2020 BMW Z4

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Some things go together like bagels and cream cheese – and sports cars and manual transmissions. As a rule, sports cars used to come standard with manuals – and often didn’t even offer an automatic.

BMW’s Z4 roadster now comes only with an automatic.

Does it still qualify as a sports car?

What It Is

The Z4 is a two-seat roadster in the same mold as a Mazda Miata – only nicer and much more powerful.

Also much more expensive.

And – automatic only.

BMW has gone away from manuals as policy. It no longer sells any cars with a third pedal, the argument being that an automatic can be programmed to out-shift a human driver.

Which is true, by the numbers.

But then there are the intangibles.

Base price is $49,700 for the Sdrive30i version – which translates as rear-drive with a 2.0 liter turbocharged four cylinder engine paired with an eight-speed automatic.

The SdriveM40i – which stickers for $63,700 – is also rear-drive and also comes with an eight speed automatic, but paired with a 3.0 liter straight six, turbocharged to almost 400 hp.

Which is something that isn’t available in a Miata (or the Fiata – the Fiat-badged version of the Miata).

BMW, of course, directs the comparison to Porsche’s 718 Boxster – which is also a two-seat roadster. But the Porsche is mid-engined and comes standard with a manual transmission. It also comes standard with a base price of $61,600 – escalating to almost-six-figures for a Spyder.

It’s a lot to pay to shift for yourself.

What’s New

The M40 version of the Z4 – with its more powerful in-line six cylinder engine – joins the lineup for 2020.

The hardtop version of Z4 – with either engine – has been dropped.

What’s Good

Has the handling – and the speed.

Has almost twice the trunk vs. a Miata.

Has the curb appeal of being something you don’t see parked everywhere.

What’s Not So Good

Hasn’t got a manual transmission, even optionally.

Turbo’d four is torquey but not roadster revvy.

You could almost buy two Miatas for the price of one Z4.

Under The Hood

One of the Z4’s appeals is that it’s available with either a four or a six cylinder engine. Both are turbocharged engines, which makes them more powerful than the engine (singular) in lower-priced roadsters like the Miata.

The standard 2.0 liter four develops 254 horsepower as well as 294 ft.-lbs. of torque at just 1,500 RPM – an engine speed just above idle speed.

The Miata’s also-2.0-liter four hasn’t got a turbo and only develops 181 horsepower – and just 151 ft.-lbs. of torque at 4,000 RPM – considerably above idle speed.

It does, however, come paired with a standard six-speed manual transmission.

If 254 horsepower isn’t enough, you can upgrade to he 3.0 liter six, which is an in-line six, not a V6. In-line sixes are esteemed for their naturally balanced smoothness as well as their natural revvyness. Because there’s no heavy external balancer, the BMW six spins fast as well as high.

In addition to that, there’s also 382 horsepower and 368 ft.-lbs. of torque at 1,850 RPM – both figures comparing favorably to many current V8 performance engines.

Either way, the Z4 has the power to complement its sports car handling.

With the four, it can get to 60 in about five seconds flat; with the six, that number winnows down to 3.8 seconds.

Few are quicker – including those with V8s. Including the $73k to start Porsche Boxster S.

But you can’t shift for yourself.

You can, however, get more less the same BMW six for a lot less in the Toyota Supra GR.  It’s downrated to 335 hp – and also comes paired only with an automatic.

But it stickers for just under $50k to start.

On The Road

Sports aren’t muscle cars but the Z4 – with the new six – is quicker than almost all of them. And – because it is a sports car – it outhandles them when the road ahead bends.

It’s almost as elemental as riding a motorcycle. With the advantage of being able to put the roof up if it rains.

The main detraction here isn’t objective.

And it may not even be a detraction, precisely because it’s subjective. It is the standard – and only – eight-speed automatic transmission. It cannot be functionally faulted. It shifts with a precision few humans can match and with a verve few humans could fault. It lets the six spin to its operatic 7,000-plus RPM redline and maybe a little more before delivering a race-worthy upshift to the next gear.  And it holds gears, when that’s important – as in mid-corner, on a downhill stretch.

