If you're an enthusiast, it's impossible to talk about either the new A90-generation Toyota Supra or the redesigned BMW Z4 without, at the very least, acknowledging their unusual shared lineage. For the second time in the past decade, Toyota elected to farm out the design and production of a rear-wheel drive sports car (the first being the Scion FR-S, now Toyota 86), relying on BMW's engineering team to shoulder most of the development duties before putting their final styling and tuning stamp on the fixed-roof version of the car.
While Toyota had dibs on the coupe, BMW elected to use its in-house platform to underpin the Z4 convertible. It's important to point out that had the Japanese automaker not made a sweetheart deal with Bavaria, there would have been no replacement for the roundel's roadster, whose slow sales had doomed it to an ignominious end in 2016. In a final twist, neither vehicle is actually by either of its parents, entering the world via third-party Magna Steyr's assembly lines in Graz, Austria.
Much of my week behind the wheel of the 2020 BMW Z4 M40i was spent pondering the following question: what's it like to drive a car BMW didn't want, doesn't build, and exists solely at the whim of a global business alliance? Surprisingly good, as it turns out.
THE SAME, BUT DIFFERENT-ISH
From the outset, there are clearly a number of major differences between the Z4 and its mega-hyped sibling, the Supra. The most obvious of these is styling, for while Toyota elected to tempt the online trolls with its ultra-busy swoops and swirls on the Supra, BMW went in a much more conservative direction. This is true even when parking the current Z4 next to its predecessor, trading the former's roundness for slabs and slices. It's an upgrade, in my opinion, and one that marks a break from BMW's more whimsical two-seaters of years gone by.
Slide behind the Z4's driver's seat, and you're piloting a vehicle that's clearly aimed at the mid-life crisis crowd more than the nostalgia tuners seeking Supra gratification. Toyota goes to great lengths to disguise the origins of its cockpit, but BMW is able to instead celebrate them, which means luxury is underscored rather than muffled. There are many similarities between the two cabins—especially if you're familiar with BMW's tell-tale switchgear—but the roadster's layout and overall presentation is more elegant, especially when equipped with the Digital Cockpit LCD gauge cluster not available to Toyota buyers.
Then there's the tale of the scales. Depending on its configuration, the BMW Z4 comes in at roughly 46 lbs heavier than the Supra. This is not a huge number, but one that points to the mission statement of the car being tilted towards the grand touring side of things rather than all-out performance.
To offset that heft, the M40i has managed to eke out a few more horses from the 3.0-liter turbocharged straight-six engine that it shares with the Supra, posting 382 ponies and 369 lb-ft of torque versus the 335/365 posted by the Toyota. I'm not exactly sure why Toyota agreed to be hobbled on paper as compared to the Z4 (which also offers a 255 turbo four at the entry-level), but in a straight line the BMW boosts to 60-mph in 3.9 seconds versus the 4.1-second rating of the Supra.
Facts and figures are fine, but how does the 2020 BMW Z4 M40i behave out on the asphalt? As I hinted above, the roadster is much more interested in showing you a comfortable and quick time on your favorite back roads on the way out of the city on the weekend than it is in turning in fast lap of the day at your local race track.
Much of this can be attributed to the relatively soft suspension tune afforded the Z4, which does a good job of dispatching the occasional off-camber bump without upsetting the need for a smooth commute to work on Monday morning. It's a car that's as responsive as it needs to be when driven at the legal limit, and perhaps not as focused as one would want on an unfettered road course.
In any environment, however, the 3.0-liter turbocharged engine is an absolute pleasure. Carefully doled out by an army of electronic stewards intent on preserving the car's constant forward motion (including a torque-vectoring rear differential not offered by the Supra), the Z4's power surges more than explodes off of the line. Lateral movement of the convertible's hindquarters is kept to a minimum, and despite its obvious might, things never feel like they're about to spiral into a tailspin. Likewise, the 8-speed automatic installed in the Z4 (courtesy of ZF) is as good as a torque converter-equipped car can ask for in cycling through the gears.
AT LEAST THEY'RE NOT SUVs
Both BMW and Toyota are relatively safe from the general public making the same comparisons as above, due to the fairly wide stance separating each brand on the prestige and pricing ladder. Starting at $65k for the M40i trim level, you'll be paying $16,000 more for the privilege of the blue-and-white badge, and those extra 47 horses in your herd.
Of course, you'll also get a roof that goes down, and for some buyers that's a non-negotiable sports car qualifier in order to earn a spot in their garage. I should probably qualify that last statement—the Z4 is more 'sporty' than 'sports,' as it sits slightly above the Mercedes-Benz SLC-Class cruiser but definitely a number of notches below the preternatural handling of the (more expensive) Porsche 718 Boxster.
And you know what? It's perfectly OK that BMW didn't build a mid-engine-killer, or a topless Supra clone. Instead, we've been presented with a car that will satisfy the company's existing showroom crowd while not embarrassing itself should it line up against the Toyota at a stoplight—and endure a no doubt bewildering show of antagonistic engine-revving from the Supra's driver (hey, at least we use our blinkers -M.R.)
In a world where cookie-cutter crossovers dominate the discourse, should we really complain about the latest in a line of platform-sharing (Fiat/Mazda, the previously-mentioned Toyota/Subaru hookups) performance cars? Thank your lucky stars that neither the Supra nor the Z4 were propped up on stilts by a band of cynical accountants aching to call the product-planning shots.