BMW Z4
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Story and photos by Laurance Yap

So halfway into my drive, I’m wondering if James Taylor would have just gone back to Carolina for real instead of in his mind all the time if he were driving a BMW Z4. He could have, for real, seen the sun shine and felt the moon shine, and maybe even a friend of his would have hit him from behind…

It seemed like a good idea at the time, to take the Z4 to the Carolinas – for reasons that had nothing to do with the song that I was hearing on the radio right now (my CD collection sat uselessly on my desk at home and the easy-listening signal was all the system could pull in halfway across Kentucky), a song that I’d heard a million times sitting in the front passenger seat of my dad’s K-Car as we crossed the countryside on another interminable road trip. Not only, I reasoned, were there some great driving roads in the Carolinas, but my recollection was that the scenery was spectacular as well. It would be a good chance to test the Z4’s long-distance ability, something many a big-fun roadster – and the new BMW is among them – falls down on.

And it would also be a bit of a homecoming for my black-over-red tester, given that Z4s (as well as X5s) for the world market all come from BMW’s Spartanburg, South Carolina facility. So for good measure, in addition to driving a combination of highways and sports-car roads, stopping for the inevitable roadside attractions, eating fatty road food, and stocking up on country-store kitsch, I would visit the factory as well, see if the impression of quality fostered by the roadster’s tight panel gaps, solid-sounding door thunks, and well-finished interior was backed up by a suitably impressive manufacturing process. This being only my second plant tour, I was hoping to be wowed.

BMW Z4 Carolina trip

BMW Z4 Carolina trip

BMW Z4 Carolina trip

BMW Z4 Carolina trip

BMW Z4 Carolina trip

BMW Z4 Carolina trip

BMW Z4 Carolina trip
Click image to enlarge

With beautiful two-lane rolling out like a black carpet in front of me through the Smokey mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, it was easy to forget the previous day’s drive, a 1200-km slog from Toronto that was, by virtue of the 401 and I-75 through Ontario, Michigan, and Ohio. This was a very good sign: the standard sport seats, covered in delightful “dream red” Oregon leather, had left me feeling fatigue-free despite the big miles, and my right foot was blessedly blister-free thanks to a perfect pedal arrangement (and a cruise control as accurate and smooth-acting as any).

Yesterday, I’d left the driving dynamics switch in standard mode, which meant for a softer throttle response and more steering assistance than the “sport” mode it was switched to now; it was perfect for a fast cruise along straight roads, the ultra-light steering – a mere roll of the wrists sent the Z4 snapping between lanes – being the only real downside. Ride quality on the optional 18-inch wheels was surprisingly good, and the brakes, for those whoa-did-you-see-me moments when tractor-trailers pulled out for kamikaze passes, were phenomenal.

As I roll across the border into North Carolina, rain starting to spatter the windshield (wind and water management is excellent, meaning at any speed above 80 km/h I remain dry and warm), I’m unconvinced that the “sport” mode makes enough of a difference to warrant its existence. The throttle response is indeed sharper, but it was by no means soft in standard mode, and the steering is still lighter, and with less feel, than I would like for a sports car. The tiny, thin-rimmed steering wheel feels great in the hand, however, and if there isn’t a lot of information coming up through it, the suspension does a great job giving the seat of your pants an accurate representation of what’s going on at road level. Handy, when you’re trying to make it to your B&B for your prescribed check-in time.

Still, there’s no question that the Z4 is a fully credible sports car in the way its Z3 predecessor (M roadster version excepted) really wasn’t. The 3.0-litre inline-six feels way more powerful than its 231-hp rating would suggest thanks to bags of low-down torque and impressive flexibility throughout the rev range; the six-speed transmission has well-matched ratios and a snappy action reminiscent of a fine Honda’s; grip is phenomenal; and thanks to a subwoofer-like attachment on the engine’s exhaust plumbing, this BMW sounds the business, with a gurgly, throaty roar that hardens to a sharp snarl at high revs. On the deliciously windy Blue Ridge Parkway, the drivetrain combo was near-perfect.

Perhaps more important than all this is the fact that the Z4 looks just awesome, its sharp curves and planes intersecting in ways that forever change depending on the lighting. You never tire of looking at it, and neither, it seems, do other people: everywhere I stop today – an “as seen on TV” outlet, the country’s oldest NASCAR gift shop, an all-you-can-eat catfish buffet, a woodworking shop where they also give bible study classes, and the very posh Rezazz restaurant in Biltmore Village – the black beauty is mobbed by interested onlookers. They all love it – and unlike many of us car critics who consider ourselves design critics as well, have never heard of Chris Bangle and his flame-surfacing tool. They love its classic roadster proportions as much as they enjoy its modern, sometimes humorous, detailing: the BMW logos on the sides that function as turn-signal repeaters, the inset rear lamps, the telephone-dial wheels.

Interestingly, opinion is more split on the interior, which is easily my favourite part of the car. Not only are the seats fantastic – they could use more side support for enthusiastic cornering, but you could say that about virtually every other OEM seat out there – but they’re adjustable every which way, and thanks to a tilt/telescope steering wheel, it’s easy to find the perfect driving position. The secondary controls – radio/CD unit with premium sound package and automatic climate system – are a cinch to operate, way better than equivalent systems in competitive roadsters, and indeed, any other BMW.

