The Good: Flame surface styling, speed, and handling
The Bad: Flame surface styling, road noise, poor visibility, rough ride
The Bottom Line: A real driver's car, but it's no Porsche Cayman
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The arrival of BMW's new Z4 Coupe has been much anticipated by driving enthusiasts. That's largely because adding a hard top to a roadster like the Z4 detracts a bit from the car's sex appeal during summer driving, but adds to the rigidity of the car's frame, which improves handling. Enthusiasts are also eager to see whether the Z4 Coupe can match Porsche's new Cayman Coupe, a hardtop based on the Porsche Boxster that has earned raves from critics, including yours truly (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/17/06, "Grand Cayman").
Like the Cayman, the Z4 Coupe is an old-fashioned European sports car with a lot of new technology packed into it. Both cars are small, light, rear-wheel-drive two-seaters with 6-cylinder engines, rather than the more muscular V8 in a Corvette (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/6/06, "The No-Sweat 'Vette") and Corvette Z06 (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/9/05, "Corvette Z06: Fast Wheels for Strong Hearts").
The high-performance M version of the Z4 Coupe that I test drove is powered by a 330-horsepower inline six-cylinder aluminum block engine (vs. 295 horsepower for the Cayman S). The Z4 is only 161 inches long, almost a foot shorter than the Cayman, but weighs 3,108 lbs., 154 lbs. more than the Cayman.
On paper, the performance of the BMW and Porsche are similar. With a six-speed stick shift like the one on my test Z4, they'll both jump from 0 to 60 mph in under five seconds. They both do a quarter mile in about 13 seconds. The Z4 doesn't match the Porsche's phenomenally efficient braking, but it comes close. From 60 mph, the Z4 comes to a complete stop in 122 feet, vs. 116 feet for the Porsche. The Cayman has slightly more luggage space, but both have enough for a weekend jaunt for two if both pack light.
For now, the Cayman is J.D. Power's top-ranked model in the premium sporty compact segment, both in terms of initial quality and overall appeal. The Z4 Coupe is too new to have a rating, or much of a sales record, for that matter. But as brands, Porsche and BMW both have enviable four-star J.D. Power overall quality ratings.
There are two big differences between the two cars. First, the BMW's flame-surface exterior styling is pretty radical. While the Porsche's lines are curvy and uncomplicated, the Z4 Coupe has distinctive indentations built into its doors and the infamous "Bangle Butt" (after Chris Bangle, BMW's controversial chief designer) that's common on new Bimmers these days.
The rear of the Z4 is high and square and ends so abruptly it almost looks as if the back of the car has been sheared off. While many traditionalists openly voiced their disapproval of Bangle's new look when it was introduced in 2003 on the BMW 5 Series, sales have remained strong.
I like the Z4's styling, though the little ducktail at the base of the rear window is a bit precious for my taste. I just wonder if the flame-surface look is going to seem dated in a few years.
The other big difference is that the Z4 costs less. The Z4 Coupe starts at $40,795 for the regular model and $50,995 (including a $1,000 gas guzzler tax) for the speedier Z4 M. So, the top-of-the-line Z4 M Coupe goes for nearly nine grand less than the Porsche Cayman S, which starts at $59,695. And there's a very long list of expensive options on the Cayman that can really jack up the price.
The Z4 M Coupe, by contrast, comes well-loaded with much of the same standard gear you'll find on BMW's speedy M3 sedan, including the engine, brakes, suspension, and steering system. The only available transmission on the Z4 M Coupe is a six-speed manual. You can't get it with an automatic transmission.
If you want to spend more, major options include an $1,800 navigation system; a $2,500 premium package that includes automatic dimming mirrors, cruise control, power seats, and other amenities; extra interior leather for $1,800, and heated seats for $500.
But the bottom line is that you'll pay less for the BMW with options than for a bare-bones Porsche Cayman S.
BEHIND THE WHEEL.
