There’s a certain sense of obligation that comes with roadster ownership.
I’ve owned three of them to this point in my life, and choosing a small, rear-drive, two-seat convertible is a passion purchase, so you’d darn-well better make the most of it when the weather allows. That means that even when a closed-top car truly makes more sense (which, let’s face it, is most of the time), the roadster owners have an obligation to drive around al fresco, just to prove they’re worthy.
Roadsters ask more of their owners than more practical machines do. Historically, they add weight, complexity, and cost compared to their coupe counterparts, not to mention lose structural rigidity and, at least with their tops up, aesthetic appeal.
A modern crossover in particular is just easier to live with, which mostly explains why the roadster category is shrinking. Perhaps that’s why this car, the 2023 BMW Z4, has evolved into a far more liveable – and higher performing – sports car than it’s been before.
BMW’s little roadster has had a strange evolution. The downright-odd Z1 made way for the retro-inspired Z3 that was replaced by a Z4 that took a dramatically sharp-edged and modern approach, before morphing into a softer, grand touring, second generation with its power retractable hard top. The third generation Z4 you see here receives a very mild mid-cycle refresh for 2023 that’ll make even keen-eyed enthusiasts squint to notice. (To save the effort: the grille gets a new mesh pattern, the lower intake shape and foglight positioning are both slightly different, and the lower rear bumper is minutely changed).
There’s no doubt the Z4 grabs attention. Sports cars have become decidedly less common on our SUV-dominated streets, and with so few of this generation of Z4 sold so far, people tend to take notice of it. It’s compact, low, and wide, with a very broad grille and taillights. But the headlights, peeled back up into fenders, have departed from 50 years of twin, horizontally oriented headlight design, and don’t look quite right to my eye. From certain angles, the Z4 even appears a little nose-heavy. These days, BMW’s design department seems motivated by controversy, with plenty of dramatic flourishes throughout the lineup.
Still, the addition of Thundernight Metallic paint this year is as welcome as a grape popsicle on a hot summer’s day. The new 19-inch wheels are pretty snazzy, too, as is the white leather interior, even if it’ll be extremely challenging to keep clean. The rest of the cabin layout is contemporary BMW with buttons, textures, and screen graphics that are common across most current models. And, even with the top up, this Z4 still cuts a dashing profile.
Driving Feel: 8/10
While a roadster’s fashion is usually a large part of its appeal, its engaging drive experience is what surely seals the deal for most buyers. The reality is that life is pretty grand on those perfect summer evenings, with the sun setting and your favourite driving companion in the passenger seat, as you take the long way to the ice cream parlour.
The Z4 does a great job in those idyllic scenarios, but it also loves to exercise when there’s no traffic around and winding roads beckon. There’s plenty of grip to carry lots of speed through the corners, and the steering is sharp and quick if somewhat muted in its communication of what’s happening at the surface below.
The short wheelbase also gives the Z4 an eagerness to change directions, and for drivers bold enough to switch off the traction control, it’ll wag its tail all day long with only modest throttle inputs. The brake pedal is firm with good initial bite, and lots of stopping power when called upon. If the Z4 has matured into more of a grand touring car than a sports car, it certainly hasn’t given up any performance in the process.
Typical of sporty BMWs, the Z4 M40i’s adaptive dampers are pretty firm even in comfort mode, but the short wheelbase that helps the Z4 feel so playful can also become tiring as the little car is affected by nearly every road imperfection it encounters, no matter how small. The ride isn’t harsh, mind you, but you feel the road surface more through the seat than the steering wheel.
The seats are supportive, with plenty of adjustability, including the under-thigh bolsters and adjustable lumbar, but the one-piece backrest integrates the headrest and a small, plastic square. For occupants shorter than about 5-foot-4, that little piece of plastic design can come in painful contact with the back of the head over every bump. And while the light-coloured seats don’t absorb heat as much as black leather would, they offer no ventilation or even perforation to help mitigate a sweaty back when driving around under the afternoon sun.
User Friendliness: 8/10
The Z4’s driving position is quite good, with wind buffeting kept to a minimum when the top’s down, even without the removable wind deflector in place. The controls are canted toward the driver and all switchgear falls easily to hand. The thick-rimmed steering wheel feels great and frames the digital gauge display perfectly. BMW’s infotainment system has been fine-tuned to become quite user-friendly, and this tester worked flawlessly when connected wireless to my iPhone – a feat that doesn’t happen with many cars these days. The system can be operated via voice command, the broad touchscreen, or the rotary touch-panel controller between the seats.
