Prototype Drive: 2020 BMW Z4 M40i Roadster

Prototype Drive: 2020 BMW Z4 M40i Roadster

The BMW Z4 is dead. Did you notice? Looking over the sales from the last few years, I’m not sure you did. In 2016, the final year of production, BMW moved only 1,187 examples of the shapely little roadster in the U.S., a significant drop from the previous year’s 1,829 units. The two-seater was snuffed out without the usual fanfare reserved for final runs, BMW instead cutting the fourteen-year-old model from its lineup with a clinical and calculated swipe.

The BMW Z4 is alive. Well, almost alive–look for the debut of the third-gen roadster either later this year or early next year. While the E89 suffered, the forthcoming G29 Z4 thrived under heavy camouflage as it underwent the Nürburgring crucible, cold-weather testing, and accrued real-world miles around the world. This world tour included critical endurance and track testing at BMW’s Miramas test track in the south of France, the venue where I joined a group of BMW’s brightest and some camouflaged Z4 mules for some test miles of my own.

Located on France’s southern coast between Marseille and Avignon, the Miramas circuit is a sprawling proving ground for BMWs of all shapes, sizes, and character. The main attraction is the large banked oval wrapping around the facility that’s visible from air while approaching the Marseille airport. Clusters of tarmac squiggles hide inside its borders, giving off the distinct appearance of a cellular structure when viewed from above. Despite serving as the location for the French Grand Prix some 90 years ago, the oval isn’t used for high-speed testing. Instead, four- and two-wheeled test mules put down thousands of endurance miles. When it gets dark, an array of streetlights pops on to illuminate the circuit.

I’m not here for endurance. Our small group met four Z4 mules at one of the many handling circuits, cutting through a scythed field of tall, dense grass. We’re nervous—this is an exciting moment for everyone involved, and not just for the small cadre of journalists assembled in the tidy trackside garage. We’re among the first outsiders to sample the new roadster and engineers are eager for feedback.

If you’ve followed the Z4 saga up to this point, you know this platform doesn’t end with the white and blue roundel up front. Through a technical partnership, BMW and Toyota co-developed this next-gen sports car for both brands, kinda-sorta like the Toyota/Subaru partnership that begat the BRZ and FR-S/GT86. Only in this case, the forthcoming twins aren’t quite identical twins–think more fraternal.

BMW gets the roadster and Toyota gets the fixed-roof coupe, ostensibly resurrecting the Supra nameplate. Even in this access-heavy program, details on the partnership are scant. All we’re told is we’re not going to see a drop-top “Supra,” and no matter how much you want it, there are no plans for a Z4 coupe. You won’t be able to meet halfway with a folding hardtop, either—the Z4 will arrive only in soft-top form.

Before we sample the black-and-white mules, we’re given a surprise treat. Covers are thrown off of two cars in the garage, revealing a pair of production-ready Z4s. BWM isn’t ready to show off the new car just yet, but I can do my best to paint a picture. Start with the Z4 Concept that premiered last year at the 2017 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and scale back some of the more conceptual components. Drape that shape over the last-gen Z4, and enlarge it to a three-fourths scale Mercedes-SL. The front grille is similar to the concept, as is the rear decklid. The interior is remarkably similar to the concept as well, just with less wacky showcar bits.

It’s noticeably larger, sitting somewhere between the old Z4 and the current 6 Series Cabriolet. It’s not our imagination, either. Compared to the old car, the new Z4 is 3.2 inches longer, 2.8 inches wider, and 0.5 inches taller. Underneath the skin, it grows (and shrinks) in the right ways, cutting one inch from the wheelbase but widening the front and rear track by 3.6 inches and 2.2 inches, respectively. On a see-saw with older six-cylinder model, the new European-spec Z4 is lighter by around 143 pounds, spinning the scales at 3,384 pounds.

Inside, it’s a much nicer place to be. Loaded out, it’s a requisitely techy environment, packing digital gauges and for the first time on a Z model, a HUD. With the larger threads on the outside, the interior gets a size boost as well, with enough shoulder and legroom to satisfy those rare birds who will use the Z4 on a daily basis. No real surprises here – expect leather, aluminum, wood, and carbon fiber trim with BMW’s ever-present soft-touch plastic.

Both the sneak-peak models and the test mules were kitted-out with the M40i trim, the sportiest of the two available trims at launch. As equipped, the M40i is powered by the same 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six as the M240i, albeit with a sharper tune. When the Z4 M40i hits our shores, power is an M2-beating 382 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, surprisingly more than the Euro-spec, which is choked by a particulate filter that saps the sixer by around 50 hp.

Power is sent to the rear wheels through the trusty eight-speed ZF automatic transmission. U.S.-spec performance figures weren’t provided, but the less-potent Euro-spec M40i dispatches the 0-62 mph sprint in 4.4 seconds, topping out at a predictable 155 mph.

Even in the lo-po Euro-spec, the Z4 testers were fast. Aside from a worrying lack of edge definition, there weren’t many surprises out on the test track. Wide, sweeping curves gave way to short straights, culminating in a kinked straight where the best among us saw a little over 130 mph. From the first turn, it’s clear where the development priorities lay. Forget the heavy, numb boulevard cruiser Z4s of the past – this is the real-deal. It’s physically bigger than any prior Z, but it’s incredibly agile. Even in 2018, 3,400 pounds isn’t light, but variable electro-boosted steering and a trick e-diff in the rear means it’s extremely confident and very responsive.

For the first time, the Z feels cohesive. It’s wide, and square, thanks in part to the extended front and rear track, along with the beefy 255/275 tires in the front and rear, respectively. Nestled next to the upright shifter, a stack of driving mode buttons is a familiar sight, ranging from soft Comfort to the most hardcore Sport Plus.

On the track, Sport and Sport Plus were ideal. Setting it to the most aggressive setting dials in the adaptive suspension to its stiffest setting, agitates the throttle for quick response, modifies shift points, adds weight to the steering, and loosens up the rear differential. It’s not a weapon in the same way as the M2 or M5, but it’s more than capable for the odd trackday, should you find time between Sunday drives and beachside cruises.

Escaping the test facility spit me out onto the narrow roads of Miramas. The optional road route was a roughly hour-long round trip that wound its way through tight, blind 1.5-lane cross-town roads in and down shaded coastal paths. It’s a much more palatable package than we’ve come to expect from BMW’s roadster. It’s comfortable, easy to drive, and makes an excellent six-cylinder growl, accentuated by the aire libre functionality.

With its new size inside and out, the roadster is more consumer friendly than ever, and that’s rather important when faced with a rapidly shrinking small convertible market. Pricing isn’t official, but BMW expects pricing for the base Z4 30i to start in the 50s, with the M40i stickering somewhere in the mid- to high-60s. Now, for the first time in quite a long time, perhaps since the first six-cylinder Z3, the BMW Z is one of the better ways to muss your hair and get a nasty sunburn, with or without camouflage.

2020 BMW M40i Roadster Specifications

ON SALE 2019 (est)
PRICE $50,000 (base, est)
ENGINE 3.0L turbocharged DOHC 24-valve I-6/382 hp, 369 lb-ft (U.S.-spec)
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
EPA MILEAGE N/A
L x W x H 170.1 x 73.3 x 51.3 in
WHEELBASE 97.2 in
WEIGHT 3,384 lb (est, Euro-spec)
0-60 MPH 4.4 sec (est, Euro-spec)
TOP SPEED 155 mph

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