The Z4 Coupe is basically an old-fashioned sports car, with all the driving thrills and the inconveniences that implies. This car seems tailored to tastes in Germany, with its strong driving culture, rather than to U.S. tastes. It holds the highway equally well at 70 mph or 110 mph. In fact, I regularly found the speedometer was creeping up toward the 100-mph mark.
As noted above, the Z4 is very fast off the mark, and the shifting intervals are shorter than in the Cayman in the lower gears. As you'd expect from a performance sports car, the ride is hard. And if you want an even sportier ride, you can put the car into sport mode at the push of a button, which makes the throttle more responsive and reduces the power steering's boost. Either way, the steering is very precise. Point the car into a curve at high speed and it goes exactly where you expect it to.
The car's interior is functional, not fancy. The steering wheel is small. The seats are supportive and well-bolstered, but they position you way down close to the pavement, so it's not an easy car to get into and out of.
The onboard computer and navigation system operate via a relatively simple menu system. You choose from options on a small screen that pops up in the middle of the dash by pushing a knob on the dash. The menus and directions in the nav system are in functional gray tones, though the map is in color.
For me, the biggest negative about this car is its feng shui while you're driving. Maybe it's my bad back, but after a while I felt as if I were sitting in a bucket. And I couldn't see well enough to feel entirely safe in traffic. Even by sports car standards, there's a major blind spot over your right shoulder. The rear window is small and narrow, the side windows are also narrow, and the big side mirrors obscure your view.
While the Cayman's hood slopes down out of sight, the Z4's hood stretches way out, and cuts into your visibility. There's also a lot of road noise at highway speed. And the exhaust note during hard acceleration is raspy. For me, at least, it has none of the appeal of a Corvette's howl, or the cat-like snarl of the Nissan 350Z (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/19/06, "Z as in Zoom").
Then there are the Z4 Coupe's cupholders, which pop out of either corner of the dash—the one on the driver's side is positioned just over your left leg, and when I was drinking coffee one evening every bump in the road caused hot Seattle's Best to slosh onto my left knee. That's partly because putting the Z4 in sport mode makes the throttle jumpy. The clutch is touchy too, so it's hard to keep the car from chugging at low speeds in stop-and-go driving. I felt a lot more comfortable in the Cayman.
Of course, many driving enthusiasts will consider these negatives mere idiosyncrasies that add to the BMW's appeal. The Z4 M Coupe is fast, nimble, handles very well, and costs less than a Porsche, which is all most enthusiasts need to know about it. I make the niggling criticisms above for everyone else.
BUY IT OR BAG IT?
You have a lot of choices in this segment, including General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet Corvette, the Nissan (NSANY) 350Z, and the Cayman, as well as the Mercedes-Benz SLK55 from DaimlerChrysler (DCX). Whether you choose the BMW over the others will depend on several factors.
Do you want a performance car, or just a nice-looking sports car for tooling around town? The Z4 M Coupe is a performance car. How do you respond to the Z4 Coupe's unusual styling? And do you believe a convertible should be more expensive than a hardtop? The Z4 Roadster costs more than the Coupe, which is the usual way of doing things, while Porsche has priced the Cayman about $4,000 above the Boxster S ragtop. If that rankles you, chalk up extra points for the BMW.
Also, keep in mind that if you're not the type of person who pours over Car & Driver and Motor Trend every month, you don't have to go with the high-performance M version of the Z4. The basic Z4 Coupe costs about ten grand less and is plenty quick for most people, even though it has a less powerful engine than the M.
A big selling point for many buyers is that the basic Z4 coupe can be had with an optional Steptronic automatic transmission for an extra $1,275. Truth be told, BMW's automatic (like Porsche's) has a clutchless manual shifting function with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters that's almost as much fun to drive as a stick shift.
THE BOTTOM LINE.
By all means, buy a Z4 if it grabs you. Just be aware of all your options before you do.
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