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The four-cylinder BMW Z4 is an exercise in 'less is more'

Or, why driving the 2019 BMW Z4 sDrive30i makes me sad we won’t get a four-cylinder Toyota Supra in the US.

2019 BMW Z4 OGI
Steven Ewing/Roadshow

The new Z4 is a return to form for BMW. When I drove the twin-turbocharged, six-cylinder M40i version last year, I said it was one of the company's "best-executed sports cars yet." Following a quick sampling of the less-powerful Z4 sDrive30i last week, I'm pleased to say that praise extends to this four-cylinder model, as well. And in fact, for a number of reasons, I actually like the 30i more.

Powering the Z4 sDrive30i is the same 2.0-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine that's found in a whole bunch of other new BMWs, and it's a real sweetheart. It's part of the reason why I prefer the 2019 330i to its more powerful M340i sibling. With a bit of extra boost, this engine turns the otherwise milquetoast X2 into the super-entertaining M35i.

In the Z4, this engine produces 255 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Yes, that's 127 fewer horsepower and 74 fewer pound-feet than the twin-turbo I6 used in the Z4 M40i, but in action, the 30i doesn't feel underpowered. BMW says the Z4 sDrive30i does the 0-60 mile-per-hour dash in a quick 5.2 seconds -- 1.3 seconds slower than the M40i. But the seat-of-the-pants feeling as I stomp the throttle and take off down an empty farm road near Thermal, California is in no way lackluster. Peak torque arrives at just 1,500 rpm and remains strong up past 4,000. Mid-range punch is impressive. The eight-speed automatic transmission drops a gear or two with immediacy, and you're plunged right back into the deep end of that torque pool.

The smaller engine means the Z4 sDrive30i is 156 pounds lighter than its M40i sibling, and all that weight comes right off the nose. Pop the hood and you'll notice the I4 engine is nestled as far back toward the firewall as possible, helping to achieve a perfect 50:50 weight balance.

Like the M40i, the Z4 sDrive30i is really enjoyable to drive. The steering is quick to react to inputs, with lots of feedback delivered back to your palms. Chassis tuning is on the softer side of sporty, but I don't mind it on the soaking wet, pockmarked roads of California's Coachella Valley. That's especially helpful considering the car rolls on large, 19-inch wheels wrapped in Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires, P255/35R19 up front and P275/35R19 out back. Not exactly the most forgiving wheel-and-tire setup.

The 2.0-liter engine may be small, but it packs a wallop.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

Higher-speed track testing will surely reveal the benefits of the more powerful M40i setup, but honestly, the Z4 isn't that kind of car. It's a cruiser -- a roadster that's at its best on winding roads. Blasting down California's 111 highway near the Salton Sea, I can't say I'm missing the extra power of the twin-turbo M40i.

Practically speaking, the four-cylinder Z4 doesn't give anything up as far as comfort and amenities are concerned. The 30i's interior is just as comfy-cozy as the M40i, and still every bit as claustrophobic with the top up. (As you can see from the accompanying photos, it wasn't exactly top-down weather.) I like the way this tester's red leather seats contrast with the matte gray exterior, even if it's a bit too burlesque for some tastes. The bits of black and polished metal trim are high quality and feel great to the touch, and all vehicle controls are arranged neatly and logically. Then again, it's not like there's a whole lot of room for spread-out buttonry in the Z4's small interior.

BMW's iDrive 7 infotainment tech is along for the ride, too, with a 10.25-inch touchscreen sitting atop the dash, complemented by a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster. I really like this updated system -- it's pleasing to the eye and easy to navigate, whether operated by touch or via the console-mounted knob. (You can also use gesture controls, but I never, ever, ever do.)

BMW's iDrive 7 tech is a highlight of the Z4's well-appointed cabin.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

At no point does driving the Z4 sDrive30i feel like a compromise. It's slower than the M40i, sure, but I don't really feel like I'm missing out on some vastly different experience. Z4 M40i pricing isn't available yet, but it'll no doubt command several thousand dollars more than the 30i's $49,700 starting price. Unless you really have to have that extra I6 power, this early test makes me think the vast majority of buyers will be just as happy with the 30i.

Finally, lest you think I'd publish a BMW Z4 story without mentioning its brother from another mother, the Toyota Supra, know that my sDrive30i experience is relevant here, too. Toyota will offer BMW's 2.0-liter turbo engine in the Supra in other markets, but it won't be coming to the US -- at least, not initially. I haven't driven the Supra in twin-turbo I6 guise, but I hear it behaves a lot like the Z4 (in prototype guise, anyway). Considering that the Z4 sDrive30i gives little up in the way of driver enjoyment compared to its M40i counterpart, methinks a four-cylinder Supra might be just as desirable.

Rain, rain, go away...

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

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