Johannesburg - Perhaps you could call it the phone factor - a non-scientific but generally accurate barometer of a car’s head-turning ability. Test drive a supercar for a week, as we occasionally do, and you’ll see plenty of phones pointing at it on the street, along with the obligatory upward-turned thumbs and envious stares.
In that sense, our BMW Z4 M40i test car in San Francisco Red turned out to be a very ‘phony’ car, attracting far more picture snapping and video recording attention than I had expected for something that’s not even trying to be a supercar.
BMW hasn’t done any radical design about-turns here, but the new Z4 is bolder, thanks in part to its wide-grinning Kidney Grille and sharply sculpted tail lights.
The proportions continue to follow the classic low-slung, stretched-hood roadster script, although the bonnet has been shortened a bit while the car has grown a whole 85mm in length, 74mm in width and 13mm in height, while 26mm has been taken out of the wheelbase.
BMW has also swopped out the folding hardtop for a fabric roof, which saves weight and liberates more boot space - with a volume of 281 litres it’s now on par with a compact hatch - but you will have to put up with a bit more wind noise at highway speeds.
Another aspect that attracts more attention to this Z4 than ever before is that it forms the technical basis of the new Toyota Supra (which, incidentally, is being launched in South Africa this week), although that peer pressure didn’t result in a more hardcore performer as the range-topping M40i only matches the 250kW power output of the previous sDrive35is, while the 500Nm torque figure is exactly what the latter achieved on overboost.
Yet its lack of power progression is not necessarily a bad thing.
The 3-litre straight six turbopetrol still catapults the relatively light two-seater from zero to 100km/h in a very respectable 4.6 seconds. For about R250 000 less (R782 642, versus the R1 036 699 BMW charges for the M40i), you can buy a 2-litre version of the Z4 with 145kW, 320Nm and a 6.6-second 0-100km/h time, but if you’re already spending in the R1-million ballpark you might as well just go for the big boy.
With that straight six bellowing upfront it sounds the part and has all the right feels. Mash the right pedal and you’re treated to an intoxicating cocktail of rapid acceleration and guttural engine acoustics. It’s smooth and responsive too. Sure, this is not a supercar, but it sure is satisfying.
As with most modern cars in this league, you can play with various settings for the car’s chassis and drivetrain systems, either collectively or individually through the Driving Experience Control system. Dial it into Sport mode and it plays the loud and revvy part, but I found Comfort mode to offer the best balance, where it still provides a decent soundtrack, just with a smoother overall driving experience.
BMW has also hit the road holding sweet spot with this new Z4, thanks to a new double-joint spring strut axle up front and five-link rear suspension set-up, as well as an M Sport differential in the M40i’s case. The top model also rolls on 19-inch alloys with mixed-size tyres.
It’s an agile machine that will happily carve up twisty roads, although the right combination of skill and caution is required here. Unlike most modern performance Beemers, this one’s still a rear-wheel-drive fun factory that will happily sneak out the house for a drifting session.
Though it has all the ingredients to entertain in corners, including that all-important 50:50 weight distribution, there is still a little bit missing in the overall seat of the pants feel, as well as in the steering, which lacks the beefy and communicative feel that you’d expect in a sports car.
Decent as a daily
That said, despite appropriately firm suspension, the ride is still more than tolerable (particularly if you have the Adaptive M Sport suspension, which is standard on the M40i) dialled into Comfort mode.
In fact, apart from the lack of seating for more than two occupants, the Z4 is really not compromised as a luxury car that you could comfortably use every day.
The cockpit has a similar design to the latest 3 Series, and it gets the latest 7.0 Operating System, with BMW’s Live Cockpit Professional, as standard. This includes a fully digital instrument panel and central display, both with customisable graphics, and drivers can operate the system via screen touch, traditional iDrive controller or voice control. The Z4 is also available with a Head-Up Display for the first time, although this is a R17 000 option. For an extra R6600 you can have Active Cruise Control with Stop & Go.
Overall, the level of standard features is quite decent, so it’s unlikely that you’ll run up too hefty a tab on the options list.
If you’re looking for a million-buck mid-life-crisis car with two seats and an enticing driving experience for the price, the Z4 M40i is a fine way to do it; and apart from the crouching needed to get in and out, you’ll find it’s actually quite agreeable as a daily. This is a car we’d happily have in our garage.