Tuesday 3 May 2011

Getting Reacquainted with the BMW Z4M


Physically, I'm not really cut out for sports cars, and my grotesque 6’5 of malformed meat and gristle is definitely hard-pressed to find a comfortable slot behind the wheel of a Z4M. There is only one position I can adopt: seat right back and bolt upright, steering wheel in almost its highest position and as far away from me as it can be. 

Still, wile slightly clunky to describe, this posture actually turns out to be surprisingly comfortable - like sitting up eating breakfast in bed - and I emerged with no long-term lumbar injury after 150 miles at the helm. 

I seem to remember from previous Z4 experience that the manual seats can be set lower than the electric memory items; all those motors and wires must take up a fair amount of space beneath the drivers posterior. In the last Z4 M I had driven: a Roadster, I was forced to slouch and compress my spine to gain a view through the windscreen rather than over it.

In this Coupe, though, more so than the in soft-top, for some reason, my major issue was sideways visibility. To get a decent view out I had to physically duck to peer out of the very top of the side-glass. That all said, once installed in the office it felt like a very driver-centric place to be. This felt like meeting up with a friend I'd not seen for ages, and suddenly remembering why we got along so well

The dashboard itself is a model of simplicity, with a separate speedo and tach that integrate the fuel and temperature gauges; and idiot lights in the void between the two, all housed in a pod not much larger than the cluster on a fast bike. Minor controls (heated seats, traction control) are squirrelled away some distance forward of the gearknob, lurking below the spitfire-wing shaped fascia. Just below eye level is the trio of HVAC knobs together with the controls for the audio system. 

This particular car was fitted with the “Professional Navigation” package, as well as the Hi-Fi Speaker package with DSP (which, incidentally, seemed a bit shit -  more bass necessarily doesn’t mean better sound, especially when it isn't all technically bass at all, but an incessent boom clumsily applied right across the entire audio spectrum).

Truth is, though, when you're behind the wheel of one of these, you won’t really pay much attention to its interior. It’s just somewhere to sit. You’re far too busy looking along that impossibly phallic bonnet, with its suggestive power bulge denoting the 343hp S54 power plant beneath. The interior materials are actually very nice indeed; it’s as if the US plant were so stung by criticism of the old, E36-based Z3 that they responded by over-building the Z4 just to prove a point. Okay, it misses out on the tactile loveliness of the latest 5 and 7 series interiors, but it's a mile ahead of the unlovely X3 of the same era; a car that still has bile boiling up in my throat when mentioned.

Traditional “M” touches abound; the red, white and blue flash makes regular appearances, the gearknob shift pattern is illuminated in red (and incidentally lives at the end of a gearlever a good few inches longer than you might expect). The M-stitched steering wheel is, of course, the one bit of Z4 M that you’ll touch the most, or rather, hang onto for dear life. It feels a little odd to start with; its rim is squidgy and of about the same diameter as a childs forearm. That's actually quite fitting, though - getting the best from the M is a little bit like disciplining a defiant toddler. It needs to be shown who's boss in no uncertain terms.

When that legendary straight-six engine churns into life, the whole car feels connected with it. The S54's pulse throbs through the entire structure, and it doesn't feel anywhere near as machanically insulated or sound-deadened as when installed in the M3; but this only adds to the sense of occasion. A trip into whimsy might have you wondering if perhaps this is what taxiing in a WWII fighter felt like. 

The exhaust note isn't tuneful like an Italian V6, or evocative like the deep bellow of an American V8, rather, it's a full-bodied, broadband grinding sound that underpins the same mellow song as is sung any other straight six, but with more balls and a more mechanical edge. Give it a kick with the right foot and those balls drop, and the grinding is met by a howl, but the S54 never sounds like it's revving quite as high as it actually is. It sounds like the fastest, sportiest lorry in the world, one deliberately made to be slightly unrefined and workmanlike, and utterly addictive as a result. This is further reason to not bother with the Hi-Fi speaker package.

This moment was when my memories came flooding back. Four years prior, working in sales for BMW, we had a Z4 M Roadster, in Black Sapphire metallic, as a demonstrator, and the keys were particularly prized come evenings and weekends. Within working hours, too, it was a source of huge amusement; customers would regularly make a hilarious hash of things on test drives. Driving one of these smoothly is quite a measure of a driver - witness me, today, jumping behind the wheel and instantly embarrassing myself.

