18-inch alloy wheels, heated seats and two-zone climate control, as well as leather upholstery, LED headlights and the 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment system. You get the Connected Package Professional, too, giving you access to your smartphone apps via Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
Stepping up to the M Sport adds sportier and more aerodynamic bodywork, with bolder bumpers and more aggressive skirts. That’s complemented by glossy black exterior trim and M Sport suspension. And if you choose the 30i engine, you’ll also get an M Sport braking system.
Finally, the M40i gets the aerodynamic bodywork and glossy black exterior trim from the M Sport model. However, it adds 19-inch alloy wheels and adaptive M Sport suspension, not to mention the M Sport brakes and the model-specific rear differential for extra traction.
The options list is long, but highlights include the M Sport Pro package that adds some of the M40i’s features to M Sport versions of the 20i and 30i. You can also have the Technology Package with its head-up display and wireless phone charging, as well as a Harman/Kardon sound system.
Other options include some bold leather colours and some fantastic paint jobs. We’re big fans of the Metallic Mediterranean Blue and the Metallic Misano Blue, both of which look great with the M Sport trim. The Metallic San Francisco Red is also worthy of a mention.
Although the market for small sports cars seems to be shrinking day by day, the Z4 is still competing with some brilliant vehicles. Chief among these is the Porsche 718 Boxster, a real driver’s car that’s fabulous to drive and beautifully made, but it lacks the comfort and the equipment of the Z4. Or you could have the Jaguar F-Type, which is gorgeous but less well built than its German rivals.
Then there’s the Audi TT, a much softer take on the sports car. Although the TT RS is an R8-shaming masterpiece, the more conventional models are basically just Golfs in fancy clothes. They drive well, but they’re nowhere near as engaging as the BMW or the Porsche.
Other options include the smaller Mazda MX-5, which is great fun, but it feels like the Z4’s smaller, less luxurious sister. Or you could look at coupes like the Toyota Supra (which is basically just a coupe version of the Z4) or the hardcore but ill-equipped Alpine A110. Both are great cars in their own right, but neither offers the top-down thrills of convertible opponents.
The Z4 is surprisingly easy to live with. It’s comfy and it has a big boot, which makes it equally capable on long journeys and the daily commute. It’s also great to drive, so while it might be the car you lease with your brain, it’s still really good fun when the mood takes you. Admittedly, it isn’t quite as sharp as a Boxster or an Alpine, but it’s a better car 99.9% of the time. And for the other 0.1% of the time, it’s 99.9% of the sports car. That makes it an incredibly appealing proposition.
Where to next?
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- *Score based on Select’s unique meta score analysis, taking into account the UK’s top five leading independent car website reviews of the BMW Z4
- **Correct as of 18/08/2021. Based on 9 months initial payment, 5,000 miles over a 48 month lease. Initial payment equivalent to 9 monthly payments or £3,581.49 - Ts and Cs apply. Credit is subject to status.