BMW was first, in 1996, with its made-in-America Z3 roadster, which, powered by a 4-cylinder engine dribbling out 138 hp, required nearly 10 seconds to reach freeway speed limits. Get a ticket in a Z3, went the claim, and your other vehicle should be equipped with pedals and a bulb horn.
Next to roll out was the 1998 Mercedes-Benz SLK, a slightly brawnier machine with 185 hp produced by a supercharged inline four. But a two-piece metal roof, with all its motors and struts, made the car heavier than the dark beers of Oktoberfest. It also came with the blasphemy of an automatic, which was the only transmission available to American buyers. The SLK’s badge did teach Americans that the word Kompressor is German for supercharger, but the car itself was too cute for even the most metrosexual of male buyers.
That same year Porsche introduced its Boxster, a car with a shape and fittings reminiscent of the purposeful yet simplistic Porsche 550 Spyder from the 1950s, the car in which James Dean met his demise. The Boxster was no 911, but it certainly was the best of these three renaissance roadsters. It almost doubled the horsepower of the Z3, and better yet, it recaptured nuances that are the essence of sports car motoring: pants-on-the-pavement handling, heel-and-toe shifting, and an invitation to experience that same bug-smears-on-your-Ray-Bans alfresco adventure that the extraordinary Mazda Miata had re-created a decade earlier.
Yet on the whole, the ’90s represented more humor than horsepower in motoring. Early retro roadsters were heavy on heritage but generally light on deliverance: all lines and looks but with no great resale value. It also was a time, remembers Bernd Konrad, the tousled German/Italian marketing manager for BMW, when our motoring pleasures were stultified by boring SUVs and soccer vans, metallic gray sedans, and bland minitrucks–adrenaline blockers all. “We have always gone in phases,” says Konrad. “There was the van thing. There was the SUV thing. Then came the sports car thing, because everybody was tiring of the same-old and wanted something that suggested a tailor-made item.”
Not coincidentally, the sports car thing arrived as baby boomers began entering midlife crises, when owning a sports car represents one of the last hurrahs before dotage. That there were then 70 million boomers–and someone, somewhere turning 50 every seven seconds–certainly did not elude the automakers.
Since then, the German sports cars that once were considered Schuco toys have evolved into powerful playthings. In eight years, the Boxster has become the best-selling Porsche ever. The most recent, the Boxster S, now is a 6-speed, 280 hp thriller with a 3.2-liter engine, a top speed of more than 160 mph, and a price tag nibbling at $70,000 with all options. AMG, Mercedes-Benz’s speed division, has stuffed a 355 hp V-8 into a wider, longer, taller version of the SLK, the SLK 55.
The BMW Z3, meanwhile, has morphed in stages into the Z4. The newest–and fastest–is the 2007 Z4 M, available as a $52,000 roadster and a $50,000 coupe.
BMW designers and the performance gurus at the company’s Motorsport Division have heavily reengineered and lightly re-skinned both versions of the Z4 M. Gone is the revolting rear end of the original coupe, the overstyled swoops and swirls of its followers, and all those other jarring tidbits that spoiled the earlier Z3s and Z4s. No longer does the car have the presence of a college graduation gift for your daughter. BMW has replaced the lethargic, 255 hp inline six with a 330 hp engine taken from the M3 coupe and convertible. The powerplant gives the Z4 M a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.7 seconds and a governed top speed of 155 mph, both of which are close to the specs of just about anything else from BMW or from Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. Those numbers also move a former poseur into the very serious territory of Jaguar and Maserati.
With the Z4 M’s performance comes comfort: The cockpit is snug, not claustrophobic; the seats are high-back, fully supportive kidney cushions; the steering wheel is thick, small, and ideal for performance driving and hairpin turns. The interior’s Nappa leather is complemented by flashes of what looks like antique pewter on the gearshift, door handles, and dashboard trim. (BMW calls it “galvanic alloy-treated pearl gloss chrome.”) Small M logos on the flanks and rear deck–plus the customary red and blue stitching on the leather steering wheel–will attest to your good taste but only to neighbors with bald-eagle eyesight.
The Motorsport version is longer than a standard Z4, with a wider track and a longer wheelbase that contribute to a flatter, stickier ride. Both the coupe and roadster have a short-throw, quick-snicking 7-speed manual shifter. Like the Z4 M’s engine, the suspension–with its aluminum arms, dampers, springs, and sway bars–comes from the M3.
Externally, the front end of the coupe and convertible is a quiet cluster of intakes, aerofoils, and winglets that is distinctive to the Z4 M. The coupe’s liftback rear is simply the best butt in the business and suggestive of many delightful derrieres from Aston Martin and the upcoming Jaguar XK. Twin exhaust tips in each corner of the rear and a diffuser that stretches most of the width of the car distinguish the departing end of the Z4 M from its brethren’s less-splendid posteriors.
