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BMW Z4 2.5 review (2002-2006)
Bodystyle: 2dr roadster
Engine: 2.5-litre in-line 6-cylinder
Fuel type: Petrol
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Date of test: December 2003
What is it?
BMW sees this as its Boxster-beater; a rival to the German Porsche which continues to lure thousands of buyers every year. Quite a claim, considering the ineptness of the Z3 it replaced. That car was based on essentially 1980s suspension, had a low-rent interior and was basically a compromised car. Not really becoming of the propeller badge. The Z4, using 21st-Century chassis engineering, promises to be far better. But causing the biggest debate is its styling; this is the most extreme iteration yet of design chief Chris Bangle's 'flame surface' styling. Some don't like it, some think it's fantastic. It certainly divides opinion.
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Where does it fit?
As mentioned, it's a rival for the Porsche Boxster and, therefore, for the Mercedes SLK and higher-spec Audi TTs, too. They like their two-seater sports cars in Germany. The BMW uses a conventional fabric roof, father than the Mercedes' space-inefficient folding hard-top, and comes with a wholly six-cylinder range of engines to match the Porsche and out-do the TT. There'll probably eventually be an M-badged stormer to top the range. the 2.5-litre model is the mid-range model, perfectly placed to battle with the 2.7-litre Porsche, SLK230 and new TT 3.2-litre V6.
Is it for you?
The 2.5-litre variant will for many people be the perfect Z4. Porsche performance, costs on a par with the Audi, badge appeal of all three. It's also, thanks to the soft-top roof, got a big boot and plenty of space in the cabin for taller drivers, and equipment is not lacking. Of course, two seats only will limit its appeal to many, while the low-slung driving position can be tricky in city centres. But with the roof down, air con blasting, straight six singing, many will think it the perfect car for them. That it's equally adept when the weather's not so good is but a bonus.
What does it do well?
The engine is a gem. Ultra-smooth throughout the rev range, it also makes a delightful noise; deep at low revs, glorious near the rev limiter. The meaty gearchange leaves you in no doubt that the rear wheels are driven and, once you've mastered the feel-packed clutch and need for quick flicks of the wrists between ratios, it's delightful. Handling is also leagues ahead of the Z3. An ultra-stiff chassis (no scuttle shake) allows flat cornering with bags of grip; it's direct and nimble, rather like a slot car. The steering has a purity lacking on rivals other than the Porsche too, though the 'Sport' button which 'weightens' it and quickens throttle response seems a bit gimmicky. The car cruises well at speed - you feel like you're going 20mph slower than you actually are - and the ultra-quick hood (10 seconds to lower) allows instant sunshine whenever you get the chance at traffic lights. While you're there, glance in the door mirrors, and see the Ferrari-style flowing rear wheelarches. You'll feel good, we guarantee.
What doesn't it do well?
Despite all the cornering forces available, the seats fail to offer sufficient sideways support. They're too flat and lack 'bucket-style' side bolstering. Steering is ultimately lacking in feel, the gearchange can feel clumsy at slow speed and reverse requires, like all BMWs, muscle to engage. Ride quality, when running on the standard-fit 'run-flat' tyres, is also very firm and nervous. The tyres can be driven on when punctured for up to 90 miles at 50mph (they're monitored by an electronic tyre pressure warning instrument) but the stiff sidewalls necessary mean cross-country drives often induce queasiness. A serious flaw, as the chassis itself is quite supple and comfortable. The ride doesn't even settle down on motorways, always remaining 'jiggly', which is a bit of a pain in so able a car.
What's it like to live with?
You sit low in the Z4, which makes entering and exiting slightly tricky, but once there you'll discover a spot-on driving position with plenty of space all-round. The boot, as mentioned, is accommodating for a roadster, though the too-thin door bins are a bit useless, and the thin plastic they're made from seems cheap; it's at odds with the high standards of finish elsewhere. There's a great stereo, at least when fitted with the optional 10-speaker system, while optional Xenon headlamps are exceptional. Fuel economy averages at 31.7mpg - good considering the size of the six-cylinder engine - and residuals promise to be well up with the class front-runners. If you can afford the list price, this car won't cost much to run at all, despite all its visual drama.
Would we buy it?
It's a competitive class, and not even BMW has managed to shake our faith in the Porsche Boxster. But consider this model a little too 'specialised', and therefore take it out of the equation, and the BMW's case for class-leader is compelling. It's certainly feels more special than the TT, looks (in our eyes) fantastic and offers a viceless drive. The rear-driven exuberance some seek will be lacking, but 95% of drivers will find it rapid, entertaining and enjoyable. Only those run-flat tyres really come in for criticism, compromising the ride quality to an unacceptable degree. A four-corner retread will make the Z4 into the great all-rounder we reckon it is. Not least because of a brilliant engine, along with the ability to turn heads even in a hurricane.
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