BMW's new Z4 hard-top is no softie

Andy RussellBMW's new Z4 is more comfortable but it's still a great drive, says ANDY RUSSELL.It's grey, old and raining - no wonder so many owners want convertibles with folding hard-tops rather than traditional fabric hoods.Andy Russell

BMW's new Z4 is more comfortable but it's still a great drive, says ANDY RUSSELL.

It's grey, old and raining - no wonder so many owners want convertibles with folding hard-tops rather than traditional fabric hoods.

And it's not difficult to see why BMW has bowed to customer demand and given its new Z4 two-seater sports car a retractable hard-top roof - a first for its roadsters which date back nearly 80 years.

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And it doesn't end there. BMW admits the previous soft-top Z4 was unashamedly targeted at the 20pc of customers whose sole reason for buying one was its extreme driving capabilities. So BMW has risen to the challenge of making the new Z4 better by making it more of a compromise to have wider appeal. It's more comfortable and spacious without sacrificing driver enjoyment.

The new Z4 looks as good with the roof up as down - partly because it has grown in size and maturity. It's 148mm longer and while only 9mm wider, shoulder and elbow room have grown 20mm and 43mm respectively so, as sports cars go, it feels pretty spacious.

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The two-piece aluminium roof slickly folds in and out of the boot in 20 seconds giving the best of both worlds and with the new Z4 replacing the previous soft-top and fixed roof models you get two cars for the price of one.

With the roof stored there is still 180 litres of boot space beneath - enough for a couple of decent-sized soft bags - but with the roof up it is surprisingly roomy at 310 litres.

The Z4 retains that classic BMW long bonnet and seats well back near the rear axle but the extra length means it's sleeker than its soft-top predecessor which I found rather dumpy after the pretty Z3.

And it needs a long bonnet with three silky smooth straight six-cylinder petrol engines - 204hp 2.5-litre, 258hp 3.0-litre and 306hp twin-turbo 3.0-litre, the latter a former international engine of the year.

Even the entry-level model will be fun while the range-topping twin-turbo has almost supercar levels of performance. I drove the mid-range normally-aspirated 3.0-litre model which is more than enough for most drivers. Its elastic nature means it pulls willingly in any gear from very low revs yet will spin freely to the red line to unleash it full performance accompanied by a glorious growl. A short-shifting six-speed manual gearbox is standard with a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters on the steering wheel optional.

With rear-wheel drive and near-perfect 50/50 weight distribution, the Z4 embodies BMW's philosophy of being a driver's car and one of its best - roof up or down.

With bags of grip, sharp, responsive steering and taut, flat cornering, it flows through bends with pinpoint precision and superb body control - it's almost as if it just pivots round corners. The driving experience is boosted by another BMW roadster first - standard Drive Dynamic Control which, via a switch on the centre console for normal, sport and sport+ modes, tweaks throttle, steering and stability control response - few cars give such pure entertainment value. For those who want an even sportier drive there's optional lowered Adaptive M Sport Suspension to vary the level of ride comfort.

I found the standard suspension set-up more than capable and a happy balance - true sports car handling with grown-up refinement and comfort. The set-up represents a major change for BMW with soft springs and stiffer dampers and, combined with an extremely stiff bodyshell that is free of squeaks and rattles, it's an impressive mix of agile handling and a supple ride that remains assured and in control even on poor roads.

The interior shows BMW's meticulous attention to detail - fit and finish are clinical with first-class driver ergonomics when it comes to the controls, clarity of the simple instruments and feeling so at home behind the wheel. To create more room inside, the new Z4 has an electronic parking brake rather than a traditional handbrake but it niggled me that it has to be released manually. No complaints though about cabin storage - so important in a sports car especially roof down.

The Z4 is loaded with standard safety kit and creature comforts - as you would expect from a car costing from nearly �29,000 - including six airbags, a host of electronic driver aids, 17in alloy wheels, brighter xenon headlamps, leather seats, dual-zone climate control, four electric windows, radio/CD with auxiliary jackpoint for MP3 players and trip computer. But it just makes it all the more galling that you have to pay �205 for the optional wind deflector which slots between the head restraints and makes roof-down driving more comfortable.

The new Z4 has grown up, but don't think that giving it a hard top has turned it into a softie to drive.

BMW Z4 3.0iS

PRICE: �32,660

ENGINE: 2,996cc, 258hp, straight six-cylinder petrol

PERFORMANCE: 0-62mph 5.8 seconds; top speed 155mph (electronically limited)

MPG: 22.8; extra urban 45.6; combined 33.2

EMISSIONS: 199g/km



WARRANTY: Three years/unlimited mileage

WILL IT FIT IN THE GARAGE: Length 4,239mm; width 1,790mm; height 1,291mm

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