Payne: BMW Z4 is drop-top fun

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

You had me at Roadster.

From the nimble Mazda Miata to the Porsche Boxster, convertible coupes are some of the most enjoyable toys on the road today. Drop the top, stomp the gas, and drink in the visceral thrill of sound, wind, and landscape rushing by.

The ground-hugging Boxster is the undisputed athlete of the segment, but the BMW Z4 Roadster has shadowed it for a decade, bringing Bimmer’s uniquely sculpted bod and high-tech interior to the playground.

The 2020 BMW Z4 competes against the Porsche Boxster and starts at just over $50,000. Nimble like a cheaper Mazda Miata, the BMW has a lot more grunt.

Most importantly, BMW has retained its signature, inline six-cylinder engine even as Porsche has abandoned its signature flat-six (but for the hard-core, $100,000 Spyder variant). A Boxster without flat-six wail is like a tiger without a roar, and the compromised Porsche — no matter the impressive performance numbers of its turbocharged flat-four — has undoubtedly lost some of its appeal.

Boxster-owning pals with flat-sixes have delayed purchase of the new car (just as some Ford F-150 Raptor customers have held on to their V-8-powered pickups rather than upgrade to the newer-but-less-satisfying twin-turbo V-6). Could this be an opening for Bimmer as well with its all-new, $64,000, 382-horse, inline 6-powered Z4? Surely.

But first BMW has introduced a base, 255-horse, turbo-4 cylinder to go head-to-head against the 265-horse Boxster. Apples to apples. Fours to fours. The Z4, like the Boxster, suffers mightily without its six-holer, but for Roadster fans with deeper pockets, my sky-blue, loaded Z4 M30i tester is a welcome Miata MX5 on steroids — more tech, more room, more zoom zoom.

On a trip up north this summer, the Z4 was a rolling tourist attraction. Longer, wider, and bluer than its predecessor, it was a magnet.

Cool! How fast does it go? Is that a BMW?

This third-gen roadster is a worthy successor to the first-gen, 2005 Z4 that still turns my head. Its ad campaign cutline was “land shark” — and it looked the part. Long nose. Wicked body stampings. Headlights slit like a predator’s eyes. The swept windshield a fin cutting through traffic.

The new car has more conservative styling, but the shark DNA remains. Angular headlights, wide, toothy kidneys — even big gills on either side of the front fenders. And it ruthlessly prowls country roads.

The soft top on the 2020 BMW Z4 can be retracted at up to 31 mph in about 10 seconds.

Exiting Interstate 75 for Michigan-31 north of Gaylord, I slowly rolled into a stoplight while easing back the black canvas top with the push of a button. The operation pauses only if I exceed 31 mph.

Through the wooded countryside, the rear-wheel-driver rotated effortlessly through esses and switchbacks. This is no mid-engine Porsche, but you have to really push hard to notice the difference. The suspension is tight, the body-roll minimal and understeer imperceptible despite that long bow. Credit the M Sport package on my tester that added electronic rear differential and adaptive dampers.

Squeezing the gas, the eight-speed transmission downshifts smoothly, but oh ... that four-cylinder.

Momentary turbo lag gave way to satisfying, 295 pound-feet of torque over 3,000 RPM, but the music is more Miata than luxury sports car. Even Porsche is aware of its visceral shortcomings and tries to lend some menace to its four-cylinder, VW Bug-like drone. At least downshifts in Bimmer’s SPORT and SPORT PLUS modes are accompanied by racy rev-matching.

While the Porsche reigns supreme on handling, the BMW makes its mark when you’ve tired of apex carving.

Hats off to the interior designers (ahem, except for the cup holder which is curiously located in the armrest console, forcing the console lid vertical when the holder is occupied).

A sculpted sheet of glass dominates the center console, pulling the 10-inch infotainment screen high above the dash for maximum driver attention — and opening up tray storage below — an ergonomic nicety conspicuously missing from Porsches and Audis.

Cruising up I-75 (top up, natch), the big, fat console knob makes for easy screen navigations, as does the voice command. But Apple CarPlay-based Google Maps is still the nav program of choice (though BMW will charge $80 a year for it and not offer Android Auto. Yeesh, these persnickety luxe makers).

A drop-top two-seater this may be, but BMW has carved out helpful closet space behind the front seats for an umbrella — or bottle, purse, small briefcase storage in rear panel-mounted fish net. The trunk space is also surprisingly generous — a 50% increase over the prior gen — and a welcome convenience for long trips compared to a much smaller Miata.

BMW has learned fast from Tesla, and the Z4 is a digital tour de force — including recognizing my presence without my having to remove the key from my pocket. Z4 unlocked when I approached and locked when I walked away, mirrors folding tight. Alas, unlike Tesla, this is not a standard feature, but part of the $13,000 of add-ons (the $2,950 M package) on my $63,545 tester.

Like Miata, the fourth-generation Z4 would not be possible were it not for a partner.

Development costs have soared in these regulation-heavy days, forcing small-volume products into partnerships. Mazda found a mate in Fiat which makes its 124 on the same platform as the MX-5 Miata. And BMW paired with Toyota, which makes the Supra coupe off the same architecture.

I couldn’t stop thinking of the Supra as I caned the Z4’s four across Michigan.

Loaded with digital wonders like keyless entry and sporting useful cargo room behind the seats, the 2020 BMW Z4 makes for a great getaway car for the summer/fall seasons.

I’ve driven the Supra’s BMW-made inline-6, pumping out a generous 350 horsepower, complete with crackling soundtrack. The Z4’s digital sophistication is apparent over the Supra, and Toyota and BMW shoppers will rarely cross paths. But put a Supra and a Z4 next to each other at a Woodward stoplight and the Japanese sports car will smoke it — 4.1 vs. 5.1 seconds, zero-60 —- even with BMW’s easy-to-use launch control.

Happily, the 382-horse Z4 inline-6 is available — with, er, a 14 grand premium over the base 4.

Here, it's worth noting that the stunning, convertible, mid-engine Corvette V-8 — with nearly 500 ponies — coming next year at a similar sticker.

Add in convertible Camaro and Mustang V-8s and the American customer has a nice menu of choice for drop-top fun. With its sophisticated looks and digital tech, the Z4 remains a sophisticated choice that will offer hours of open-air fun without sacrificing roomy comfort.

That comfort may give the Z4 the biggest bandwidth in the luxury Roadster segment. And a competitive claim as long as the Porsche Boxster cuts back on audio thrills.

2020 BMW Z4

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger roadster

Price: Base price sDrive30i $50,695 including $995 destination charge; M40i $64,695 including $995 destination charge ($63,545 sDrive30i as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged, inline-4 cylinder, 3.0-liter, turbocharged, inline-6 cylinder

Power: 255 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque (turbo-4); 382 horsepower, 369 pound-feet of torque (turbo-6)

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.2 seconds (turbo-4, mfr.); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 3,400 pounds(est.)

Fuel economy: EPA mpg, 24 city/32 highway/28 combined (turbo-4); 24 city/31 highway/26 combined (turbo-6)

Report card

Highs: Modern tech; sticks like glue

Lows: Meh, turbo-4; Toyota Supra thrills with BMW turbo-6 under hood for less coin

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.