Monday, January 30, 2012

BMW Z4M Coupe: Serendipity

With so many choices, sometimes it's fun to just leave it to chance. A sunny winter's day in New York City found me at the car club on Sunday with no particular goal in mind. Most of the cars were out, but right next to the garage door was a lonely blue BMW Z4M coupe.  I hadn't really paid attention to it before, but it was looking very nice and conveniently positioned.

When it was introduced in 2006, I'll admit that I wasn't the biggest fan. The unusual  slashes and cutlines (aka "Flame surfacing")  on the sides looked odd to me.  My idea of a perfect BMW at that point was the  70s 3.0csi or maybe an early 90s M5.

One of BMW's best designs?

But 6 years later, I'm reconsidering my biases. It's rare to see a z4 coupe of any type, much less the high-strung M version. A quick search confirms that only around 1800 examples were sold in the US from 2006-2008. And without the awkward hump-trunk of its roadster sibling, the coupe is actually quite good looking.

Hump-trunked roadster version

And another search reminded me that the technical specs on this Z4M's engine are enough to make car geeks salivate, bike guys notice and normal people leave the room:
  • An 8k redline with one of the highest piston speeds of any production car 
  • Individual throttle bodies for each cylinder to heighten throttle response (not even Ferrari does this)
  • Around 105 hp per liter without the use of turbo or supercharging
  • An inline 6 configuration that makes it smoother than anything short of a V12
  • Ok, I'll stop now

A little dusty, but still beautiful

Samantha confirmed that it was available and asked if I needed an orientation. With a straight-forward layout similar to a 3 series, I told her I'd be fine. The cabin seems quite tight at first, and the all black color scheme is a bit stark. But the seats are comfortable and supportive, even beating the ones in the Z8.   Starting the engine brings on a subdued hum and smooth idle. This is not a car that brags about its achievements. But the variable redline lights on the tachometer and prominent oil temperature gauge reminds the driver that the engine is the star of the show.  Meanwhile, the thick steering rim and long clutch travel remind you that are in a BMW. Fortunately, this one doesn't play "where's waldo" with the engagement point like some of its brethren, having been spared the dreaded "clutch delay valve". 

My first instinct was to hit the "sport" button because it's right next to the shifter begging to be pressed. Still no big exhaust sound. And the steering feels about the same. But as I merge into traffic, I can feel the difference. The car bucks back and forth as each tiny movement causes the engine to seemingly gain or lose a thousand RPM. I quickly shut it  off to restore my sanity.  Interestingly, Chevrolet is trying the opposite approach in the new Camaro ZL1.  The sport button in GM's car makes the pedal less sensitive to give the driver more control on a track. Perhaps a Chevy engineer owned a Z4M before coming up with that idea.

The many shades of black

Cruising up the west side highway, the tachometer's yellow warning lights were slowly extinguishing as the engine warmed up. Early examples of this engine were known to self-destruct, and that's something I didn't want on my conscience (or wallet) today. Besides, a long build-up makes the eventual reward even better. Think of it as the automotive equivalent of a strip tease.

The last light went out just after clearing the Henry Hudson toll. In celebration, I floored the accelerator and the engine zinged its way toward the redline as the car launched itself forward.  The sound above 5k rpm was something like 6 sport bikes harmonizing.   I barely managed to shift into third and avoid banging into the rev limiter.  The only disappointment in the aural department is the lack of  crackles or pops when you lift off.

While the engine may be high-strung, the handling seemed typically BMW: controllable and predictable. It's easy to know what the car is doing and to feel its limits.  Yes, the steering is nicely weighted. Yes, you can feel every ripple in the road. But the edgy looks  promised more excitement than this.

To see what else the z4 had to offer, I took a random exit on the Merrit parkway. If I got lost, I figured the nav system would bail me out. And on my first right turn, I found the beast within.

Feeding it more power than necessary, I could feel the tail start to come out. The traction control blinked a few times but didn't completely kill the fun as you might expect. Had I done this in a high-powered supercar like the SLS I'd be sweating. But in this car you just start smiling. And since you're sitting at the bottom of the pendulum, close to the rear axle, the effect is heightened.  I bet this would be a fun car to take to a track and practice drifting in.

Fast and furious stunts aside, this car's small size and well-sorted suspension make it lots of fun on curvy roads. Driving instructors tell you to look where you want to go. With this car, you feel as if you can just think and the car will respond.  The only downside is that the shifter can be a bit balky if you rush it. I actually started wondering what this engine would be like with a paddle-shift style gearbox (must be going soft).

With the sun close to setting, I decided to pull over on a deserted road and take a few pictures for the blog. Whether you like it or not, every angle on this car is visually interesting. And I really began to admire the design. The front-end is still not my favorite, but the way the sun light plays off the various creases and curves on the sides makes the Z4 fun to photograph. After spending some time with it, this might be one of my favorite BMW designs.

At dusk, the instruments cluster lights up in a pleasing soft blue light and 3D effect, with the secondary controls lit in BMW's amber.  The small-aircraft like curve of the windshield adds to the feel that you are in an x-wing fighter for the road.

Weaving amongst the taxis and trucks on the west-side highway was no problem, and the cobblestones of Vestry street did little to upset the car. BMW M's decision to ditch the regular car's run-flat tires probably helps a lot in that regard. Pulling into the car club's garage, amidst all manner of exotica had me feeling less jaded and a little surprised by this unusual sports car. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Who needs Yoga: Driving the BMW Z8

The New York Times recently ran an article on the potential health risks of Yoga. Too much downward dog can ruin your life, apparently.   As an alternative, I suggest driving the BMW Z8.  With the top down, and the 400hp V8 thrumming in the background, you can reach an even greater level of peace and happiness.

