2003 BMW Z4
(Test vehicle not exactly as shown) Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson

Improved handling, more interior room, controversial styling

It was a bit of a shocker when BMW introduced the new Z4 sports car last October. As with other BMWs of late, the smooth lines of the previous generation car were turfed in favour of bold, sculpted lines and unexpected protrusions. Personally, I think the Z4 stylists got a little carried away. The Z4’s creases and sharp angles remind me of a Picasso painting – the integrated rear ‘duckbill’ spoiler looks about two sizes too big – and those prominent BMW badges on the front fenders stand out like shameless advertisements.

As it turns out, I may be in the minority. During the week I had the Z4, three bystanders gleefully commented how much they loved the Z4’s exciting styling. So there you are..it’s three against one.

While still a small roadster, the Z4 is bigger than the Z3. Notably, it is 41 mm (1.6 in.) wider with a wheelbase that is 49 mm (1.9 in.) longer. This wider track and longer wheelbase contribute to improved handling, stability and ride comfort, as well as a larger cabin. With more headroom than before, the Z4’s cabin feels noticeably roomier than the Z3’s.

2003 BMW Z4
Click image to enlarge

As well, there is a sizeable increase in trunk space: from 165 litres (5.8 cu. ft.) to 240 litres (8.5 cu. ft.). And when the convertible top is up, a special feature allows the trunk to expand in size to 260 litres (9.2 cu. ft.).

Engine choices remain the same: Z4 2.5i models have the familiar 2.5 litre DOHC 24 valve inline six cylinder engine with 184 horsepower, while Z4 3.0i models have the 3.0 litre inline six with 225 horsepower. 2.5i models come with a standard 5-speed manual transmission while 3.0i versions have a six speed tranny. Both models are available with an optional 5 speed automatic ‘Steptronic’ transmission with manual shift mode for an extra $1,290.

As of April, 2003, the Z4 3.0i is available with an optional six-speed SMG manual/automatic transmission which features paddles behind the steering wheel as well as a conventional stick shift.

2003 Z4 2.5i’s start at $51,500, an increase of $4,300 over the 2002 Z3 2.5i. The 2003 Z4 3.0i is priced at $59,500, an increase of $3,300 over the 2002 Z3 3.0i.

View from the driver’s seat

2003 BMW Z4
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

After driving so many SUVs, minivans and tall cars lately, I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to sit in a sports car. The Z4 driver sits very low, with arms and legs outstretched, peering over the long hood – a typical seating position for a front engine/rear-drive sports car. The view to the front, sides, and rear is good, but the rear glass window is not quite wide enough to reveal that important rear three-quarter view.

The Z4’s front seats offer excellent thigh and upper body support, and their matte-black leatherette upholstery material has a soft, rubbery, sticky texture which sort of glues you to the seat – all the better to hold you in place during spirited cornering.

The interior’s mild retro theme can be seen in the three-spoked steering wheel (which resembles the Z8’s), two deeply inset round gauges under a raised glare hood, and the flat metal dash trim.

Simple controls for the radio and CD player are positioned in the centre dash area, while round dials for the fan, temperature and ventilation dials are located conveniently below. The power window buttons are set at a severe angle on the doors, but the power door lock button is in the centre console. A handy pull-out cupholder resides just to the left of steering wheel.

Lower down in the centre console, and further from reach, are buttons for the seat heaters (with 3 temperature settings), a button to switch off the Dynamic Stability Control, buttons to raise and lower the convertible top, and a tire pressure warning button.

2003 BMW Z4
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

A tall driveshaft tunnel runs the down the centre of the cabin, and a high-mounted gearshift lever is positioned exactly where it should be. Special rubber pads on the left and right side of the tunnel provide padding for the driver and passengers’ legs – a thoughtful touch.

Interior storage space is limited but there are large door pockets, a glovebox, and between the seats is a covered storage area containing the CD changer for the optional navigation system and some open areas for CD’s, and a cell-phone holder.

