After a generation or two of lack luster motoring, Technology successfully reconciled all the conflicting priorities of safety, emissions, economy with fun. Once relegated to museums, the quintessential post-war open top English sports car was reincarnated as the Mazda Miata in balmy California in 1989. It was like a seminal spring as long hibernating passions for sports cars and open top motoring came alive again.
Deutschland über alles
The Germans were not to be outdone. After a 2 decade hiatus from the 914, Porsche introduced the mid-engine Boxster, as pure as sports cars can be. Mercedes unveiled the SLK, the successor to the 190SL thirty years hence. BMW on the other hand cobbled together the Z3, and put Pierce Brosnan in it in the 007 flick, "Goldeneye". It was an opportunity not to be missed as BMW not only rushed into the roadster bandwagon but also established the car as celebrity, ushering in a new era in marketing.
The roadster, another collective term for sports cars and convertibles, now reach a broader audience. No longer will they exclusively spend a few hours of fame on the track [and weeks in the mechanic's or tuner's shop], roadsters can now be relied on for the daily commute in reasonable comfort. No need to be a triathlete or POW survivor to subsist, much less enjoy one.
But the end of the 20th century was a world detached from the care-free post war days of the sports car. Although there were more and nicer roads, congestion and safety concerns put a damper on speed, the supposed raison d' etre of a roadster. Even if there was an explosion in the number of circuits and club track days, more specialized machines, based on the humble mass produced hatchback or family sedan were the weapon of choice. In this changed world, where can one enjoy a roadster in the way it was meant to be enjoyed?
As if there was no choice
The roadster continues to have its appeal, though sometimes decried as diminished, with the sports car purists; as if they had no other choice. Young blades, enamored with the vintage and romantic notions of freedom and style were the usual suspects. But the biggest "new" generation for the roadster were the Baby Boomers entering into mid-life. They were the first of the car generation to have moved on to comfortable retirement and can afford to live or re-live their youth today, without the creature comforts that their aging joints and bones depend on.
In the meantime, technology has progressed so fast that performance that used to be exclusive to sports cars and roadsters became standard in family cars. And the durability and minimal maintenance reliability of family cars became standard on roadsters. What purpose would a roadster serve then?
Undeniably, they are a style statement in the best traditional definition of a sports car. Technology - power folding metal roofs, high tech fabric roofs, climate control heating/air con - has also made them more useful in all kinds of weather. Even in the major islands out of our 7,000, there are nice open, clean, scenic and paved roads to drive where top down at a reasonable but seasonable 30 degrees Celsius wouldn't mean a complete dust up of half the province. The improved peace and order situation has fostered more and better roads around the archipelago for genuine open top motoring to be enjoyed.
We look at the latest Z4 as a refinement and perhaps, retirement of what the 2003 first gen Z4 stood for. Despite what BMW does not seem to say, today's Z4 is the culmination of what the original early 90s Z3 started. Looking and driving today's Z4 will make some degree of dissonance obvious. While the Z3 was an entry level sports car with a basic fabric roof in the tradition of the purist English sports cars, the Z4 today is a far bigger, more refined, luxurious and far more powerful a car, even if it just barely ticks the right boxes of what defines a sports car. The Z3 had a smallish engine that was meant to be worked hard in the way the MG's and Austin-Healeys were meant to be. That was supposed to be the fun part. And the part that mechanics, paid by the hour, liked too.
With a platform derived from the semi-trailing arm 3-series, the Z3 was not really meant to go toe to toe with the purist Mercedes supercharged SLK and the Porsche Boxster. But being German, the Bavarian was compared, unfairly so, to the 2 Swabians. By the 21st century, BMW clarified the message of the Z-series. The big Z8 harked back to the Goertz designed 507 of the 50s. Starring in the 007 flick, "The World is not Enough", it was appropriate for the overreaching hype of the growing army of prosperous plutocrats from emerging markets, trying to out do each other. The Z4 was more down to earth, but it didn't mean it had to suffer in style.
The first gen Z4 was new from the ground up, signaling a complete disconnect with the Z3. The straight six was the only engine and the later introduction of a hard top coupe roof and more powerful M versions showed that the Z was broadening its reach. The fact that its styling is classic long hood short deck sports car meant that it was for the straight and narrow, even if stringing together miles and miles of winding roads were in its genes. Despite having the rear axle right behind your butt, the Z 4 rode comfortably. By having that same rear axle behind your seat also meant you can still expect the agility of a sports car as you, seated low down into the chassis tub, are the center of the car, the center of gravity and, stylishly, the center of the universe. The Z4 had a plethora of electronic driving aids that meant you will never get into trouble the way you would in a crude all sports car. That and a expansive envelope of performance never before seen in a roadster.
Completely new again
The latest generation of the Z4 is again completely new. If the first Z4 was a sports car with a comfortable ride, the latest takes it further - in the comfort stakes. Again, it does not lack for individual style even if the front kidney grille had to be restyled, along with the rest of the car, to accommodate new EU regulations for pedestrian safety. As in BMW's motto of Joy through Expression, the interior appointments are tasteful but not vulgar over the top. The exterior's flowing flutes and curves are pure and they never give you the impression that it was designed by a dysfunctional committee under the dictates of cliché.
Lest we forget
For the number crunchers the short story is power to weight ratio. The numerical proof is: 1.5 tons, 0-100 in less than 6 seconds, 258hp, straight 6 classic 3.0-liter BMW twin cam 24 valve, top speed 250km/h, 6-speed automatic, 10.67 kms/liter consumption while under the watchful laser of NLEX speed control radar. That should answer the most popular question asked a driver of a stylish sports car. Like all BMWs it is indeed fast and utterly fool proof if driven so.
The Z4, achieves near 50:50 weight distribution from the almost impossible proportion of long 6-cylinder-in-line hood and short deck. Its got the brutal pull and mellow exhaust of an American muscle car. Without the wallow. Its got the agility turn-on-a-dime feel of a small English sports car without the bone jarring ride. BMW has distanced itself from the Boxster and SLK driver, and certainly the GT-R driver too. Instead, the Z4 gets admiring glances from those contemplating the Mercedes SL. Or the Jaguar XK drophead, but not the aficionado who is after the Supercharged XK-R. To the purist sports car, the Z4 is the upward step for the 21st century's pecking order in sports cars. If the Miata is the MG, the first Gen Z4 was the 6-cylinder Triumphs. Then the 2nd generation Z4, pardon my English idioms BMW, the Jaguar XK-E. Without, of course, the quality problems bequeathed by Lucas, the Prince of Darkness. The real uncompromising roadster in the BMW line is the M-spec 1-series cabriolet.
Back to reality and illusion
On a typical sports car road - empty, winding and appropriate for some wind in the hair - the steering/suspension responses do not suppress a keen driver's appreciation for the intuitive laws of physics - which make it thoroughly enjoyable. On the straight bits, the classic rise of the long hood pays homage to both sports car and muscle car alike. I had not time to take it to the track nor did I wish to as the Z4 was most enjoyable in the way BMW wanted me to enjoy it - as a responsive tool and lively toy to please the senses. Seating only 2, roadsters are, by definition selfish in their pleasures. So is the Z4 an ideal mix between a out an out sports car and a cruiser capable muscle car? Perhaps. Still, one has to drive to derive full utility of its suspension and electronic dynamic aids. But onlookers have one advantage over me, the driver. While one selfishly enjoys driving the Z4, those onlookers can enjoy admiring the looks, even it its just for a fleeting moment.