It is doubtful a human could do better – which is BMW’s inarguable argument. The automatic Z4 would likely win a road race (as well as a 0-60 race) against the same car with a manual.

But there is something intangibly desirable about shifting for yourself, even if the automatic does it better and faster.

As fast as the BMW is, the half-as-powerful Miata is more fun to drive – because you’re more involved in the driving. Paddle shifting isn’t the same as actually shifting. Yes, of course you will miss a shift sometimes in a manual-equipped sports car. Or shift too soon – or too late.

But it’s you, not the car.

BMW’s mechanistic arguments are inarguable when the race is for money. But when you’re out on the road, other considerations come into play.

The Z4 with the four is perhaps better with the automatic because of its power curve. A high torque engine doesn’t require revving to get you going. And the 2.0 four has almost twice the torque of the Miata’s four – at half the engine speed. It pulls almost like a diesel, an interesting feeling in a two-seat roadster.

And not a bad one, either.

At The Curb

The Z4 has the look of a traditional roadster: long hood/small doors – and what looks like a very small trunk. But it’s actually pretty large – just shy of 10 cubic feet of cargo capacity.

For reference, a Miata’s trunk is holds only 4.6 cubic feet.

That’s small.

The Z4 is also a BMW, of course – and so it comes standard with SensaTec leather seats, a stitched steering wheel, automatic climate control and a 10.25 inch LCD touchscreen. It is luxury roadster.

It is also an uncommon one.

The Miata is a brilliant roadster that almost perfectly captures the spirit of classic British roadsters – with the everyday reliability of a Japanese economy car. Which is why it is so common to see Miatas everywhere. This testifies to the car’s appeal but also detracts from it. If everyone owns one – or it feels as though everyone does – it makes owning one feel almost imitative.

Plus, it hasn’t got a six.

But it does have a targa roof. The peel back top with solid sail panel sides is pretty slick looking and also (for now) pretty uncommon. BMW might give some thought to this.

The Z4 is also a high-performance car – and can be ordered with a Track Package that includes high-performance (and blue powder-coated) brake calipers, a limited-slip rear axle and an adaptive suspension system with multiple driver-selectable modes and a lower ride height.

The also-available M Sport Package gets you staggered-size (18×8 up front and 18×9 in the rear) Ferric Grey light-alloy wheels with 40-series run-flat ultra performance tires. These only slightly stiffen up the ride, which is remarkably livable given the car’s intent and capabilities.

Less traditionally roadster is the trapezoidally themed main gauge cluster, with tach that describes an angular arc that goes right then up then back left.

Of course, a tach is for entertainment purposes mostly in an automatic-equipped car since you can’t miss a shift or over-rev the thing. Like all modern cars, this car has a rev limiter and there’s no worry about mechanically over-revving it since the computer will prevent you from selecting, via the paddles, a too-low gear.

You do, however, still have a shifter – something to grab hold of, at least – and that feels better than turning a knob or pushing a button. Of course, it’s entirely vestigial and drive-by-wire, so you’re not actually physically connected to anything.

But it’s still reminds you of what once was.

The Rest

It’s a good thing there’s room in the trunk – because there not much room in the cabin. For anything extra.

Like your wallet or purse, for instance. Slivers of map pockets in the door lowers; a dutch-door’d armrest under which is a shallow shelf. Pack light – or pack it in back.

There are enough USB ports for the two people who can be in this car at any given time and AppleCarPlay is standard. WiFi, however, isn’t. It’s extra – and bundled with a $3,050 Premium Package that includes heated seats, a Heads-Up Display (HUD) and wireless charging.

Another extra is paint – if you want your Z4 in other-than-white. The other available colors add $500 to the price.

And if you want other than black on the inside,  it’ll add $1,500-$1,700 to the price.

The good news is that air in the tires is no extra charge.

The Bottom Line

A Miata is fun – but the Z4 is fast.

If you don’t mind the car shifting for itself.

. . .