The Z4 has four airbags: dual stage front airbags and two knee airbags to prevent ‘submarining’. In case you’re travelling with a child or baby in the passenger seat, the passenger side airbag can be turned off by pressing a button on the console. As well, the Z4 includes two roll bars behind the seats, and a strong windshield frame designed to act as a roll bar in the event of a rollover.

Optional navigation system

My test car had the optional navigation system which includes a CD map of Canada and a pop-up colour screen located in the centre of the dashtop. The CD map (which is located in a CD player between the seats) and a Global Positioning System pinpoint your current location and plot a route to your inputted destination. The driver enters the address or location using a knob on the dashboard and a menu-style system on the screen – a process than can be lengthy when entering individual street numbers. The screen shows a map of the area, in a variety of choosable scales, and an arrow indicates where your car is on the route. Visual and audible instructions direct you to your destination.

The screen also displays the name of the district where you are located, your current longitude and latitude, and even your altitude!

The screen also functions as a display for the radio, clock, trip computer, and vehicle settings such as clock and metric/english choices. The screen can be lowered when you are not using it.

Optional power top is completely automatic

Z4 2.5i models come with a standard manually-operated cloth top, but my test car had the optional power top (standard on the Z4 3.0i) which is fully automatic. By pressing and holding a button on the lower console, the side windows roll down a couple of inches, the top unlocks from the windshield header, and the top folds down in about eight seconds. Its unique design includes a built-in tonneau cover – which means you don’t have to get out of the car and snap it on. This is one of the easiest convertible tops to put up and down, and provides more incentive to drop the top as soon as the Sun comes out, even for brief periods of wind-in-the-hair motoring.

The inside of the top includes a soft padded inner liner which looks very nice and helps keep out noise and cold. The rear window is glass with an electric defroster – my only complaint is that the window is not quite wide enough to reduce the blind spot to the right rear quarter.

At speeds in excess of 100 km/h with the top down and the side windows up, wind buffeting is confined to the top of your head. But with the side windows down, the wind finds its way into the passenger compartment and buffets your face – so I’d recommend leaving the windows up on the highway.

Driving impressions

2003 BMW Z4
Click image to enlarge

Other than styling, the main reason for buying a Z4 is the driving experience. In this respect, I found the Z4 2.5i exceptional.

The Z4 begins with good credentials: a 50/50 front/rear weight distribution, a stiff bodyshell, rear-wheel drive layout, a fully independent suspension borrowed from the 3-Series, and standard Bridgestone Potenza 225/50R-16 inch runflat tires. Handling is extremely well-balanced, and overall stability when cornering is exceptional. While not quite as nimble as a Z3, the Z4 feels more substantial and more stable during high speed cornering. Unlike some rear-drive sports cars, the Z4 is not ‘tail-happy’. Its rear-end stays planted even in the wet, but should oversteer occur, its Dynamic Stability Control automatically intervenes, by moderating the throttle and braking individual tires to prevent a spin-out. The Z4 also has a smooth, comfortable ride, although you’ll find it firm and stiff on a bumpy road.

I found the Z4’s electrically-assisted power steering precise without being too sensitive. Steering effort is easy at lower speeds so parking is not a problem, and the Z4 has a tight turning circle for maneouvering in tight places. At higher speeds on the freeway, it tracks very well. Of course, as a rear-drive sports car, the steering is completely free of the engine torque forces found in most front-drive sports cars.

The familiar 2.5 litre DOHC 24 valve straight six develops 184 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, plenty of horsepower for a 1330 kg (2932 lb.) sports car. In fact, I don’t think there’s any need to spend the extra money on a Z4 3.0i. BMW claims the Z4 2.5i will accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h in 7.0 seconds, while AJAC (Automobile Journalists Association of Canada) says 7.6 seconds. That’s about a second slower than a Z4 3.0i. Equally significant is that the Z4’s inline six cylinder engine offers a generous 175 lb-ft of torque, and has variable valve timing, both of which contribute to better throttle responsiveness in higher gears. Unlike the Honda S2000 for example, you don’t have wind out this engine to get satisfactory performance.

2003 BMW Z4
Click image to enlarge

The Z4 is also available with optional Dynamic Drive Control which adjusts the engine management computer to deliver more power more quickly, simply by pressing a button. As well, the steering be�comes more direct and sporty. I can’t report on this option because my test car didn’t have it.

