Let’s pause for moment to contemplate the truest expression of an automobile.
Yes, we agree: a roadster. Two seats, low to the ground, convertible top, enough power but not too much. A manual gearbox is a must, one with short, creamy throws. The seats wrap you just so and the instruments tell you exactly what is happening with the car’s mechanical bits.
We have fewer roadsters; it’s a telling sign of the times. A roadster is intended to engage you. The best put the driver in the centre of the action, alive with the open-air experience, the early morning dew on your cheek, the sun above, promises and possibilities down the road ahead.
Sorry. Getting carried away here. But I’ve just finished with an updated BMW 2014 Z4 sDrive35i roadster, a delightful, absorbing automobile. I suppose it should be. At $63,900 to start, and loaded up with $11,000 worth of options, this entertaining two-seater – the one with the low, long bonnet and seating just ahead of the rear axles – is an indulgence.
There, I’ve just spoiled the mood. This is where we’ve come to in the automobile business. Few car companies trouble themselves with roadsters. They are a plaything for a sliver of wealthy enthusiast. Insurance costs and government regulations have priced roadsters out of reach for the middle class.
Yes, you can find the odd exception. Mazda produces the wonderful little MX-5 and, at a starting price of $29,250, it is somewhat affordable. Chevrolet is about to launch the seventh-generation version of the Corvette Stingray, the 2014 model, though this one is more super sports car than roadster. Mercedes-Benz has the SLK with a base price of $52,500, though the convertible hardtop is not ideal for a purist.
The Mini Cooper Roadster ($28,900) is an interesting take on a classic idea. Small and nimble, the Mini Roadster checks all the boxes, though the base car at 121 horses is light in the power department. Nissan? The 370Z Roadster ($47,478) is the antithesis of the Mini. With 332 hp on tap and a hard edge that screams out for aggressive driving, the 370Z is powerful and imposing. It is for the most committed driver.
Porsche’s Boxster ($56,500) is a mid-engined gem. Like the best sports cars, it strikes a wonderful balance between racy and reclined. And Jaguar’s F-Type ($76,900)? It’s a two-seater with a long nose and a short rear deck and the design is spellbinding. The F-Type is a slightly larger take on the classic two-seater – certainly when compared head to head against the Boxster, the Z4, the MX-5, the Mini and even the 370z. A sign of the times.
BMW does offer a more modest version of the Z4 – the 28i at $54,300 is more in line with the base price of the Boxster and comes with a 241-hp turbo four. My tester, on the other hand, had a 300-hp twin-turbo straight-six that filled up the engine space. It is a fine mill, and nicely mated to a six-speed manual gearbox with precise, silky throws. The power seamlessly pours into the rear wheels as you play with the throttle. Very entertaining.
Atop is BMW’s take on a hardtop roof. Stab the button and it folds into the car’s form, creating a flowing roofline. In some parts of Canada, the lined and insulated top would make this a 12-month car. Perhaps. But it would be a stretch. This car is for April to September.
I do have to comment on the design details, though. The twin, circular bi-xenon headlights frame BMW’s classic kidney grille and how can you not admire that look? The front wheel arches have LED light rings for daytime running lights and they are perfect example of the best lighting of 2014. BMW is not flying solo with advanced lighting; rivals such as Audi are doing wonders, too. But I like what BMW has done to jazz up the Z4.
Speaking of which, my tester had the optional M Sport package ($1,950) with its M adaptive suspension, 19-inch light-alloy wheels and an aerodynamics package with large air intakes in the front wing and a rear bumper inlay painted Anthracite metallic.
To make sure you know you’re piloting the M Sport version, the car comes with aluminum carbon trim, an aerodynamics package and an anthracite roofliner. “M” badging is seemingly everywhere – plus the car has an optional seven-speed double clutch transmission package ($1,950) with an “M” steering wheel and shift paddles.
I could go on about all the technology on board. For instance, a rocker switch allows you to choose different performance modes – Comfort, Sport And Sport +. Using it adjusts the engine responses, the shift characteristics and so on. Yes, BMW is giving you plenty of technology here.
In the end, however, no one buys a Z4 roadster for the gizmos. No, the Z4 exists to give you the emotional jolt that comes with open-air motoring. The car delivers.
2014 BMW Z4 sDrive35i Roadster
Price: $63,900 (destination charge $2,095)
Engine: 3.0-litre, six-cylinder, turbocharged
Horsepower/torque: 300 hp/300 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual (or optional seven-speed automatic at $1,950)
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.2 city/7.6 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Mazda MX-5, Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, Mercedes-Benz SLK, Mini Cooper Roadster, Nissan 370Z Roadster, Porsche Boxster, Jaguar F-Type
Globe rating for the 2014 BMW Z4Our ratings guide
The rear axle is just there, behind you in the driver’s seat. Power pours into the rear wheels with precision. The steering, dampers and brake can do the job on the track, but in city driving you will not be punished.
The long bonnet, short rear deck and low roofline are exactly as they should be. Lighting details add panache to a sports car with stance and style.
You glide into the seats, and find yourself face to face with instruments and controls that are functional and useful. I’ve never been a fan of iDrive, but because all the rest is so nicely done, let’s just overlook it.
Yes, this is a small two-seater, but BMW has loaded up on rollover protection, airbags, electronic driving nannies and a robust structure.
This Z4 uses premium fuel and plenty of it for a two-seat car.
(out of 10 / Not an average)
The numerical ratings are assigned by The Globe and Mail’s car reviewers on a scale out of ten. Each car is assigned a separate rating in five key categories - plus an overall satisfaction rating that is calculated separately, and is not an average of the five category ratings.
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