The roadster’s silhouette is not quite as slick as the coupe’s because its builders had to incorporate ribs and braces, which always seem to ruffle the otherwise clean profile of a soft-top. The convertible lid is hardly a canvas wart, but it certainly does compromise the car’s proportions.
Both versions of the Z4 M wear an aluminum hood that has a slight slope as it flows into the windshield. The design of the hood, combined with the noticeably rearward position of the cabin, gives the Z4 M a slight swaybacked shape, which–heavens to Horace Dodge–evokes the ungainly Viper. Like all Z4 coupes, the Z4 M also has double-bubble indentations across its hard top, a design element that BMW seems to have swiped from the Fiat-Abarth 850s of the 1960s.
Although the Z4 M is a solid product, it does cause a few irritations. Rear vision from within the coupe is reduced to the point where you might want to request a guide dog or the return of curb feelers. Indeed, at the car’s media launch in Lisbon this spring, one auto writer backed his Z4 M into a tall, white, hardly invisible signpost.
The overall appearance of the car is more handsome than pretty; it is generally a fine meld of crisp lines and soft extremities marred only by a fuselage and flanks featuring, well, we are not quite sure. It is a large, shallow scallop–a geometric indentation, not a mollusk–that draws your eyes and then fixes your attention on the doors. Perhaps this is a token gesture of farewell to designer Chris Bangle, whose radical and controversial reshapings, depending on your aesthetic stance, either sanctified or assassinated the new look of BMW.
A diagonal crease that extends the line of the A pillar through a BMW roundel and into the front wheel well further scars the car’s appearance. Adrian van Hooydonk, who is head of BMW auto design and who serves immediately below new overall BMW products chief Bangle, seems to regard this feature as something between a flaw and a beauty mark.
“Was [the circular flourish] completely necessary?” van Hooydonk asks. “It probably is something we could have done without. But who knows? You could say that about any of the design details.”
BMW could not have picked a smoother, more tranquil exercise yard than the Costa de Lisboa to launch the Z4 M coupe. The region’s low mountain roads wander around and into the postcard villages of Sintra and Colares, past convents, palaces, and centuries-old farms with standing manor houses. Coastal roads fringing the Atlantic lead through cobblestoned fishing villages and past 18th-century churches that are adjacent to sparkling resorts made of white marble and glass. It is a picturesque environment conducive to peaceful motoring, and the Z4 M enjoyed every casual minute of it.
The Z4 M endured a sterner test earlier this year, however, on the Formula One circuit at Jerez, the former home of the Spanish Grand Prix. Of that drive, colleague Jan Morgan writes: “The M roadster is perfectly content to aid and abet a skilled driver on the road or track, safeguards off, without putting tooth marks on the heart. With a push of the throttle, rotation can be had at any time, but it is easily controlled. Pushed hard on the racetrack without the safety net of DSC [Dynamic Stability Control], the roadster has a little stabilizing initial understeer, which is desirable in a fast road car. The chassis is forgiving, while 330 hp underfoot made it easy to balance the car on the throttle.”
The coupe was allowed to come out and play at another F/1 track a few clicks north of Lisbon, Portugal’s Circuito do Estoril. There, the Z4 M gripped the ground and remained true to our steering and power inputs, which made the performance less than inspiring. When pushed harder, the car felt as though it was geared either too high or too low, particularly when taken beyond the threshold of the DSC settings. The car responded with too much juddering and pulsing as the ABS checked lockup and a near total loss of revs to electronically negate wheel spin when we tried to hammer through turns.
So we shut off the damned DSC and found that this is a big boy’s car after all, one that is quick, responsive, and true. Cook it too hard, and the tail wanders, but with grace and plenty of warning. Brake sharply and straight, and the big discs grab sans viciousness or swerve. Shift almost by tactile instinct while trail braking, point, steer, and power out hard, and the car’s 262 ft lbs will provide for some delicious drifting and inside passes.
Unlike their predecessors from the previous decade, BMW’s Z now shows its zeal, Porsche’s Boxster can outbox anything in its class, and Mercedes’ SLK finally does stand for Sportlich (Sporty) Leicht (Light) and Kompakt (compact). All should continue to travel great distances from here, maybe far beyond the original concept. Few observers will debate that the new 295 hp Porsche Cayman S is actually a Boxster with a steel roof and a hatchback. Rumors persist of a 550 hp biturbo SLK from Mercedes-Benz, and there have been predictions, even claimed first sightings, of a BMW Z5 powered by a V-8 transplanted from the M5 sedan. If these cars become available, the last of the baby boomers just might welcome their midlife crises.