The roads in the mountains backstopping this historic Mediterranean port are a theme park ride of hairpin bends, cliff-hanging curves, sharp dips and long descents guaranteed to widen the eyes of any driving thrill seeker.
But the thrill takes on new meaning behind the wheel of BMW's just-introduced 2009 Z4 roadster, which manages to juxtapose elevated levels of luxury with astounding over-the-road performance.
Driving hard into the apex of a mountain road right-hander, fingertip downshifting through the Z4's seven-speed double-clutch gearbox and braking so hard the electronics are thinking about invoking an ABS intervention, you're very interested in two things happening next.
First, the steering must precisely transmit information about the line you've visually selected to the front wheels. Then the front suspension, wheels and tires have to jointly and severely generate enough of that essential ingredient described colloquially by the four-letter word grip.
If there's enough of this often-elusive force being produced at the front, the feeling is one of satisfaction, tinged with a little relief that you've correctly worked out this part of the cornering equation.
And if there's also plenty under the rear wheels on the way out, allowing you to apply every erg of the engine's output through the rear wheels, the sensation is pure exhilaration.
My driving partner and I repeated this exercise countless times on our introductory Z4 drive through passes once plodded by Hannibal's war elephants. And our conclusion at day's end was that we'd rarely if ever experienced the level of front-end precision and traction the Z4 produces, or revelled as much in the rush of 300 hp so controllably applied to pavement.
To properly describe this new Z4, you have to use the term "high performance" in the sense of both driving dynamics and traditional and high-tech luxury, because it is targeted at an increasingly sophisticated BMW buyer seeking more elegance, refinement, comfort and electronic gadgetry in his or her roadster ride.
The result of this refocusing is the 2009 Z4, which went on sale earlier this month in $53,900 sDrive30i and $61,900 sDrive35i roadster form (a coupe is no longer offered).
The roadsters have a stunning new shape, created by Juliane Blasi, the first female designer responsible for a BMW exterior, and the first power-folding hardtop offered on a BMW roadster. And it features a simply beautiful interior created by Nadya Arnaout that is particularly stunning when fitted with the optional ivory white Nappa leather and anthracite trim package.
The Z4 is now also equipped with BMW's iDrive electronics controller, plus more technically advanced audio, navigation and communication systems.
The new Z4, as was its predecessor, is based on the 3-Series platform and reinforced A-pillars, rollover bars and front and side airbags, plus a complex suite of electronic driving aids and Xenon headlights make up its safety package. It is 148 mm longer, somewhat wider and weighs about 135 kg more.
The two-piece aluminum hardtop's electro-hydraulic mechanism opens and closes it in 20 seconds, allowing you to flip the lid while waiting at a traffic light. With it stowed, there's very little wind buffeting and headroom is fine with it up, although it makes the slightly roomier but still-snug cockpit feel a little confining.
Its big benefit is that it makes the interior much quieter, adding to the car's touring potential. Unfortunately, it also compromises trunk volume. There's actually more than the soft-top version, 310 litres versus 260 litres top up, but there's less with it down, 180 litres compared to 220 litres.
However, not all of that volume may be realistically available. BMW claims two golf bags will fit, but the auto maker must be thinking about the miniature version of the game.
The sDrive35i's leather seats were a critical component in my mountain drive, holding me securely in place and the leather-rimmed wheel is just the right diameter.
The dual-dial instrument cluster is typically BMW-simple, and the large foldaway navigation system screen is located high in the centre console. On the dash, there's the now all but mandatory push-to-start button, and an assortment of dials and buttons to make it handier for those who find the iDrive controller too challenging to access various functions. Wood or aluminum trim allow you a choice of interior ambience.
The Z4 sDrive30i's engine is BMW's 3.0-litre, double-overhead-valve inline-six-cylinder (with Valvetronic and double-Vanos control). It is rated at 255 hp at 6,600 rpm and 220 lb-ft of torque at 2,600 rpm, matched with either a six-speed manual or six-speed sport automatic transmission.
The sDrive35i's 3.0-litre engine is equipped with twin turbochargers that boost output to 300 hp at 5,800 rpm and 300 lb-ft of torque, available from just 1,400 rpm. To get the power to the rear wheels, there's a choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed double-clutch gearbox.
I'm old school enough to still like shifting through a gate, but this transmission made me something of a convert to paddle-shifting with its finger-snap-quick responses. And it also works in a more than acceptably refined manner in automatic mode.
Performance by the numbers indicates the Z4 sDrive35i can get to 100 km/h in 5.2 seconds and delivers 12.2 L/100 km city and 8.2 highway.
The suspension is by double-wishbones up front with a central link system at the rear. Disc brakes are found on each corner and the sDrive 35i is fitted with 225/45R17 front tires and 255/40R17 rear tires. Dynamic Drive Control allows the driver a choice of three settings that alter gas pedal, power steering, engine management, Dynamic Stability Control systems plus damper control on cars with Adaptive M suspension.
With this new-generation Z4, BMW has certainly met its goal of upping the luxury and style quotients, but underneath its thicker and slicker veneer of civility, it remains a brutally effective sports car.
2009 BMW Z4 sDRIVE35i
Type: Luxury sports car
Engine: 3.0-litre DOHC, twin-turbo, inline-six
Horsepower/torque: 300 hp/ 300 lb-ft
Transmission: Seven-speed double-clutch
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.2 city/8.2 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Porsche 911, Audi TT, Mercedes-Benz SLK, Nissan 370Z, Porsche Boxster, Volvo C70, Lexus SC430, Dodge Viper SRT10 Roadster, Chevrolet Corvette, Cadillac XLR
- Superb handling and power delivery
- Great new looks outside and in
- Increased size and weight
- Limited luggage capability due to the hardtop
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