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.


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