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27 COMMENTS

  1. The sole purpose of any sports car is the experience of driving one, which includes a manual transmission. They may have improved, likely so, but I drove a Z4 back in 06 before I bought a new MX5. I was NOT impressed by the “drive by wire” electric powered steering. In fact, at that time price being a lesser concern, it was the deciding factor. The Z4 was a much nicer ride, but to me at least, NOT a much nicer drive. The 1000 extra pounds, almost 50%, also contributing. I could be wrong, I was wrong once before, but does the Z4 top not fold into the trunk, and so give it about the same trunk space as the MX5, or less? Lastly, I was not impressed with the fictional engine sound coming out of the radio of the 06 Z4. Having operated German machines other than cars as well, I am prejudiced against German engineering. Not because they aren’t good, but because they just can’t seem to quit. They tend to engineer things until it’s no longer good engineering. $150+ oil changes for example.

    • JWK, I think there is a machismo element to doing your own shifting. There certainly is with me, but modern automatics work so well they’ve gotten me past it. I haven’t explored it yet on the Z4, but on my brother’s M2c the steering can be custom tailored to the driver’s desires. Nothing beats the steering on my old Miata. Luxury adds pounds; things like a top that folds down at the push of a button (you don’t even have to undo the latches) don’t come free. Top does not intrude on trunk space. Totally agree about the fictional engine sounds lots of cars have these days. I also share, thru cars, bikes and other machines I’ve encountered, your prejudice against German engineering…over f**king kill. The current Z4 is also festooned with every irritating nanny state device you can imagine. It is not a perfect car. But, in spite of its shortcomings, it hit my sweet spot. So I bought one.

      • They do work well, especially with paddle shifters. But the connection to the car is lacking, and there is one fairly important factor autos have yet to achieve. Longevity. In the course of my 50 years of driving, I have had exactly one manual transmission fail, and that was entirely because of abuse. I got airborne off road and failed to let off the throttle before I came back down. Such may not matter to one who can afford the inconvenience, unless the SHTF. And I do take issue with their claim that the fluid never needs checking or changing. I suppose they still claim so. I could be wrong, I was wrong once before.

  2. This car since it was introduced has always caught my eye. It should be heralded in the age of the SUV. The Z4 is a dying breed of automobile. I wish I could afford one. I’d take it out at dawn and drive along the ocean top down, or take a road trip into the mountains during the Spring, Summer and Fall months. Who needs a therapist, or a vacation, or hobby? The sports car is all of those and the ultimate in escaping reality.

  3. As long as BMW sells a small car with that beautiful sounding straight six, I will still have a little respect for them.

  4. Manual transmissions are well suited for smallish, light vehicles, like the Miata or Toyota Corolla Hatchback. In larger, heavier vehicles, the driving experience, for me, was ponderous.

    With heavy performance vehicles, not destroying the clutch, trans, driveshaft, or differential, was a challenge.

    • Hi Libertyx,

      One of the most enjoyable cars I’ve ever owned was my black and gold 455 4-speed LE Trans-Am. Not especially powerful or fast but the Super T-10 had a certain whine that made each drive special!

      • Hi Eric,

        I’ve always had fun with sleepers. In 1965 I ordered a Pontiac Catalina, 389 cu in, 4-barrel carb, 3:O8 Positraction rear, dual exhaust, and Turbo Hydramatic auto, then went hunting manual trans GTOs. 🙂

        • Damn your eyes!

          You got to order a brand-new ’65 Catalina? If only you knew how much that made me wish I’d been born 50 years earlier… or even 20.

          • How’s this…
            Not a sleeper, but in ’69 I ordered a ’69 SS 396 350hp Chevelle, with auto trans and a bench seat – for dating!

            • Argghhhh!!

              I wish I could teleport to 1973 and order a brand new Brewster Green SD-455 4-speed. Or a brand-new 1976 Carousel Red Trans-Am (like mine) with the 455 (no SD, no mo’ … but lots of potential) and the Super T-10.

              But I’m grateful for what I have.

