Tuesday 30 August 2011

Driven #37:- '07 BMW Z4 2.0 SE

Having driven the Z4M reasonably recently, having heaped superlatives on it and gushed nauseatingly about it ever since, it was time to put it into context. Here was an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Z4 in its most basic (some would say purest… but let’s stick with basic) form. The four-cylinder, manual, 2.0SE. 

The predecessor to the Z4, the Z3, had a similarly broad range. The M and M Roadster sat atop the pile, while the 1.9 was at the bottom, and was universally panned for its almost total lack of power and branded pathetic, hopeless and a hairdressers car. Does this criticism apply to the next (and now previous) Z4? And, now the new Z4 is out, does it really matter?

OK, SE isn’t quite as basic as they came, it was possible to obtain one of these without the electric roof that SE comes equipped with, but they’re few and far between. It should be added, too, that this particular example comes with a monstrous carbuncle of a chin spoiler, spoiling the chin rather effectively. No doubt it was insanely expensive, but it looks daft and creates the illusion that the owner was buying his AC Schnitzer bodykit in instalments.

So, if you can, please ignore it and concentrate on the rest of the ensemble. SE specification brings you little tiny 16 inch wheels, which do nothing to create any illusion of power or excitement. But, then, maybe this is because we’re used to seeing the Z4 kitted out with enormous wheelarch filling items. Maybe the 16” wheel is the right size. Nobody moaned that the Triumph Spitfire looked silly on its little 13” jobbies, did they?

Casters aside, the Z4 shape is familiar enough that it doesn’t really need description again here. Like it or not (and I do) it’s certainly distinctive and immediately identifiable. It’s marked out readily as a product of its time, which is noble enough, and at least wears the hallmarks of something which has been designed out of passion rather than pure market-guided niche-filling.

Inside, the more spartan interior of this 2.0 is more representative of the breed than the Z4M was. We have leather, but we do without the Sat-Nav system, any fancy sound equipment nor any buttons on the steering wheel. We also do without powered seat adjustment, which I appreciate as it wins me an extra inch or so of vertical adjustment, which I need because I’m a big tall freak who has no place sitting in sports cars.

You are still treated, though, to the big slab of silvery metalwork across the dash, and the tiny, purposeful dial binnacle. It’s a fabulous dashboard, redolent of the great sports cars of the past, with only controls of immediate significance placed ahead of you, and less vital stuff like roof opening, traction control and (where fitted, not here, natch) heated seats hidden out of the way.

And I love the big, slightly spindly steering wheel just as much as I loved the tiny, French-stick girth wheel of the Z4M. It sits in front of you like something from a ship, and seems slightly ridiculous until you come to use it; more of which anon. But, for now, it’s a comfortable and tactile thing to hold, and slightly reminds you of a Harley-Davidson in the way your arms hang down from the handlebars.

To best appreciate the Z4 2.0 you should, ideally, have not driven any other Z4, nor, to be honest, any other sports car for a good while; the risk being that you face being underwhelmed by the scant horsepower on offer. To reinforce the case for this not really mattering, though, I refer you again to the Triumph Spitfire. Yeah, alright, by no way a fair comparison owing to the massively different size, weight and complexity required by modern standards in build, safety and legislation; but in 1974 the Spitfire pretty much corresponded with the same slot in the market as the Z4 did in 2007.

And, let’s be honest, the Spitfire was never a ball of fire; even the strongest offering only ever put out 75 bhp at best, when many family saloon cars put out a whole number more. Muscle-car duties were left to be handled by the straight-six Triumph GT6 which shared the same bodywork but in coupĂ© format; an interesting parallel with the Z4M?

Sitting low in the Z4, that long, flat (no power bulge here) foredeck stretches out before you; as phallic a bonnet as ever fitted to a recent sports car. A twist of the key and the engine rasps fruitily into life, settling into a humming, steady idle. This is a two litre, normally aspirated lump and it rather keeps itself to itself; it doesn’t feel alive at tickover like the 2.5 or 3.0 litre machines; let alone the ignore-me-at-your-peril aggression of the Z4M.

Snick it into first gear, a little notchy, but accurate; balance the light, easy clutch, and pull away. Ah, why not; the road was clear so I put my foot down. OK, it doesn’t take my breath away, but it ain’t slow, not by a long way. It’s nippy, urgent. The engine is willing and the exhaust tuned to make the most of the small-capacity mill and it sounds fun and appealing.