We had unusually warm weather in NYC yesterday, so I called the car club on a whim to see if anything was available. A last minute cancellation won me the opportunity to drive this blue Bavarian beauty. But I didn't jump at the chance. While I'd always admired its design, the Z8 struck me more as a cruiser for wealthy retirees. And I've never been a big fan of convertibles for some reason. But the unseasonably warm weather made a roadster seem very appealing.

When I arrived at the car club, most of the toys had already been taken out and there was plenty of room to soak up the Z8's design. Though I'd prefer mine in silver, no color can hide its well executed details. You can tell that little was compromised to bring Henrik Fisker's Z07 concept car to life.

Every curve is perfect, and the proportions and stance are spot-on. Even the front-end that some complain about strikes the right balance between menace and beauty.  It is no surprise that Fisker went on to design the beautiful Aston Martin DB9. I think it even surpasses its inspiration, the cold-war era BMW 507.

So as a sculpture, I'd be happy to have one in my living room. But with 98k miles showing on the odometer, I was skeptical as to how well it would drive. Derek started out by explaining some of this particular car's quirks. The electrical  system was not quite up to snuff and been left on a trickle charger overnight. And the once fully automatic top needed a gentle assist to fully open or retract.  But the controls were very straight-forward because there aren't many. Just the basics. No screens, or adjustable suspensions here. A sport button that controls the throttle opening is the extent of the electronic customization available. The seats don't even have the adjustable bolsters or lumbar support you'd find in a 7 series of similar vintage.

After listening to  the orientation, I was able to get behind the wheel. At first, the centrally mounted gauges and body colored interior trim reminded me of a Mini. I wonder if the two design teams swapped notes in Munich. But even after 10 years, the controls themselves work with a solid, precise feel unmatched by a new Mini or even BMW. And like the best BMWs, the driving position and pedal placement is perfect.  After turning the key and holding down the leather-covered start button, I knew I was going to really like this car.

Though there were some scuffs and scratches on the interior, the car's drivetrain had clearly been well maintained. The clutch and shifter felt better to me than other manual BMWs I have driven. The engagement point was easy to find, and the shifter slid easily into each gear. I'd take this setup over Ferrari's or Mercedes' automated manuals any day.

Heading out onto Hudson street, I started thinking that this car might be perfect for Manahttan driving. With 360 degree visibility, lots of power and a surprisingly supple suspension, driving amidst homicidal taxis proved surprisingly easy.  Even New York's  19th century roads barely upset the ride despite its run-flat, low-profile tires. BMW should hire these engineers back to fix their current suspensions.

Even the many red lights lights on the West Side highway weren't so bad. I revved the throttle like a Camaro or Mustang owner just to hear the low pitched, satisfying burble. At one light, a guy in a newer Dodge Charger rolled down his window and told me that he loved my car. I blipped the gas, and he started laughing and took off.  A guy in a blue m5 chased me down and gave me the thumbs up.  Though most people don't give it a second look, it attracts a lot of attention from car guys.

I stopped by the upper west side to show the car to a friend and his wife. His first reaction was a bland "nice car".  But after taking a closer look and getting a spin around the block, he was much more excited.  This car does not scream at you like other exotics.  It's more like a well done "resto-mod", where a classic car is updated with a modern engine, suspension and brakes.

Heading out of the city onto the Saw Mill Parkway gave me the chance to experience the car at highway speeds. Even with the windows down, there was little buffeting, and the car felt incredibly solid. The car's 7 series derived suspension becomes apparent. But unlike other V8 powered BMWs of its era, the z8 has a proper rack and pinion steering system. Despite the traditional on-center vagueness, it has enough feel and weight to make the driver feel confident in knowing exactly what the car is doing.

With Manhattan behind me, the smells of a warm winter day and the clouds reflecting off the blue interior panels put me into a very relaxed mood. Cruising along at 65 was perfectly enjoyable. And the wind noise from going any faster drowned out the V8 burble. If I owned this car, I'd look into putting a tasteful exhaust system on it to turn up the volume a few notches.

While driving at autobahn speeds is unnecessary to fully enjoy car, exploring the upper limits of the tachometer is a must.  Above 4k RPM you can feel the engine throughout your whole body almost like a distance earthquake. The 7k redline comes quckly and unexpectedly as the car seems to be making more and more power as the revs climb.

I decided to exit the parkway near Mount Kisco to find some curvier roads. After getting stuck behind some slow SUVs, I was happy to see a purple Porsche 993 in the distance. Sure enough, the road cleared up and I got to experience some nice sweeping tarmac near the Croton reservoir.  While the handling was predictably well-balanced, I enjoyed the opportunity to do some rev-matched downshifts even more. The blat from the exhaust and the precise feel of the gear lever snicking into place are addictive.

Unlike some other cars I've driven recently, my bladder could not outlast the fuel tank. While it was drinking some of Sunoco's finest, I checked out some more details on the car. The engine bay is nicely presented, but a bit boring. Given how special the rest of the car is, I was surprised that BMW didn't add any flourishes here. There are no crackle coated intake runners  or intricate exhaust headers to see.

It was hard to resist walking around and admiring the car. And with such a fetching subject, I had visions of becoming the next Tim Wallace.  But without a good location in mind and just an iphone in my pocket, my attempts to capture the z8 in all its glory were foiled.  I ended up taking about 50 pictures but wasn't happy with the results. I'll stick with  the excuse that Chris Bangle once gave for why his "flame surfacing" was disliked by so many people: it is hard to capture all of the nuances of a 3D sculpture in 2D.  I have an even greater appreciation for the work of professional automotive photographers now.

Heading back into the city at dusk watching the sunset over the Hudson was a perfect way to end the day. The traffic was light and I managed to get back to the car club just under the gun. After stepping out, I felt completely serene.