On the freeway, the Z4’s silky smooth 2.5 litre inline six revs at 3000 rpm at 100 km/h and 3400 rpm at 120 km/h in fifth gear. Though these are not low revs, the engine is so quiet and smooth, that it sounds very relaxed.

The clutch engages very smoothly, pedal effort is light, and the well-positioned gear lever offers short, quiet, and slightly rubbery shifts that are never difficult to find. A nice wide ‘dead pedal’ to the left of the clutch pedal offers a place to rest your left foot when not changing gears.

Big four wheel discs with ABS and EBD haul the Z4 down from 100 km/h to 0 km/h in 39.5 metres (130 ft.), according to independent tests by AJAC. That’s at, or near the top of its class.

One warning for potential Z4 buyers: the front air dam is very low, and will strike most curbs and concrete abuttments in parking lots. As the air dam is an integral part of the front bumper, any damage is likely to be quite expensive.

Competitor overview

2004 BMW Z4
Click image to enlarge

Competitors for the 184 horsepower BMW Z4 2.5i ($51,500) include the 240 horsepower Honda S2000 ($48,600), 190 horsepower Mercedes-Benz SLK230 ($55,950) and 215 horsepower SLK320 ($61,950), 180 horsepower Audi TT Roadster ($51,650), and the 225 horsepower Porsche Boxster ($60,500).

Of these, the only one with a comparable front engine/rear-drive layout and a six cylinder engine is the Mercedes-Benz SLK320 – however, its higher price-tag and horsepower rating are closer to the 225 horsepower BMW Z4 3.0i than the 2.5i. The supercharged four cylinder Mercedes-Benz SLK230 is closer in price and horsepower to the Z4 2.5i, but its engine is less refined than the Z4 and it’s noisier. The SLK does have the notable advantage of a folding convertible hardtop.

Compared to the Z4 2.5i, the Honda S2000 is cheaper, faster, and has a lot more horsepower and a fantastic six speed manual transmission – but its smaller 2.0 litre engine needs to be revved higher to extract that power, and the car is significantly noisier. As well, the S2000 has a smaller cabin and trunk.

The Audi TT has front-wheel-drive, and doesn’t feel as balanced as the Z4 2.5i – in fact, I wouldn’t even rate these two cars in the same class for ride and handling. For close to $60,000, you can buy the all-wheel-drive Audi TT roadster with 225 horsepower, but its vehicle dynamics are similar.

The Porsche Boxster is the only competitor with better overall handling, due in part to its mid-engine layout. The Boxster also has plenty of torque, and a comfortable ride. However, the Boxster is more expensive and is more comparable with the Z4 3.0i. As well, the Boxster offers a different driving experience – some drivers will prefer the traditional front engine/rear-drive layout of the Z4.


Excellent vehicle dynamics, a smooth inline six cylinder engine, a quick 5-speed gearbox, and responsive steering make the BMW Z4 2.5i a joy to drive. It’s just a matter of whether you like the controversial styling.

Technical Data: 2003 BMW Z4 2.5i

Base price $51,500
Freight $1,495
Options $2,400 (Premium Package includes: power seats with driver memory heated seats, HiFi Sound System with DSP)
  $3,100 (Navigation Package)
  $1,500 (power fully automatic convertible top)
Price as tested $59,995
Type 2-door, 2 passenger sports car
Layout longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive
Engine 2.5 litre inline six cylinder, 24 valves, DOHC, double VANOS
Horsepower 184 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 175 ft-lb @ 3500 rpm
Curb weight 1330 kg (2932 lb.)
Wheelbase 2495 mm (98.2 in.)
Length 4091 mm (161.1 in.)
Width 1781 mm ( 70.1 in.)
Height 1299 mm ( 51.1 in.)
Cargo capacity 240 litres (8.5 cu. ft.) min
  260 litres (9.2 cu. ft.) max.
Fuel consumption City: 11.7 l/100 km (24 mpg)
  Hwy: 7.8 l/100 km (36 mpg)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km

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