BMW introduced its first roadster, the 315/1, in 1934 at the Berlin Motor Show. The 315 featured a long engine compartment, a six-cylinder motor, two sports seats, and a speedometer that went up to 150 km/h. The result? Instant Freude am Fahren (Joy of Driving, BMW’s tagline).
After selling 230 roadsters, BMW introduced the more powerful 319/1 variant with similar styling, selling 178. The 328 Roadster followed in 1936, becoming one of the fastest cars on the road (with a top speed of 155 km/h). Only 464 units were built until the Second World War necessitated an end of production.
The company’s next roadster, unveiled in New York in 1955, set the standard for roadsters of its era and beyond. The timeless BMW 507, designed by Albrecht Graf von Götz, a German emigrant who settled in California in 1936, remains an icon of automotive design, later passing its mantle to the BMW Z1, the Z8, and finally the new Z4 Roadster.
The all-new Z4 is the first BMW roadster to sport a retractable hardtop roof (the 3er Series cabriolet has had one, however for several years now). Its silhouette closely resembles the iconic 507, it is almost the same size and weight as the more recent and highly sought-after Z8, and it is far more elegant and sporty in appearance than its immediate Z4 and Z3 predecessors.
The top takes only 20 seconds to retract and it appears far more robust than earlier generation retractable hardtops, which seemed a bit fragile in construction. The interior features generous amounts of space; even with the top up, I never felt claustrophobic. With the top down, which is the way this car is meant to be driven, the cabin isn’t overly noisy or draft; with the top up, you would never know you were in a convertible.
The Z4 comes with a choice of two engines, the naturally-aspirated 3.0-liter inline-six with 190 kW/258 hp at 6,600 rpm and 310 Nm/228 pound-feet of torque at 2,570, and the twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-six with 225 kW/306 hp at 5,800 rpm and 400 Nm/295 pound-feet from 1,300-5,000 rpm. The NA engine does 0-100 km/h in 5.8 seconds; the twin-turbo does it in 5.2. A third power plant is offered in European markets, a 2.5-liter inline six that produces 150 kW/204 hp at 6,200 rpm and 250 Nm/184 pound-feet of torque at 2,950 rpm, with 0-100 km/h in 6.6 seconds (manual transmission).
The new Z4 also comes with a rather cumbersome badge. The twin-turbo is designated the BMW Z4 sDrive35i. Similarly, the NA version is the BMW Z4 sDrive30i, and the smaller power plant is (somewhat inexplicably) the BMW Z4 sDrive23i.
With perfect 50/50 weight distribution and a choice of three settings covering acceleration, stability control, steering, and shifting (if automatic), as well as the adaptive M suspension that comes with the $2300 sport package, I found the Z4 to be ready for everything from leisurely touring to high-speed cornering. The car went exactly where I pointed it and didn’t allow rough road surfaces to intrude.
My drives in the Z4 took me through the twisty canyons, citrus groves, and highway in Southern California and the Freude am Fahren quotient was extremely high. Just don’t pack too much for the trip. While there are several useful storage compartments in the passenger compartment as well as a luggage pass-through, the trunk has 10.9 cubic feet of space with the top up and a somewhat useful 6.4 cubic feet with the top down.
The 2009 Z4 is also the first roadster to get iDrive and the new generation four version of BMW’s cockpit controller is perfectly integrated into the vehicle, providing the driver not only with an ergonomic controller with shortcut buttons in the center armrest, making direct selection of functions such as satnav and telephone a simple matter. The folding, 8.8” high-resolution display provides incredible 3-D graphics and acts as a command center for the vehicle. An 80 GB hard disk drive stores map data, music, and contacts.
The 2008 Z4M Coupe (M indicates BMW’s performance division) started at $50,400; the 2009 Z4 sDrive35i starts at $52,475, with no M badge, still drives like an M car and has the advantages of being better looking and more fuel efficient to boot.
In conjunction with the launch, BMW sponsored the creation of an “Expression of Joy,” a 30-x40-foot canvas created by Robin Rhode, a South African artist living in Berlin. Rhode used the new Z4, equipped with paint dispenses behind its wheels, to create this unique and contemporary painting, which was recently on exhibit at New York City’s Grand Central Terminal along with four of BMW’s original Art Cars.
My verdict: the 2009 BMW Z4 is one of the purest expressions of Freude am Fahren. It’s not only fun to drive but it makes a darn good paintbrush as well.
–Jonathan B. Spira is the Editor of Executive Road Warrior and Chief Analyst at Basex, a knowledge economy research firm.