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New BMW Z4 prototype review: the early signs are great

Published:03 June 2018

New BMW Z4 prototype review: the early signs are great
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By Gareth Evans

Contributor, historic racer and associate editor on our sister website Parkers.co.uk

By Gareth Evans

Contributor, historic racer and associate editor on our sister website Parkers.co.uk

► BMW's newest sports car 
► Prototype development drive
► Is this the 718 Boxster's nemesis?

The 2019 BMW Z4 has come out punching. And it needed to, given its main competition is Porsche’s excellent 718 Boxster and the Jaguar F-Type Convertible, and it’s sat on a platform on which Toyota will build its next Supra… 

But in fact this is a BMW-developed chassis and drivetrain that Munich’s engineers are particularly proud of. The mission: to make this Z4 more of a driver’s car – a brief the previous version didn’t exactly nail.

To demonstrate the fruits of their labour so far, BMW invited CAR to its Miramas test track in southern France to participate in some driving dynamics testing ahead of the car’s eventual sign-off.

That’s the reason the cars are heavily camouflaged both inside and out. We’re told the finished article will look similar to the Z4 Concept we saw first at 2017 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and then the 2017 Frankfurt motor show. It’ll have a new mesh grille, LED headlights with vertical pipes and gone is the clamshell bonnet from the previous Z4. That’s made way for extra venting behind the front wheel.

We only got to try the top-spec M40i derivative, which will be available from the Z4’s spring 2019 launch and will sit atop the range, probably accompanied by 20i and 30i four-cylinder versions. Like the previous iteration, there will be no Z4M, we’re told.

The BMW Z4's turbocharged straight-six motor sits a long way back under the bonnet, with approximately two thirds of its length behind the front axle line. Weight distribution is thus a useful 50:50. Kerb weight is 1,535kg.

But the recipe for success starts with the tyres, BMW’s engineers told CAR. They’re exactly the same Michelin Pilot Supersports as found on the M3/M4 in both size and compound. The handling has been configured around these, which saved time in development because they’re an off-the-shelf component. Otherwise a tranche of tyre testing would have been necessary alongside the dynamic development we’re taking part in here.  

So what is the 2019 BMW Z4 drive?

Adaptive dampers are employed on all four corners, and it’s the way these interact with the steering and electrically controlled rear diff on the rear axle that give this new Zed previously unheard of poise and agility.

Our first test session took us out on one of Miramas’s circuit layouts, where we’d be given the chance to test the Z4. But before that, BMW laid on an M240i and an M2 for us to learn which way the bends go.

Naturally this pair became our handling benchmarks for the day, and also a refreshing reminder of the gulf in performance between the two 2-ers; driven line-astern the M240i ran out of talent far sooner, the front tyres screaming into understeer ahead of the middle pedal softening to butter-like consistency.

The M2, on the other hand, shrugged off our best endeavours to goad it into wayward behaviour. In Sport+ mode it feels so grown up and capable on circuit, stopping and cornering with huge amounts more proficiency.

Once we’d learnt the basic layout it was time to hop into the Z4. Or rather over its huge sill, which had us reminded of the Alfa 4C’s naked carbonfibre hurdles you have to negotiate on the way in. BMW’s aren’t weave, but they are large.

Getting started…

Push the starter button on the central console – it’s a challenge because all of that’s camouflaged too – and a reassuring straight-six rumble wobbles through the car.

Gear lever into D and starting in Comfort drive mode, we nose out of the pit area and on to the track. Immediately there’s something, well, immediate about the steering. It’s around the straightahead that you notice it’s almost spookily responsive, even for an EPAS system. We’re told this is an effect of the way the adaptive suspension has been tuned to react to steering inputs, so on initial turn-in the dampers firm-up and the car reacts instantly. This makes the Z4 feel far more agile than the previous one. And remember, we’re still in Comfort…

The reason that’s important is the handling changes quite remarkably as you hop up to Sport and then Sport+, reaching the pinnacle of cornering performance with all the electronics turned off.

You see, the electrically controlled locking diff is a scaled-down version of the one that’s impressed us so much in the M5, and uses the same software logic. This means it’s possible to precisely control its operation and configure it for varying handling characteristics. We sat next to a development engineer with a laptop who cycled through all of the settings available in the diff, and the cornering traction differences were remarkable.

