Prowling the night in the BMW Z4
There’s only one way to experience a convertible like the BMW Z4. You’ve got to wait till the sun goes down
It’s the night’s darkest hour, but this is home territory. The same roads that are clogged in the day become a playground at night. The entire city is dreaming, and I, strapped into this snug seat inches off the ground, find it hard to believe that I’m not. It’s deathly silent around me. Not for long, though. I push in the brake pedal with my left foot, and press the start/stop button. The straight-six roars to life, the revs shattering the peace before setting in to a rumbling idle. That was just a teaser, it was time for the full symphony. I readjust my grip on the wheel, nudge my backside in a little firmer in to the seat and pull the stubby gear stick into D. Left foot holding the car still, I floor it. The engine roars, the car strains at its leash — I can feel the tyres spinning under me and I can smell the rubber burning. I let go of the shackles and the tyres scramble to put down all 500Nm, hurling me ahead with a combination of their high-pitched shrieking and the engine’s unrestrained bellow to the redline. The full symphony — it’s addicting.
Not a track junkie
The BMW Z4 isn’t like the Porsche Boxster. You won’t find too many of them doubling up as track weapons, being hammered around circuits chasing laptimes. It’s the convertible you see gliding around piers with rich men with gaudy gold jewellery behind the wheel. I wanted to do that too — rent some jewellery, put on a floral shirt and drive the Z4 down to the coast. Maybe sip a Mojito, get myself some exotic seafood and do other things that stinking rich people do. I wanted to pretend to be a high-roller out for a spin in his Sunday toy and get the magazine to fund it on the pretext of a photoshoot for the story. However, Sundays during the peak of the Indian summer usually involve skin-cancer inducing sun and enough heat for me to fry an egg on my bald head. These convertibles, built for the European summer, are bloody useless in the daytime here. You spend most of your time with the roof up, putting it down when you’re bored and want to see the gawking faces of passersby only to put it back up immediately lest you need intravenous rehydration.
Which is why I waited until the sun set and the city fell asleep. I wanted to drive the Z4 with the roof down. I may not be able to feel the wind in my hair, but I sure as hell could feel it on my head. I had probably woken up the entire neighbourhood with my antics as I pulled away, but I no longer have to deal with them now. For now, I was focussed on the road ahead of me. Empty, familiar and begging for me to have at them. It was time to well and truly paint the town red.
So is the Z4 a GT?
The Z4’s proportions make it pretty clear what sort of car it is — the engine was up front underneath that long-ass bonnet with the two seats nearly on top of the rear axle. There is an M badge on that gorgeous derriere, but this ain’t a full blown M car. The Z4 is the Nickelback to the M3 and M4’s Metallica. Less hardcore. The Z4 M40i has a 3-litre straight-six engine with a single twin-scroll turbocharger. It also gets a 9-speed automatic and not a DCT. Softer edges then on the Z4 M40i, but that’s a matter of perspective. This M40i is still the most hardcore Z4 you can get, the other being a puny 2-litre, four-cylinder. And who wants four cylinders when you can have six, right? Porsche, take note.
I was belting it down the long straight roads of the city, roof down, revelling in the howl of the exhaust. This engine has character. It isn’t the same S55 engine from the M2 and M3 cars with one turbo less — the B58 is an entirely different animal. Sport Plus mode opens up the valves in the exhaust and it’s entertaining — roaring to the 7000rpm redline and firing staccato shots on the overrun. Torque is huge, not enough to overwhelm the wide 275-section rear tyres every time you have at it but enough to send you to illegal speeds before you have time to get your foot off the gas. The gearbox is quick enough for a regular automatic — a DCT would have certainly been more clinical but then the Z4 isn’t trying to be a clinical car. It’s got enough grunt to entertain you, and scare your passenger silly and that’s all that matters. But that’s not to say the Z4 is a slouch. It is fast enough to have bested the M2 Competition around the ‘Ring, and that’s saying something.
But can the Z4 deal with our roads?
The M on the bum also means you can set the Z4 up better. It gets dynamic dampers that allow you to stiffen (and lower) or slacken up the suspension to three different settings. The roads I had handpicked for my dash through the darkness were the smoothest ones around town, but this is India. Our standards for smooth roads are dismal and the dampers were best left in Comfort. But just because the suspension was in Comfort doesn’t mean that my right foot had to deal with a gentle drivetrain. The Z4’s Individual mode meant I could dial up the steering and the drivetrain to the max in Sport Plus, while my backside enjoyed the supple ride.
I chose my route with three factors in mind — maximum flyovers, maximum underpasses and minimum speed-breakers. Flyovers really let you rip it — there’s less chances of pedestrians and stray animals, and they don’t spring up too many surprises. Just watch out for expansion joints that have sunk in — they can be real nasty on a stiff sports car like this one. Why I picked tunnels is pretty darn obvious — roof down, and a bellowing straight-six? No brainer. And speed-breakers, they just destroy the rhythm you’ve built up since the last one. That said, the Z4 genuinely surprised me with how useable it was over the few days I had it, with the chin not scraping anywhere I took it.
The only thing the city lacked, was a good set of corners. I know a couple of nice ones — this one downhill left-hander which was like first half of the corkscrew at Laguna Seca. There is also this chicane that you could thread the car through provided the road was empty. I did attack a stray roundabout too but going pedal to the metal at a junction in a city is plain moronic, even at an ungodly hour like this. The Z4 can certainly corner. Out in the hills the previous morning, the Z4 felt so dialled in. The nose is stretched out far in front of you, but turn the wheel and it darts in properly quick. The M40i gets an electronically controlled rear-differential, so when you’re gassing it out of corners, you can feels the wheels clawing at the ground harder and harder. Convertibles do compromise on torsional rigidity of the chassis, but this Z4 has an advantage over the old one. This one gets a fabric roof instead of a folding hardtop, reducing weight and lowering the centre of gravity. I haven’t driven the previous generation Z4 so I can’t say how far they’ve moved ahead with this one, but in isolation, it is a proper corner-carver.
Au revoir, Z4
As dawn approached, I knew it was time to get back to the shelter of my parking lot. The city was beginning to wake up. I pushed the button on the centre console to put the Z4 into Comfort mode, and it transformed into a whole new beast. No crackling exhaust, no surging forward at the lightest touch of the accelerator. Now I was just cruising along with the engine burbling at a steady 3000rpm, wondering how such an otherwise sedate machine could be up to the debauchery it was all through the night. This particular Z4, the M40i, has a split personality. It can do the showy bits — the cruising along, the flexing and the showing off. But if you really want to, it will put those muscles to good use. Whatever it is you want the Z4 for, if you’re living in a city like mine, you’re going to have to do it with the roof up. Or wait until darkness falls. I highly recommend the latter.