’04 BMW Z4: The Biased Review

Photo: Texa

Here’s what I’m about to smother you with today: my 2004 BMW Z4 3.0i, or E85 if you are “in the know”.

Let’s be clear, it’s not the best car in the world. I don’t care about the best cars in the world, and neither should you. You won’t buy a McLaren F1 and bitch about finding a parking space for it. I won’t get a 2 km/h speeding ticket in a Bentley Bentayga. We will not get worried about being late on the oil change of our hypothetical Aston Martin DB11. To hell with those!

Today I’ll be talking about plebeians’ considerations (practicality, insurance, fun-while-keeping-my-licence-ibility), because OWNING a car includes all of these things, and the Z4 is a car YOU CAN OWN. Miuras and XJ220 will adorn your wall at best.

Well, well, well, what do we have here?

It’s BMW’s modern take on the classic roadster. The Z4 is the 4th Z car, hence the name (or not). It’s basically a BMW 3 Series E46, missing 2 seats and a real roof. The undercarriage comes from the E46, as does the 6-cylinder engine: the M54, available in 2.2L, 2.5L or 3.0L.

Photo: BMW

Some kinks have been ironed out, for instance the rear suspension won’t tear the subframe if you’re a bit too liberal with the use of your right foot. Others have been passed on (looking at you, half-assed DISA design).

On top of all, it’s the most desirable type of car there is, to me and to any sane human being: a ROADSTER. Not a convertible, a ROADSTER. Not just a sports car, a ROADSTER. That noun alone makes the spine tingle.

Powertrain wise, the version I’ll be specifically talking about is the 3.0i, M54B30 if you want to be pedantic.

Photo: BMW

It’s an aluminum (as in light) naturally aspirated inline 6 (as a BMW should), 170 kW (because we all should use metric) engine. It’s mounted longitudinally in the loooong bonnet and sends power to the rear wheels through a 6-speed manual gearbox (YES!) and an open differential (meh).

It’s a good engine, as in, it got the 2003 Ward’s 10 Best Engines award and its 2.5L version got the International Engine of the Year that same year and the next. I admit I am biased, but my opinion on the mill is still shared by others.

It looks questionable doesn’t it?

Photo: BMW

Welcome to the (most) subjective part of this review. I’ll argue in my head with you, and I’ll win because I’m the one doing your voice.

When the Z4 was revealed, 17 years ago (let that number sink in); it was one of the first embodiments of Chris Bangle’s design language.

It’s quite a departure from the BMW style of the 90s which was all about understated elegance backed by subtle sportivity. Think of the E46, any E46 you want (you picked the M3 CSL didn’t you?). It’s a classy car, devoid of any superfluous artifact. The body panels are rather simple; there is a single crease on the side, very little salient lines, no fake vent, clean geometric lights.

Photo: BMW

Now, look back at the Z4: over-designed wheels, concave and convex door panels, a buttload of lines across the side of the car coming from nowhere. That was shocking back then (yeah, I remember 2002). It felt like BMW was losing its DNA. And I get it. As Bangle said himself, at BMW you have revolutionary design changes (think E30 to E36) followed by evolutionary changes (think E36 to E46). And the Bangle generation is the former. And revolutions, as we know in France, can be painful for some.

But different is not bad. And while purists have been bellowing about this difference at the time, it aged really well, and looks strangely tame by today’s standards. Let’s compare it with the 2019 Z4 G29 (why G? We had decades of EXX, one gen of FXX and suddenly it’s G? Do they want us to forget the FXX era? Was it that bad?).

Photo: BMW

I mean, come on BMW! It’s OK to leave one panel without a crease or a fold, you know? Are those mandibles? Is the front 60% grill? Are half of those real? What shape do you call these headlights? Superimposed pixelated potatoes from the future?

So yeah, now that we are accustomed to this kind of crap after years of slowly injecting these design elements into our automotive landscape (not unlike what Mithridate did with poison); the E85 does not look that convoluted anymore. So what are we left with? Something beautiful, that’s what.

First, let’s talk proportions, the basic to any good car design. Or any design for that matter.

Photos: BMW

It is just right. The bonnet is long, the deck is short and the car is wide but not overly so. Best of all, it managed to prevent the “Barbie®’s convertible” effect found on the Z3. There’s not much to say, it’s a front engine Roadster. It’s good. It’s always good. Like foie gras.

