Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: July 1, 2023
The BMW Z4 is heavily underappreciated. Personal roadsters, so to speak, are low-volume and low-priority items to manufacturers and live in the shadow of popular SUVs. And in the case of the Z4, it certainly doesn’t command as much attention and limelight as other BMWs, but we would argue that this convertible actually inspires more passion and a heightened sense of occasion than many of its M cars.
We see the Z4 as a mini 8 Series. A grand tourer then? In many ways, yes. The Z4 covers all the proverbial bases, coddling you across a province in comfort yet it wouldn’t embarrass itself should there be a racetrack at the destination. It rides soft, prioritizing a cruise down the boulevard rather than a serpentine backroad, but it isn’t afraid to flex its howling inline-six and let the exhaust burbles do the talking.
The Z4 carries masculine proportions with a phallic front hood, tapered rear end, and a slim side profile and silhouette. It’s less of a feminine cruiser - or a cliché hairdresser’s car - and more of a compact grand tourer. The wheels fill the arches well and the black fabric roof does little to distract when folded up. The shade of Thundernight Metallic matched with the Ivory White interior seats is a killer spec that we’d highly recommend if you want to look classy. We still crave an M version to complete the set, just like in previous generations with the clown shoes of the Z3 M and Z4 M, but alas we don’t think there’s a market for one, let alone one that wouldn’t cannibalize sales with the M2 and M4.
There’s a layer of polish and solidity to the Z4 interior that you won’t find in a Jaguar F-Type or Mazda MX-5. Every point of driver touch and interaction feels purposeful and ergonomic. The switchgear is firmly glued into place and feels premium when triggered. A large 10.3-inch touchscreen sits in the center and isn’t the newest unit found in the X5 and X6 SUVs. This arrangement still, much to our delight, has the same array of hard buttons and dials on the center stack. BMW has kept those eight programmable shortcut buttons as well which you can program to any driving mode, radio station, or display screen that you prefer. And while the dinky knob of a shifter isn’t the most pleasant thing for the eyes or hands to grasp, its small shadow doesn’t get in the way of accessing the upper storage cabin or glovebox in an otherwise relatively compact interior.
The trunk size is decent and isn’t impacted by the folding fabric roof. There are plenty of storage cubbies inside as well to store your phone, wallet, and personal paraphernalia. There are two cupholders in the center glovebox, and a storage net behind the seats, with even a passthrough cover into the trunk space should you need to transport lengthy items or simply need a snack from the back.
Not much has changed since we last tested the Z4 in 2020 and compared it to its Japanese cousin, the Toyota GR Supra. There are still two models on tap: 30i and M40i, the former using a 2.0-litre four-cylinder that produces 255 hp, while the M40i is equipped with a turbocharged 3.0-litre inline-six making 382 hp and 369 lb-ft. It runs that output via an 8-speed automatic transmission strictly to the rear wheels. No all-wheel drive here. The M40i also comes with many standard performance features that are optional on the 30i, such as the M Sport Differential that optimizes traction when accelerating out of a corner, M Sport brakes that ensure braking performance, and variable sport steering that varies the steering effort needed depending on the speed and driving circumstances. The two models are nearly identical in looks, except for wheel designs and the obvious badging. The 30i also uses two rounded exhaust tips, while the M40i has square ones.
Some might recall the Z4’s history in motorsport with BMW running a Z4 in their GT3 program, loaded with a naturally aspirated V8 engine that howled up to 8,500 rpm and won as many races as it competed in. And in many ways, the M40i’s inline-six is still the car’s gravity - the four-cylinder just doesn’t do the Z4 any justice. The four-cylinder F-Type and GR Supra achieve the same fate. While lighter in weight and less expensive, they feel too compromised for what they’re worth.
The inline-six is every bit as potent as the numbers suggest, and while the top end is worth seeking out, we find ourselves constantly drawn to the generous mid-range, where its peak torque of 369 lb-ft feels everlasting. In Sport Mode, the exhaust valves open to let the engine sing with its signature notes, one that you will find in all current BMWs with a shared 40i badge, from the X3 M40i to the X5 xDrive40i. And the resonant burble remains omnipresent.
We didn’t expect adaptive dampers but the Z4 is equipped with them in two selectable settings. Comfort offers a nicely judged ride that’s supple and absorbent, and Sport delivers a tightly strung and taut ride with a sharper and more agile front end. Occasionally some sharp impacts may punch through but all the rough edges have been ruffled off before you register them. Frankly, the ride quality at both low and high speeds is exceptionally smooth, and makes for an excellent road trip companion. The small stature of the Z4 also means it’s easy to manage its footprint, and every road, even small backroads, feel like an open invitation to hit Sport Mode and let the engine and chassis do its thing. While the steering is numb and devoid of any feeling, the gentle body roll and pitch lets you breathe with the road ebbing and flowing beneath you, communicating all the nuances of grip levels and weight transfer. It’s a marvellous piece of kit, made better with the elements of sunshine and the smell of summer battering your face.
It’s not difficult to coax the rear out of line, but there is enough mechanical grip and stability control measures to keep that from happening accidentally. From where we’re sitting, the Z4 M40i isn’t too far off of the GR Supra in terms of drivability and accessibility to its peak performance, and the Z4 is progressive enough to let you feel through the wheel and your seat bottom when you’re approaching those grip limits.
The Z4 is automatic shifting only. Unlike the GR Supra that is now available with a six-speed manual, we don’t think the Z4 needs it. While it may add an extra layer of driver engagement, the Z4 better enjoys a relaxed pace. It’s a two-seater with a four-seater GT attitude, and we don’t think prospective buyers would be opting for a manual, let alone enjoy one. The 8-speed automatic here is one of the slickest units in the business, with snappy shifts and smooth transitions in both automatic and manual shifting via the paddles.
The driving position is consistent with a grand tourer as well. You sit low down and laid back in the Z4, with plenty of adjustment range for both the seatback and seat bottom. The footwell is generous in width, so there’s a great deal of wiggle room for my six-foot figure. The view of an elongated hood up front gives you the impression you’re sitting near the rear axle, though outward visibility from all sides is excellent, and you get the same boulevard cruiser vibes as you do in the 8 Series. Even after an hour-long commute, you get out feeling refreshed but with some extra tint of orange to your skin.
If a scalpel-sharp corner-carving convertible is what you’re after, the Z4 M40i might feel too softly sprung and lax. It doesn’t rotate the way a mid-engined Boxster does, nor does it beg to be wrangled with a V8 war drum like in an F-Type. There are more expensive options in the Chevrolet C8 Corvette and the BMW M440i Convertible that comes with all-wheel drive too. Instead, the Z4 hits the medium and strikes a delicate balance between both comfort and performance. It’s usable on a rainy day and offers plenty of driver reward when you stretch its legs on a sunny backroad. It’s the porridge at the perfect temperature, no matter what the actual ambient temperature is on the other side of the fabric roof. It’s the way all of the elements of the Z4, from its drivability to its sense of occasion, neatly fuse together that leaves a lasting impression.
Model: 2023 BMW Z4 M40i
Paint Type: Thundernight Metallic
Base Price: $80,500
Price as Tested: $88,745
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,337 / 1,864 / 1,303
Curb weight (kg): 1,643
Engine: 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six
Horsepower: 382 hp @ 5,500 - 6,500 rpm
Torque: 369 lb-ft @ 1,850 - 4,500 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, RWD
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 11.4
Tires: Michelin Pilot Super Sport; 255/35R19 front; 275/35R19 rear