Manual mode was the only choice for real sporting performance out of the Z4 sDrive35is. Using the paddle shifters, we could take it down to third or even second, letting the tach spool up to 5,500rpm, snapping gear changes out in quick succession.
We are used to BMW's weird-looking gearshifts, but that has not endeared us to it. Both the console shifter and the paddle shifters incorporate the same weirdly organic design, which is not in keeping with any other aspect of the car.
As a final piece of performance tech, if anyone remains skeptical about electronic power steering, the Z4 sDrive35is should erase all doubt. The wheel felt good, always offering good road feedback as we slung the car over our favorite roads. It also provided a comfortable amount of boost when we pulled parking maneuvers in the city.
Another useful perk, especially for negotiating the hills of San Francisco, is a hill-hold feature that kept the brakes on as we went from brake to gas pedal.
Although a small car, the big engine means fuel economy of only 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, according to EPA tests. In our driving, in which we spent a lot of time pushing the car hard, we turned in an average of 19.2 mpg--not too bad for the Z4 sDrive35is' level of performance.
BMW's are not known for lush luxury, but they still employ excellent fit and finish for their fine cabin materials. In the Z4 sDrive35is, the leather is thick and the plastics are soft. We like the comfort of the sport seats and the thickness of the steering wheel.
Of course, with a base price of $61,050, we would expect a high-quality interior. Our car's final price was not much above base, as it had very few cabin tech options, just iPod integration, satellite radio, and keyless start. There were buttons for voice command and phone, but these were not active, as the Bluetooth phone system was not optioned. Given the high base price, BMW could probably have thrown in the phone system standard.
But BMW does make a good range of cabin tech available in the Z4 sDrive35is, and we have used similar features in other BMW cars. The hard-drive-based navigation system responds quickly and offers richly detailed maps. The Bluetooth phone system downloads a phone's contact list, and in more recent models offers dial-by-name voice command.
As our car lacked navigation, we were left with the monochrome radio display for browsing our attached iPod's music library. BMW is fairly clever in using this limited screen real estate. We could select genre, artist, or album, and then scroll through the ensuing lists to find the music we wanted. However, other companies have managed to put larger displays into their cars to handle increased information demands, and it's time BMW caught up with this trend.
A premium audio system is available, but our car had the stock six-speaker system. Comprised of two tweeters, two mids, and two woofers behind the seats, the sound quality is much better than that found in most six-speaker systems. As is typical for BMWs, a powerful amp gives music a very strong sound, especially useful for driving with the top down. Bass and mid detail is excellent, although this highs get just a little muffled. We heard no distortion, even at high volumes, but the bass doesn't come through as strong as some might like.
Not offered in the Z4 sDrive35is is much in the way of driver assistance features. Forget blind-spot detection, adaptive cruise control, or even a back-up camera. But with the top down, visibility all around is excellent.
Although a very satisfying sport driver, the 2011 BMW Z4 sDrive35is pulls up a little short of the edge, trading in hard-line performance for creature comforts. The performance tech, from the direct-injection turbocharged engine to the adaptive suspension, is very advanced and seen in few other cars, and even fewer roadsters.
Our car came with a mostly bare cabin, but BMW makes an excellent array of electronics available. Very impressive for a roadster is the 8.8-inch LCD for the navigation system. The stock stereo system was very good, and we would expect quite a bit from the car's premium audio.
The car is also a looker, the hard top making a nice profile with the long-snouted roadster body. The retracting feature for the roof is very clever, but points off for the impact it has on the trunk space.
|Model||2011 BMW Z4 sDrive35is|
|Powertrain||Turbocharged direct injection 3-liter inline six-cylinder engine, seven speed dual clutch transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||17 mpg city/24 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||19.2 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional hard drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional|
|Disc player||MP3 compatible single CD player|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD radio|
|Audio system||Six speaker system|
|Price as tested||$64,225|