During the launch of the new Z4, several people were debating whether the new BMW Z4 was a real sportscar. I maintained it was, but at the back of my mind was unsure. A lack of steering and brake feedback made the car feel rather numb at speed, casting some doubt.
Returning to LA, we had the opportunity to pit the $52475 300hp Z4 sDrive35i ,(we'll call it the Z435i), against the $54990 218hp Lotus Elise SC, in the legendary Malibu canyons - possibly the toughest test this BMW will ever face in terms of its sportscar credentials.
Having driven the supercharged Elise SC before (et 7/08) we knew the featherweight chassis was rewarding and represents the quintessential roadster.
The new Z4 is a bit of a lard-arse by comparision, but its 300hp, 300 lb-ft, twin-turbo 3.0 motor would keep the Lotus honest.
The BMW also boasts a wonderful metal hardtop that drops in 20sec. Its inclusion necessitated a longer, wider body, and the Z4 has certainly benefited from the extra girth. It's far more handsome than its predecessors, reminiscent of the Z8 from some angles.
Sadly, the hardtop means we may be deprived of a Z4 Coupe, since BMW feel it's no longer necessary. There was also talk of dropping the M derivatives, and we might have believed it if the X6 M and X5 M hadn't been announced several days earlier. If BMW has M versions of its off-roaders, the Z4 M must surely be on the cards
The Z4 comes in either 28i or 35i derivatives, with the M3's paddle-shifted seven-speed dual-clutch auto transmission on the Z435i or a conventional six-speed manual. We chose the latter for our Lotus showdown, but both work extremely well.
Also borrowed from the M3 was the Adaptive M Suspension, which gives the driver three damper settings - Normal, Sport and Sport +. This also affects the DSC stability control, engine response and steering control map. The system is both a strength and ultimately the weakness of the car. By trying to appeal to a wider range of customers, it's possible to enjoy a very comfortable ride in the Normal mode. However, it lacks control when the roads become more demanding. Stiffening the dampers gives a firmer ride but the sway bars still allow too much body roll for our liking. And while the electromechanical power steering weighs up nicely, it disguises feedback from the front tires.
Heading into the canyons, we knew this was a stern test. In the initial sprint to 60mph, the nimble Elise SC had us beat by 0.6sec with its 4.4sec time. But with only 156 lb/ft at 5000rpm, the Z4 would be far more flexible, allowing fewer gear changes. So all that remained was the 3450 lb curb weight, which was a full 1440 lb heavier than the British sportscar. Gulp.
Once in the canyons, we were surprised at how well the Z4 kept pace with the SC. Admittedly we had to drive the BMW much harder to stay in touch but in faster corners and on longer straights, the twin-turbos kept us in the game. Yet when the bends tightened and several direction changes were required, the Lotus walked slowly away.
Swapping cars, you instinctively know what the Lotus is doing. It wriggles under you as the chassis fights to control traction, but its wonderfully engaging. In contrast, it takes a leap of faith in German engineering to drive the Z4 at the same pace. You have to trust the car will go where you point it, and of course it does but you feel removed from the action.
Where you seem to "think" the Lotus around a corner, you sometimes have to pray the Z4 around. We found we were driving the Z4 to the very limit of its traction and stability, brakes smoking and tires sliding, while the Elise was far more composed and within itself.
As a daily driver, the BMW wins hands down. The larger interior of this second-gen Z4 is beautifully appointed and packed with the latest gadgets. The Lotus is famously sparse by comparison.
If you want the most fun for your money and aren't afraid of compromise, go for the Elise SC. But if you're after a versatile sportscar that will turn heads, win traffic light grands prix and keep pace with the best of them, the capable but slightly less rewarding Z4 is a great option. Its wonderful engine should keep it ahead of the Audi TT as well, although we're curious to see how it would deal with the Porsche Boxster and Cayman...