Beyond the proportions, it’s remarkable that most of the lines seem to be here for a reason. Instead of fighting against panel gaps, Anders Warming (the actual man who held the pencil) worked WITH the panel gaps. They became style elements instead of technical constraints. Look at the red line, would you?

Image: BMW

The front end of the bonnet becomes the fender edge, which becomes the door, transforms into a window, then moves to the windscreen and finally dies on the front wheel arch. There is a natural flow to it. These gaps benefit the visual identity of the car. If Tesla had done this from the start, Musk could have told us their 7mm panel gaps were a feature.

It’s not to say some lines aren’t panel gaps they had to live with, or gratuitous “we should fill this blank” stuff, or “let’s make a Z on the car because it’s its name and that’s just fun”, but the majority feels justified. Which is more than any modern Lexus can say.

On the front end, same philosophy: give the lines meaning. They come from somewhere, they finish somewhere and the in-between has to be logical. The headlights are shaped in the continuity of the hood edges. The fold on the side is prolonged on the bumper. The lower grill’s end is parallel to it. The whole feels consistent, and you end up accepting that these sad looking eyes are the best choice for that car.

Photo: BMW

When seen from the front, the Z is nice, but from the back? I’m falling in love all over again. I can’t be the only one seeing a touch of Ferrari 550 Maranello in that back. The round white turn signal, the integrated duck tail, the wide curvy hips … I’d even argue the Z4 is a bit better looking from that angle. Fight me.

Photos: Texa; Ferrari

Have you noticed how the edge of that butt contrasts with the smooth curves of the ducktail? That’s a recurring theme in the Z to put salient edges next to a delicate curve. You can find this on the front of the car and it’s beautifully done. The picture doesn’t do the car justice though, you have to see the bodywork in the flesh. It’s really a 3D car rather than one to be seen in photography.

Photo: Texa

My only beef is the lateral blinker which adds an unnecessary 3rd BMW logo to the side of the car. I don’t care if people passing me know that I’m driving a bimmer, it already looks special regardless of the badge.

Here is the pièce de résistance. The Z4 is an homage to the British Roadster (yes, I capitalize it if I want, à la Trump). It’s not evident at first, but bear with me. Look at this masterpiece of reliability next to the subject of the day:

Photos: GPS 56 from New Zealan; BMW

See the line that breaks on the door handle? Doesn’t it remind you of the Spitfire’s door line? See how it “jumps” over the rear wheel? See the long curve going from the door handle all the way to the front, diving near the headlight? See how the horizontal bend on the door echoes the high floor of the Spit?

That’s what I call a proper tribute to our automotive roots, to the quintessential affordable fun car. No, it’s not a re-interpretation of the spirit of if, as Mazda did wonderfully. It’s a German sports car, bordering on GT, which nods at its design inspiration in a visual way. Is it superficial? Maybe. Is it elegantly done? Most certainly. Do I like it? You bet I do!

To sum my rambling up, the looks of the Z4 are questionable the first time you lay eyes on it. And every time you see it again, you’ll like it a bit more. Just like with fine alcohol, it takes time to train your palate.

Does it vroom?

The Z cars have never been light roadsters in the same way Miatas are. The Z1 was meant to be weird, the Z8 was supposed to be gorgeous but unattainable, and the Z3 and Z4 aimed at being more upmarket than the Mazda roadster. You get your droptop fun but with a dash of “German premium” and therefore, weight.

It’s not a pig either, but at around 1300kg, the Z4 is not a pure lightweight, even if these numbers seem low in 2019. In the 3.0i version, 0-100km/h is achieved in about 6 seconds. Modern affordable sports cars (i.e. turbocharged 4-pots) can do better, but the Z does this the old fashioned way, with an unstoppable linear increase in power as you go through the rev range. And the sound? Few cars that cost less than real estate sound better than a BMW inline 6 NA engine.

When you cross 3000 rpm, it feels like it has a mind of its own. Even if you let your foot where it stands on the pedal, the car pulls harder and harder. It is as if it had been waiting to pounce as soon as you turned the key, and finally felt like you gave it the greenlight. And if you run out of revs as the speed increases, you’ll get to play with a wonderful 6 speed manual gearbox.

Photo: LR Performance

Changing gears in that car is an absolute joy. You press the clutch, grab the lever and start moving it. The stick offers substantial resistance when being engaged, but it feels solid, it was meant to be like that. And every time you engage a gear, you hear an authoritative “clonk”. Oh, do I love that sound. Then, you engage the clutch and you start worrying about your license.