The minimalist design – the dash is a sweeping arc bisected by a plank of brushed aluminum and the separate console is done in much the same way – gives the Z4 a mini-Z8 feel and the expensive-feeling materials back that up, especially the leather armrest, metal door pulls, and soft-touch plastic on the windshield surround. Too bad visibility, even with the top down, isn’t the greatest, thanks to tiny side windows, a letter-slot shaped windshield, and two big roll hoops behind the seats.

BMW Z4 Carolina trip

BMW Z4 Carolina trip

BMW Z4 Carolina trip

BMW Z4 Carolina trip

BMW Z4 Carolina trip

BMW Z4 Carolina trip

BMW Z4 Carolina trip

BMW Z4 Carolina trip

BMW Z4 Carolina trip
Click image to enlarge

On the plus side, the top rises and falls in fully-automatic function with the touch of a switch (or with a twist of the key in the door lock), the rear window is heated glass, and the top’s folding pattern obviates the need for a tonneau cover. It fits tightly up or down, and the cloth feels as expensive as the rest of the car does.

You want expensive-feeling, though, you really should see the Spartanburg plant, where they do tours every day at 10:00, 1:00, and 3:00. The floors are cleaner than my mom’s kitchen, the workers all dressed in soft uniforms to prevent paint scratches, the tools and equipment all still polished to a perfect shine. You walk through the body shop, the interior trimming line, and final assembly, and you wonder how any workplace – especially one that produces sports cars that are such big dirty fun – can be so hospital-clean, so seemingly efficient. Cars move through two floors and five lines with amazing precision, and the workers have the fast, practiced hands of seasoned professionals – though this 1100-acre facility (of which 500 are being used) is just 11 years old. Just a few miles away from the Smokey Mountains, BMW’s doing something you’d expect to see in a documentary about the clean, green future.

Did I mention that the Carolinas are a great place to just hang out? I’m writing this on a sunny afternoon sitting on the Biltmore Bean Traders’ patio slurping a coffee-laced milkshake, and after just a couple of hours, I’ve seen a parade of Porsche 356s pass by (the same ones I chased and passed earlier this morning on U.S. 25, and who are on their way to meet 300 others at a 356 Register club meet), been given a lesson on American emissions regulations by the girl that’s working the espresso machine, and had a long and involved talk with a biker and his son who are three-quarters of the way through a cross-country ride, each of them with a copy of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” riding in their back pockets. “When you do a road trip in a car, it’s not the same as being on a bike; on a bike you’re out there, immersed right into things,” I’m told as dad points at the Z4. “But I’d probably settle for one of those.”

It’s not like you’d be settling at all. With a base sticker of $54,900, the Z4 is keenly priced several thousand dollars less than an equivalently-equipped Porsche Boxster, and is not much more expensive than the Honda S2000, which has a four-cylinder engine and a list of amenities that doesn’t even come close (not that luxury is the point of that car). And while the BMW may not offer quite the same driving thrills as either of those vehicles – the Boxster’s steering is simply the most sublime on the market, and the Honda’s 9000-rpm screamer, while not what you would call “flexible”, is one of the world’s best when it’s on cam – it offers an arguably more balanced package than either, a car that can carve corners almost as well as the best of them while throwing in a lot more long-distance comfort thanks to its list of features, its comfortable interior, and its surprising highway ride.

Not much of a surprise: the new 3-litre roadster proved to be an awfully nice car to take on such an awfully nice drive. In my current caffeine-induced stupor, I’m inclined to think that if James Taylor – who is, yes, I know, a native Carolinian – would ever decide to get off his whiny butt and actually take that trip back home, he could do a lot worse than take it along with another Carolina native, the BMW Z4.

Trip Notes

Biltmore Village Inn – Asheville NC – biltmorevillageinn.com

I found this delightful – and not too expensive – bed and breakfast on the Internet, and I’m glad I did. In addition to lavishly-furnished guest rooms, a full breakfast every morning, and a building of real history (it was built in the 1840s), the inn also has some of the friendliest staff I’ve ever come across anywhere. Innkeeper Ripley Hotch is not only a big car nut, but he was an automotive editor at the Detroit Free Press in a previous life. Guess what? The cleaning lady drives a Z4. Wireless Internet access, promised for next year, will make it just perfect.

BMW Zentrum – Greer, SC – www.bmwzentrum.com

A combination visitor centre and museum, the Zentrum not only showcases some of the most significant BMWs of years past, but is also home to stylish multimedia displays and a gift shop that will, for sure, empty out any car enthusiast’s pocket. Where else can you get 1/18th scale die cast models of the Alexander Calder art car ($125), or a mini Z4 for your kids? Book an appointment in advance and they’ll even take you on a two-hour tour of the factory for a piddling $5, $3.50 for students. Time well spent, especially when the food at the cafeteria is better than in any local restaurant.

If you don’t have plans for next Labour Day weekend, you may also want to consider visiting the plant with your Z3 or Z4 for the annual “roadster homecoming,” an event that draws hundreds of cars every year. Book a spot online and you get preferred rates at a nearby Marriott and entrance into the car show and a cruise. It’s the biggest BMW party in North America.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Accessible from a number of different entrance points, the Blue Ridge Parkway snakes its way through some of the most beautiful scenery in North America. Two perfectly paved lanes, sparse traffic, and tunnels in which to punch the throttle for more sound effects make this a driver’s dream. On any given weekend you’re likely to see big groups of motorcycles and sports cars stopping for a bite at the one restaurant/gas station/bathroom. With a 35 mph speed limit, and the presence of park rangers, you can’t be too speedy, but you’re likely to be too distracted by the spectacular surroundings to care.

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