This works with the adaptive dampers and steering doing their bit too, and the result is that a pronounced rear-steer effect has been achieved, which is amplified as you climb the drive modes. In Sport the steering feels a lot quicker – a result of the reduction of bodyroll plus the ability to vary damping front to rear - and the minute you lift off the throttle with any steering angle the back end twitches, tightening the Z4’s line.

We tried this for a couple of laps and were impressed with the natural feel of the chassis considering the electrickery at play here.

Stepping up to Sport+ sees the Z4 really come into its own. That rear end wants to swing fully into a corner, the front offering accurate communication of events under its tyres and biting hard. It feels like the most natural thing in the world to bury your right foot and coax a slide – primarily because the back’s already mobile so all you need to do is power on through. Go too big and the traction control begins nibbling at your entertainment, but there’s been a surprising amount of slip dialled in.

This motor helps here too. There’s been some software trickery for the wastegate control as well, aimed at trying to achieve throttle response similar to the old six-cylinder Boxster’s. How they must have laughed in Munich when the four-banger 718 appeared…

It isn’t quite up there with the best naturally aspirated engines, but for a turbo we were a little startled with how quickly it responded to prods mid-corner – make no mistake about it: this is a proper sports car.   

During some of the quicker, fourth-gear bends with the traction control off we felt the chassis had a touch more performance than the engine, which isn’t great for serious sideways silliness at speed but is a great place to be if you’re looking for a car you can enjoy fully on the road.

And that’s where we headed next – onto public tarmac for an hour or so of driving around southern France in the scorching sunshine.

What’s the 2019 BMW Z4 like on the road?

Two things became apparent: the ride quality is good in all drive modes and the body control excellent. There’s an almost imperceptible soft-top shimmy if you hit a bump mid-corner, just to remind you this is an open car, but we felt a huge amount of confidence in the way the Z4 behaved at speed.

Switching back up to Sport+ for a blast on some B-roads and that playful handling didn’t feel at all dangerous in the context of other cars, trees and sheer cliff faces. It was easy to build up a rhythm between switchbacks and the motor’s unrelenting punch is always there to help.

There’s unlikely to be a manual Z4, sadly, given how good the M2 is with a third pedal. But the eight-speed auto does its job perfectly well when commanded by the paddles on the back of the steering wheel.

But how does the Z4 feel against the M2?

Let’s just say we’re not sure you’ll need that Z4M anyway. The M40i feels more engaging and has broader abilities than the standard M2 in almost every way. It feels as quick in a straight line (the basic motor is the same), and it’s quicker around this circuit, too.

Sure, we drove a version specced-up with M Performance brakes and that helps, but the Z4’s handling in particular feels streets ahead; like a different generation of BMW. The reason for this year’s M2 Competition’s existence is starting to make a lot more sense.

The technology used in the Z4 will make its way to the G20 3-series as well, and we’re driving that over the coming months so keep an eye out to find out if it makes such a big difference to a three-box saloon…

What’s the cabin of the new Z4 like?

We can’t say at this point. All the crucial bits were covered up during our first drive so we didn’t get a chance to test the latest iDrive system. Thankfully we’ve already had a go here, though.

However, the seats were electrically adjustable enough to find a great driving position. You’re slung low in the cockpit and the car’s shoulderline rises fairly high, but there’s enough visibility to mean this isn’t a problem.

What we can tell you is that thanks to the roof’s design, the boot is a useful-for-a-cabrio 265litres at all times. There’s no penalty there for top-down motoring.

Verdict

There’s still some work to do before the Z4’s final sign-off but early indications are that BMW’s on to a bit of a hit here. Certainly, if our first experience is anything to go by, something’s going to have to go catastrophically wrong between now and its production launch to have us bemoaning its dynamic capabilities, even with the 718 Boxster and F-Type Convertible in mind. 

The elephant in the room is the forthcoming Toyota Supra, of course, which will be a coupe version of the very same car. We’re led to believe it’ll even use the M40i’s engine. Could it be the Cayman to BMW’s Boxster, with all the advantages that come from tintop rigidity? We can’t wait to find out. 

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  • New BMW Z4 prototype review: the early signs are great
  • New BMW Z4 prototype review: the early signs are great
  • New BMW Z4 prototype review: the early signs are great
  • New BMW Z4 prototype review: the early signs are great
  • New BMW Z4 prototype review: the early signs are great
  • New BMW Z4 prototype review: the early signs are great
  • New BMW Z4 prototype review: the early signs are great

By Gareth Evans

Contributor, historic racer and associate editor on our sister website Parkers.co.uk

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