Mastering the clutch pedal release takes a bit of time, as it’s a bit peculiar due to the presence of a Clutch Delay Valve in the hydraulic circuit, which limits the engagement speed. That contraption makes the feeling weird at first, but it is softer on the mechanical bits. So you can thrash the car hard, while keeping your conscience at ease.

When you need to stop, the brakes bite the rotors hard. You don’t find yourself yearning for more deceleration. However, after a few laps on a track, the pedal becomes spongy and the brake fade sets in. That took about 10km with my steed, which is not much endurance. However, fixing this is easy: change that braking fluid to RBF600, put some nice pads on all 4 corners and the car is transformed. You can thrash it nonstop and it just begs for more. Do it, you won’t regret it. Nobody ever regretted having good brakes.

Photo: Texa

The electric steering is supposedly too light and artificial, which is the case in comfort mode at low speed. This setting is meant to help you cruise in the city and park, and you don’t care about feedback in those moments, do you? But in sport, the assistance is much less intrusive, and when driving aggressively, you know where your wheels are. I think most of the complaints come from people who drove one with the awful runflat tires, which do ruin the steering feel. I changed mine to Michelin Primacy (Pilot Sport would have been better, but it was an emergency) and it was night and day.

The chassis is stiff, especially with the “sport tuning” option. If you’re not wary of speed bumps, you’re in for a bad surprise, but the upside is that it can hold its own on a track. I never had to complain about body roll, and it feels like the Z is glued to the tarmac. The 50/50 weight distribution makes for a really predictable behavior in curves, and it warns you before sticking the tail out. And it can slide, as the ESP can be switched off completely (as opposed to “it’s off but will turn on if the car gets moderately upset”).

That tire burning starts scaring you? Let go of the throttle, counter steer a bit and you’re in the clear. Easy-peasy. The only bad surprise I had was my own fault (and the open diff’s a bit). Do not go wide open throttle when hitting a rumble strip. You WILL spin.

In a word, you won’t kick 911 ass at the track, but you’ll have fun there. I certainly did while battling a race-prepped 205 and a Clio 2 RS. You’ll also manage to keep your license on the road while not being as frustrated as that dude who revs his Ferrari at 50 km/h in the city.

The interior looks nice

It IS nice! Thanks for noticing!

Photo: https://www.southwest-carspotting.fr/

The interior is supposed to be one step behind every other BMW due to the fact that the Z4 was actually made in the US, which is neither the home of the fit nor the land of the finish. Honestly, I haven’t tried out enough other BMWs to have felt this. And the little time I spent as a passenger in a Z3 around a track, I was focusing on having fun.

Beyond quality, I find the Z4 interior to be really beautiful. It’s clean and sleek, even minimalist. And that’s what makes a design hold up for more than 15 years. That long brushed aluminum center insert is really tasteful (the wood version is more of an acquired taste, maybe less to the British, but still). The same applies for the steering wheel.  Remember when those had no buttons and were just there to, you know, steer? I find this simplicity refreshing in the day of the overdesigned and chockfull of gadgets cars of today.

The 2 gauges almost look like they come from a motorcycle, and you feel like a hero watching the needles go up, as you move closer and closer to having trouble with law enforcement. Needles are awesome; I don’t know why manufacturers go for the new LCD displays instead. It’s like switching from Rolex to Casio. Who does that?

Since it is 2019, I have to point out that there is not a single screen in the Z (unless you splurge on a GPS equipped model), and that goes double for touchscreens. Gadget lovers are going to be mad, people who like keeping their eyes on the road will not. Buttons are good. They click, you can find them with your fingers, they do not cost 700€ to replace. If you did not get this, I do not like touchscreens.

Photo: BMW

Coming from a crappy Clio 2 with cloth seats (I say “crappy” but I still own and deeply love this little box on wheels), the Z4’s felt really hard, and I needed time to find a proper position. If you’d asked me the first week of ownership, I’d have badmouthed the car about this. However, after little time, you learn to sit upright, like grandma wanted you to, and not slouched, as it was standard in the Clio bean bag chairs. And you feel great. I spent last summer crossing France through the secondary road network, and my tushy was quite happy.

