The BMW Z4 has always suffered a little bit from an identity crisis. The original model was touted as a Boxster beater but failed to live up to that billing, while the second generation was a far softer proposition, more akin to a Mercedes SLK than a Porsche. But what of this third incarnation, the G29 in BMW speak?
In truth, the Z4 isn’t a bad car, with decent engines, precise handling, lots of standard equipment and one of the best infotainment set-ups in its class. But it’s not the most thrilling of roadsters, and despite BMW saying that it’s aiming for maximum agility, dynamism and steering precision, it fails to fully live up to the billing. It is entertaining, but misses out on the deft touch that makes the Boxster such an involving steer.
The third incarnation of the Z4 went on sale in 2019 and was available with a four-cylinder engine in the sDrive20i and sDrive30i, with the range-topping M Performance model, the M40i, being the only one equipped with BMW’s trademark six-pot. There were many changes from the previous-generation Z4, not least the return of the soft-top in place of the folding hard-top, but its dimensions were a little odd, endowing the new Z4 with a slightly gawky look.
With just the one body style and with only three engines to choose from the Z4 range isn’t extensive, but on the two lower-powered machines you do have a choice of trim level, either Sport or M Sport. The former is perhaps more delicately styled, with the M Sport adding various aerodynamic appendages that give the car a slightly fussy look. The Sport has a less aggressive suspension set-up, too, which leads to a better ride and a little more finesse to the car’s balance.
Prices, Specs and Rivals
BMW has certainly pushed the Z4 rather further upmarket since the original model was launched back in 2003, and while roadsters such as Mazda’s MX-5 offer a similar two-door, two-seat soft-top vibe, the Japanese machine undercuts the Z4 by a good £10k when new. Arguably the Mazda is a more entertaining car to drive, too, so if the involvement is at the top of your priorities then the MX-5 would be a better bet, even if it doesn’t boast the same badge appeal and equipment levels offered by the BMW.
The Z4’s most obvious rival is the Audi TT Roadster, with several models from Ingolstadt squaring up to the Munich product pretty closely in terms of price, performance and equipment. Which you prefer may well come down to aesthetics rather than differences in the way they drive. The Mercedes-Benz SLC is an altogether softer machine with less sporting intent than either the TT or Z4.
> Click here for our review of the Porsche 718 Boxster
Porsche’s 718 Boxster is the most entertaining Z4 rival, but it’s more expensive, not nearly as well equipped and suffers from being fitted with a four-cylinder engine that’s almost entirely devoid of character. Dynamically, though, it’s streets ahead of the Z4 when it comes to involvement, with direct steering and a chassis balance that the BMW can only dream of.
Engine, gearbox and technical highlights
There are two engines in the Z4 range – a 2-liter four-cylinder fitted to the 20i and 30i models, and the sole six-cylinder unit that powers the M40i. The four-pot models use BMW’s relatively new modular units that are familiar from the 3-series, and in their Z4 application they work well, providing to have a free-revving nature and delivering enough power for sprightly performance. They’re perhaps not the most aurally exciting units, but you do get to hear more than you do when used in the saloons and they will emit the odd pop and crackle from their exhausts.
The 20i is good for 194bhp available from 4500 to 6500rpm, with 236lb ft of torque that runs from 1450 to 4200rpm, while the closely related 30i ups those figures to 254bhp and 295lb ft of torque at broadly similar engine speeds. The M40i is a far more muscular prospect, with 335bhp from 5000 to 6500rpm and 369lb ft of torque on tap from 1600 to 4500rpm. The six-cylinder is a little muted when in Comfort mode, but in Sport it makes all the right noises and has a sharper throttle response, too.
> Click here for our review of the Audi TT
At launch all three models were only available with the eight-speed ZF auto that is fitted to the vast majority of BMW models, and while it changes well and responds swiftly when asked to, it’s a shame that BMW felt there was no need for the further layer of interaction that comes from a manual ‘box. Shortly after launch a manual was introduced, but this is only available on the 20i model.
Performance and 0-60 time
Even in its modest 20i guise the Z4 offers decent shove, recording a 0-62mph time of 6.6sec. The 30i version beats that time comfortably with a 5.4sec figure, and the M40i is, unsurprisingly, quicker still, knocking off the benchmark sprint in 4.5sec. For reference, that last figure is quicker than a 718 Boxster and just 0.1sec behind the more expensive Boxster S. The 20i has a top speed of 149mph, while the two more powerful models are electronically limited to 155mph.
On the move all three models do a good job of disguising their 1440-plus kilo kerb weight, responding well to throttle inputs, especially when in Sport mode. Of the four-pots it’s the 30i that feels significantly sprightlier, while the M40i is just downright quick in virtually any gear thanks to the useful spread of torque in the mid-range.