The gearstick needs a determined shove from first to second at high revs (they all do that, Sir) and this suits the character of the car. The clutch is heavy, like a competition paddle item, and its biting point is sometimes a little tricky to find; I found myself kangarooing and bunny-hopping down the road like an amateur, clinging on to the hope that nobody was watching. They were, of course: this is a bright red sports car that makes a lot of noise. Let them laugh, I don't care, I'll never see them again.

I suddenly remembered what this car was all about, and was at piece with the fact that you can't just jump into a Z4M and drive it well. It doesn't like drivers who pussy-foot around, preferring definitive, authoritative commands. Kick that clutch, boot that throttle, take it by the scruff of the neck and it will kiss you behind the earlobe and elicit a tingle in your 501s. before very long the M and I were on speaking terms, if not quite ready to share a drink.

My journey today took me right through the tourist traps of Central London, along the banks of the Thames and out past the manufacturing home of Ford of Great Britain. I don't instinctively know my way through the heart of the capital, so I called on the use of the Professional Navigation system this car was optioned with. It's functional enough, with a reasonable level of on-screen detail, though limited by not having postcode functionality. 

In the four years since I had last played, though, I had totally forgotten how to operate it; it's not in the least bit intuitive. Of course, these days BMW SatNav systems are linked to the famous and much maligned I-Drive control system. For all the hatred poured over that famous interface in all its years, we have to wonder what the state of the art would be like without it. The fact is that Audi's MMI system and Mercedes-Benz's similar offering are all derived from BMW's work. I wish I had it tonight.

No matter, soon I was on familiar roads and the low London speed-limits had released their stranglehold. For the rest of the trip the little red neon on the SPORT button would be permitted to glow. I had been deliberately waiting before deploying this, to somehow extend my period of excitement and ensure that I don't have too much fun all at once. In fact, the difference it makes is small but noticeable. It makes that already sensitive throttle even more so, adding a Cadbury's Flake to the already cherry-adorned Ice Cream that makes up the Z4 M Driving experience.

And that experience is something totally different to that provided by a regular Z4. That they look all but identical from the outside is almost a shame: the M car suffers in comparison with its plebeian relative. This generation of Z4 was always intended to be accessible. It's everybody's sports car. It could be bought in engine flavours from 2.0 to 3.0-litre, with various dress-up kits and ever more elaborate specification permutations. Whatever your purpose, from pilot to poseur, the glove would fit. Want to drive hard? A 3.0Si Sport with the manual 'box will entertain you. Want to cut a dash at the new salon on the Kings Road? A 2.0 SE will more than suffice.

And then there's the Z4M, which quickly gets to the bottom of what kind of driver you are. If you're a poseur, in it for the image and the glamour, chances are it will chew you up and spit you out and you'll get fed up very quickly. It's less a car, more a sparring partner. In the same way as some vastly more expensive and powerful cars, this ia s machine that demands commitment and effort. Its gearchange and that clutch combine with an engine so keen to rev that it can run away with you. If you're not fast on your feet, you can end up with spinning wheels, swapped ends and with the whole world revolving around you. Compared to the Z4, the M is savage. Wholly uncompromising. Brilliant.

And, yeah, it handles too. It isn't Elise agile - it's more a cage-fighter than a ballet dancer; instead it majors in involvement and entertainment. It encourages you to muscle in and does nothing on your behalf, but when you and it are working as a team, it feels like there's no limit to what you can achieve together.

It's a very singular machine, this, and one that almost defies evaluation. You simply can't grade it in the same way as you would so many other cars or products. The things I've been yammering on about, its clutch, gearchange and inaccessibility are among the Z4Ms defining characteristics, and they're flaws. They're imperfections, and would probably somehow have been finessed and polished out by any other manufacturer, but BMW wisely allowed them to remain. Similarly, bodywork and fine-tuning aside, this is basically an M3 Convertible. Yet that legendary model is far kinder, more tolerant and understanding of ineptitude than the Z4 M.

And that makes it. As a modern sports car it has more soul and definitive character than pretty much anything else I've driven. Everything else seems suddenly too obedient, too normal. So that's it. In conclusion, what I want from a sports car is brutality and lots of faults.

Character beats efficiency any day of the week.


Click here to read about my drive of the Z4 2.0 SE, in August this year.


  1. One of the very few cars that has left my heart racing after driving it....I loved every second!

  2. Fantastic review very well written and I couldnt agree more with "It quickly gets to the bottom of what kind of driver you are. If you're a poseur, in it for the image and the glamour, chances are it will chew you up and spit you out, and you'll get fed up very quickly. It's less a car, more a sparring partner." SO SO SO true!

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