The non-M seats do lack a bit or lateral support as you whip the car around the bends, but you learn to compensate by pressing your leg against the door, or the little pad on the transmission tunnel (that was a thoughtful touch by the way). The driving position is perfect. You sit on the floor of the car, which enhances the impression of speed, and the steering wheel falls right into your hands. On top of that, the seats are HEATED (I guess that’s a necessity in Germany). If you have ever owned a convertible, you know that driving with the top down at the end of autumn is wonderful. Doing so with your butt gently heated is glorious.

Photo: BMW

In terms of creature comfort, the interior offers little, but the most important is here. The standard sound system is not bad, although it may lack a bit of power when cruising with the wind in your hair. But you won’t care as you can listen to the inline 6 song (top of the charts since 2003). As for the top, it’s electric, which may sound like a gadget, but actually allows you to have more of a “fuck it” attitude regarding the weather. You’ve dropped the top and the rain starts? Stop at a red light, press the little button 13 seconds and you’ll stay as dry as the cake my father cooked for my 12th birthday.

Storage space is also quite good for a roadster (god, I love that word!). There is one cubicle behind each seat, great to store sunscreen or hats for the summer. There’s another closed storage compartment between the seats which is quite large, and a glovebox. The door trays are tiny as f*ck but can still help with a small umbrella (again, useful in Germany) or something similar, and you can option for cupholders below the lateral vents (they do tend to break though; they may not be great for Starbucks’ giant coffees). The trunk is surprisingly roomy for a 2 seater: 260L. Enough to fit the corpse of a teenager I’d say.

So, it’s practical-ish, quick, fun, and decent/weird looking. That must be a pain in the ass to keep roadworthy then!

Not that much my dear reader! As I said, it’s basically a 3 Series, so parts are legion. The engine was not new when the car was designed, so it’s tried and tested, and the service intervals are standard (20 000km to 25 000km).

If you wish to do so, maintenance can be DIY-ed, and the OBD2 is rather talkative (I’ve had bad experiences with French cars, but not here). I chose to have the maintenance done by a BMW specialist though (not a dealer), whose labor costs are standard for France (60€/hr without taxes).

The only real issues in terms of cost are the BMW parts (bearings and joints cost an arm for instance), which always seem to be twice more expensive than what you find on the internet. And tires. Oh boy, tires are expensive. The meaty 255/35R18 at the back can cost 150€ and the front 225/45R18 are about 100€ each. That’s 500€ if you have to change all 4. That number climbs even higher if you buy runflat tires, but as I said earlier, don’t do that, you’ll just ruin your fun. Plus, this little anti-puncture kit must be enough to help you out of a tough spot … right?

Remember how I said that the engine is good at the beginning? Well, it’s good because it’s powerful, fun, naturally aspirated and all, but it’s also good because it’s frugal. That’s right; apparently at BMW they know how to make 170 kW inline 6 which sip fuel, like I sip the last pint of the evening when I’m already drunk, but my rugbyman friend insists on drinking another for the road (on foot).

The fuel consumption given on the NEDC combined cycle is 9.5 L/100km, which is exactly what I get commuting to work and having fun on B roads. It’s funny how it’s harder to “optimize” NEDC fuel consumption tests with a NA engine. If you want a reference, my 45 kW Clio 2 does 7 L/100km. So, by burning 35% more fuel, you get 285% more power. I’d say that’s a great deal.

Insurance is sort of killing me because of the whole BMW owner stigma (that is pure speculation, but I’m not going to call my insurance to ask why they charge me so much). You can count around 2000€ / year in a big French city if you have no bonus for an all-inclusive cover. That’s a low-mileage Clio 2 every year, but it’s worth it. Furthermore, I do not have enough parking spaces to store a new Clio 2 every year.

Finally, how much is it nowadays to buy a Z4? Well, according to the classifieds I’ve looked at, you can count around 15 000€ for a 3.0i that has racked a bit over 100 000 km. Such a car still has life in it, and you have passed the big maintenance milestone of 100 000 km. But hurry, prices are creeping up, and it looks like I did a smart investment while I thought I was just making an irresponsible fun acquisition.

Buy one; I did not regret it, neither will you.

I want to get one …… howeverFacts
Unique, strange stylingBrake fade (fixable)231 hp
Wonderful engine noteStrange steering feel1350 kg
Affordable performanceParts price12 000 – 15 000€

2 thoughts on “’04 BMW Z4: The Biased Review

  1. Love this, entertaining writing, linked over from Jalop. Miata NA guy here who survived a bimmer in a previous marriage but love the idea.

    Like

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