Ride and handling
Thanks to a very stiff chassis the Z4 does feel pretty responsive in most settings, and combined with a lack of scuttle shake you feel inclined to make the most of its not inconsiderable grip. If you just jump in and drive the Z4 can feel a little bit too closely linked to the 3-series junior exec in its responses, but push a little harder and there’s an engaging chassis to exploit, even if it doesn’t supply the level of detail and response you’d get with a 718 Boxster.
The 20i and 30i can be ordered as either a Sport or M Sport, and while the latter comes with more aggressive styling, sports suspension and bigger wheels, it’s perhaps the Sport with less rubber on the road and a more compliant set-up that’s the more rewarding car. All models have an excess of grip, but the Sport is a little more playful and has slightly more feel to its steering, although none of the steering systems are very lucid.
MPG and running costs
Modern turbocharged engines are capable of returning impressive economy when being used gently and all three versions of the Z4 are fairly frugal if you exercise some restraint. The 20i’s official figures sit between 38 and 40mpg depending on options and wheel size, while the more powerful 30i is almost as frugal at between 37 and 39mpg. The M40i offers a less impressive 33mpg, but that’s not terrible given the performance on offer.
Naturally, if you use that performance then all models will be significantly thirstier than their official figures, and this, combined with a small 52-litre tank, means you may need to stop for fuel with some regularity. Insurance costs are relatively palatable, ranging between groups 30 and 37, and BMW’s servicing is on a par with that of its German rivals.
VED will be costly in years two to six of a Z4’s life at £490; only the 20i dips below the £40k cut-off figure for VED payments, but it only takes a couple of option packs to take the 20i over that threshold.
Interior and tech
Despite its sporting roadster pretensions, the Z4 has a cockpit that, at first glance, is more akin to that of a 3-series or a 5-series. It’s opulent, very well equipped and certainly a very comfortable cabin, but lacks a certain je ne sais quoi for a performance car. However, once you get over that feeling there’s much to recommend. It is roomy and the standard-fit sports seats are heated and grip you in all the right places. You sit low in the cockpit, too, which does add a sporty vibe.
There are a host of BMW’s latest ‘connected’ features and satnav is standard. Some optional costs are a little galling though, such as having to pay an extra £170 for a wind deflector to keep the interior wind free when traveling at speed with the hood down. The hood itself is excellent and can be raised or lowered in about ten seconds at speeds of up to 31mph.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and while some will love the Z4’s looks others may find it a little contrived and the detailing a little overly fussy. The Sport model offers a purer look than the M Sport with its extra aerodynamic addenda.
The Z4’s proportions are a little odd for a BMW roadster, which is mainly a result of it being based on the same CLAR underpinnings that are used on the 5-series. It’s shortened – its wheelbase is 26mm shorter than the previous-generation Z4 – but overall it’s 85mm longer than the earlier Z4, which leaves the latest Z4 with rather long overhangs front and rear. It’s wide too, and the overall impression is of a slightly stumpy design.
As the Z4 is still relatively new and sold in fairly small numbers the ravages of depreciation have yet to severely affect values, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some substantial savings to be made over their new prices. The 20i is the most popular variant, followed by the M40i and the 30i, and virtually all models will retain the balance of their BMW warranties, making them a fairly painless ownership prospect.
Z4s tend to have lower than average mileage so it’s possible to buy a nearly new example at quite a saving over a new one. The best-value model is probably the 30i, which really doesn’t command significantly higher prices than the 20i, despite the additional performance on offer.
Range, specifications and options
The Z4 range comprises the 20i and 30i models that can be ordered either as a Sport or as an M Sport, and the M40i which BMW terms an M Performance model – effectively a halfway house between a regular BMW and an M-car. All models are well equipped, with heated leather M sport seats, LED front and rear lights, two-zone climate control, high-end satnav and BMW’s live cockpit setup coming as standard.
M Sport models add different wheels, M aero, an M steering wheel, uprated speakers, and M Sport brakes on the 30i. The M40i features the above plus adaptive M suspension and a limited-slip differential. Most options are bundled together as packages and these include those aimed at comfort, lighting, technology – including a head-up display – and various trim updates.
Problems and checks
So far the Z4 is proving to be a reliable machine with owners generally reporting no more than minor niggles, such as rattles from the cockpit, as the only problems experienced so far. When looking at a used example do the usual checks – examine panel gaps and paint matches as well as looking at the alloys for kerb damage.
There have been four recalls on the Z4, relating to incorrectly manufactured brakes discs, a possible fuel tank leak, a potentially faulty steering tie rod and a crankcase bushing. A BMW main dealer will know from the chassis number if a particular vehicle is affected by any of these recalls.