  5. Numbers numbers numbers. Salesmen sell performance cars on numbers, not emotion. Of course for most buyers of performance, numbers are emotional. How fast can it go ’round the track? What’s the 0-60 time? What’s the 0-100-0 distance? How much torque? What’s the red line? How many cubic feet in the trunk (kidding!)?

    There’s an old car salesman phrase, “People buy paint.” I’d say that for most buyers that’s true. And these days when there’s not much difference between one SUV and another especially so. But if you think you’re a gear head you want to know the numbers.

      • Hi ft,

        I generally don’t talk much about how a car fits a person in my reviews because this is a very subjective thing; because people have widely varying body types. I always advise people to go sit in – and test drive – the car they are interested in.

        However, I will say that even a very tall geek like myself fits easily and comfortably in this car. It has as much or more legroom as a 5 Series sedan and – to me – felt more spacious – though that is probably a function of the much greater openness with the top down. And with the top up, my head does not rub up against the headliner. I’m 6ft 3.

        The trunk is objectively impressive for a car this size. I also like the Miata but will tell you that I can carry home more stuff on my ’83 Honda GL650 motorcycle than in that thing’s trunk.

      • One thing that I noticed with trunk/cargo space is that there’s much more to it than the number. The old 1970s trunks were pretty flat and low, which worked well for luggage and items like golf clubs. Then in the 1980s the trunk got tall and narrow, which made it better in some cases, much worse in others. But just going by the square footage it might seem like they’re the same.

  6. No way I can afford that baby but an automatic in a roadster? That’s a car you’re supposed to drive,,, not ride.
    Seems these days they want to automate any kind of fun… into dull.

    • BMW Z4: 3,287 to 3,457 lbs
      Mazda MX-5 Miata: 2,341 to 2,403 lbs

      Mazda Miata is the ONLY vehicle I know of that has stuck to its design brief of “small and light like a classic British sports car” — for over THIRTY YEARS with no deviation.

      I shop for desirable older vehicles by weight. Fatties don’t make the cut.

      • Jim, I owned a Miata for nine years and loved it. I barely fit in the thing with my long legs, and when my feet went up to size 13 I had to let it go. Dismiss the Z4 for its weight and you’re missing a great roll in the hay.

  7. I bought a new 4cyl Z4 last weekend. It broke my bank, but I am 100% certain it was money well spent. This car is the cat’s meow.

  8. So, this thing DOESN’T have paddle shifters? If you want to change the gears, you do so via the shift lever? Is that right? I prefer the paddle shifters, because at least you can keep your hands on the wheel…

      • Cool. I have ’em on my Focus, and I love ’em! I can change gears when I want, and I can let the tranny do the work in traffic… 🙂

        • I didn’t really care for them, although Audi put them on the steering wheel itself so when the wheel wasn’t straight you might accidentally shift the wrong direction (which happens in the twistys when you really need proper shifting). If they were on the column I might have used them more often. But I really didn’t like that I couldn’t skip shift or pre-shift with the clutch in into a turn, and that the computer was pretty insistent on not shifting until I rev matched. Very annoying.

          • RK,

            That’s why you cross arms like the racers do; then you keep your hands on the paddles in the twisties. Also, because you keep your hands on the wheel, you don’t lose the ability to feel what the car is doing.

            That said, paddles don’t offer the same degree of control that a manual does. The computer can and does override in certain situations. I’m discovering that with my Focus. For example, if I’m in 5th coming up to a hill and give it enough gas, the tranny will AUTOMATICALLY drop a gear or two with no input from me; that is to say, even when in paddle mode, the tranny will drop gears even if I don’t actuate the paddle if I gas it enough. It depends on the steepness of the road and how much gas I give, but the tranny can and does change gears on its own in certain situations when I’m using the paddles. IOW, the computer takes control.

            That said, overall, I like ’em. A manual is a royal PITA in traffic! I hate a manual in traffic! Secondly, I have arthritic knees, and it’s sometimes difficult to work the clutch if my knees are acting up. With the paddles, I don’t have to worry about that.

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