Specced as the test car is, the Z4 is a well-equipped car with adaptive cruise control, a head-up display, premium audio system, and fancy interior lighting, but that’s all part of an optional package. Otherwise, the standard feature list is pretty rudimentary, with the slick drivetrain and the lovely, insulated fabric top that opens and closes with the push of a single button being the primary features.
BMW fits the Z4 with advanced safety features including automatic high-beam headlights, a lane-departure warning system, and frontal crash avoidance sensors with automated braking for other cars, pedestrians, and cyclists. Parking sensors have also been fitted, which are welcome with the top up since large blind spots are usually a problem.
The Z4 M40i’s best asset isn’t even exclusive to the Z4. BMW’s been celebrated for its excellent inline six-cylinder engines for decades, and the version found here is sensational. BMW could fit this mill in a street sweeper and it’d still be exciting to drive. Although rated for 382 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, those figures fail to convey just how smoothly and linearly this engine delivers its thrust. Whether puttering around in comfort mode or ripping up the country road curves, the turbo six cylinder always has an abundance of power available to rocket the Z4 toward the horizon, and reaching 100 km/h from a standstill takes roughly four seconds.
Adding to the delight is a snarl that turns into the most melodic wail as the revs reach the tachometer’s upper limits. In sport mode, the Z4 is programmed to emit a series of pops when the driver backs off the throttle, which is an unnecessary gimmick in what’s otherwise a sophisticated performance machine.
The eight-speed automatic transmission is the only gearbox available, and while a manual seems more appropriate for a visceral little roadster, it’s tough to find fault with this stellar offering. Shifts are buttery smooth most of the time, but when driven in anger it can snap off gear changes instantly, and in sport mode it’ll hold revs to keep the engine in the meatiest part of its power.
Fuel Economy: 7.5/10
Considering the aerodynamic challenges of a convertible, and the impressive performance afforded by the 2023 Z4 M40i, it’s a surprisingly efficient car. Rated at 10.4 L/100 km in the city, 7.5 on the highway, and 9.1 combined, a week of mixed commuting and back-road shenanigans produced an indicated average of 8.2 L/100 km. The Z4 does have a discerning taste for premium unleaded.
If practicality is high on a buyer’s priority list, a two-seat roadster is a pretty poor choice. Even still, as far as tiny convertibles are concerned, its 280-L trunk will easily swallow a few duffle bags for a long weekend getaway. And with heated seats and its well-insulated top, the Z4’s occupants will still be cozy when there’s a chill in the air.
The Z4 is a rare and premium car and its pricing reflects it. A base four-cylinder version starts at $67,000, while the six-cylinder M40i begins at a considerably costlier $80,000. By BMW standards, the list of options is fairly short, yet it was still easy to push this test car’s price up to over $90,000 after options, fees, and destination charges.
By comparison, a Porsche 718 Boxster starts at over $80,000 for a four-cylinder model, with a six-cylinder version easily reaching past $120,000 after options. Buyers seeking the outright bang-for-the-buck might consider a Chevrolet Corvette convertible that aligns closely with the Z4 in terms of cost, but offers more performance.
The popularity of amorphic, electrified peoplemovers has squeezed much of the life out of the two-seat roadster segment. Those that remain are sensational examples of the theme, each offering their own take. BMW has steadfastly stuck with the long-hood, rear-drive format, but this variant could be the last of the line. The 2023 BMW Z4 possesses the key roadster attributes including smile-inducing performance and a wind-in-the-hair driving experience, but it has also evolved in terms of technology and refinement to make it very livable for day-to-day motoring. It can be tough to make a case for a car with such limited practicality, but for roadster fanatics, the Z4 is a heck of an offering requiring fewer sacrifices than one might think.
|Engine Cylinders||Turbo I6|
|Peak Horsepower||382 hp @ 5,000–6,500 rpm|
|Peak Torque||369 lb-ft @ 1,600–4,500 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||10.4 / 7.5 / 9.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||280 L|
|Model Tested||2023 BMW Z4 M40i|
|Price as Tested||$90,925|
$7,845 – Thundernight Metallic paint, $895; 19” V-spoke wheels, $500, White leather, $1,500; Aluminum trim, $250; Premium Enhanced Package, $4,700