The fun continues through all six gears. The gearstick is short, much shorter than that in the Z4M and the throw is short. You have to be firm with it, but it’s a very positive, digital change. Again, I enjoyed the slightly agricultural feel of the ‘box in the Z4M, but have to submit that this one could be readily enjoyed by a much wider audience. And not having to think about the gearchange frees you up to concentrate on the other important offering from the Z4M menu; handling.

Oh, the joy of a car on sensible tyres. Time and again I’ve wittered on about this subject; typically a car is specified with the biggest wheels on the option list in the quest for kerb-presence and showroom appeal. This makes sense for the time that you’re standing on the driveway, ogling the car rather than driving it, or admiring your reflection in shop windows as you cruise past. But what’s more important, enjoying the drive or impressing other people? 

Balls to them, I say. The Z4 SE on its poverty-spec wheels is a prime example of how style compromises substance. Yes, on a forecourt this car looks daftly under-wheeled, but hang from that marine-issue steering wheel and dive for a corner and you immediately question the wisdom in opting for looks rather than life. It’s a three-pronged win; first score goes to the steering. Z4 steering is a little odd, a little artificial thanks to its electrical assistance; but the sidewall flex in these tyres helps to lessen the arcade-car feel in favour of a more organic, human feel. The size of the wheel helps you get a little more purchase, and there’s a sponginess in there that makes it feel like you’re driving a car, a sensation which all too often falls by the wayside.

Actual grip is still plentiful, and you actually feel better able to make the most of it thanks to this car having something that no other Z4 has: Ride quality. Still on the accursed run-flat tyres, at least here the sidewalls are tall enough that they add to the minimal movement in the suspension. Result; some of the bumps are absorbed rather than being transmitted directly to your vertebrae. It’s great; it makes driving the car for long distances an act of leisure, not determination.

The third prong on the trident of victory for small wheels, is what that extra little bit of give translates to when mid-corner. It means that the tyres are always in contact with the road surface; imperfections, ruts and potholes will no longer throw the car off line at that crucial moment when you think you’ve got everything in order and then, suddenly, you haven’t.

It’s like swimming with armbands on. Less dynamic but a lot safer, and much better if you’re not entirely sure what you’re doing. You are filled with confidence and suddenly every corner is an invitation to good times. It’s the same innocent, good natured fun that things like the Mazda MX5 are imbued with. And here it comes; so was the Triumph Spitfire and the MG Midget. I know, neither of those actually handled all that well in extremis, especially the Spitfire thanks to those Herald-derived swing axles. But owing to the low power levels you were dealing with it was pretty hard to get into much real trouble in the first place and you could get yourself out of trouble by lifting off. Unless you went out of your way to court with danger, in which case you deserved everything you got.

The base Z4 has all the power you need in order to start having fun, but not so much that it’s an oversteer disaster waiting to happen. It’s all you need in order to learn the ropes, and it gives anybody with a bit more experience a stable platform from which to dabble again with the finer arts of roundabout ballet, completely fee of risk. 

It’s like a British Aerospace Hawk. This is the RAFs Advanced Trainer, as used by the Red Arrows. It’s incredibly manoeuvrable and quick enough to put in exciting, daring flight displays with, it’s also responsive and easy to fly, which is why the Hawk is used as a pilots stepping stone en-route to flying “fast jets”. A pilot already knows how to keep a Jet flying and perform basic manoeuvres, he will have already spent air time in a Tucano or something, in the same way as an enthusiastic driver might well have started out in his mums Vauxhall Corsa.

But the Hawk is a foolproof platform from which to learn what Real Planes can do. In fact, so broad is its range of talents that the Red Arrows constantly stretch the intricacy of their displays; and events like the tragic crash of Red Four and death of it’s pilot this August only serve to remind us that this is a Real Plane, and it is subject to the same limitations as any other. In a far, far lesser way, the Z4 offers a similar platform to sharpen and then hone the skills you already have. It's beautifully balanced and easy to drift in a controlled manner, and all this fun is available at comparatively low, containable speeds.

Far from being the poor relation in the range, The Z4 2.0 should have been more effectively marketed, because in truth it’s every bit as much of a drivers car as its bigger brother. It's more accessible than the Z4M, it's easier to have fun in, even if the portions of merriment on offer are moderate, rather than the full-on hilarity that the more powerful car serves up. There's no sign of anything quite like the 2.0 turning up on the price-lists for the current range, it's probably deemed too downmarket.

You better buy one of these, then. It may not be as cool as the Z4M, it doesn't run as fast or corner as hard. But it's an extremely good place to start, and we all have to start somewhere.

Click here to read about my drive of the Z4M, in May this year.