Of New Norms and Old : BMW Z3 Roadster 1.9i & Z4 sDrive20i Drive [review]

By topgearsingapore, 26 July 2020

Singapore – It’s a terrible day to be driving a convertible, much less two convertibles.

The skies are grey and rainclouds stand poised to thoroughly hydrate what would otherwise be a really nice afternoon drive.

It is all a bit annoying, but I am mindful that it would be terribly churlish to complain.

After all, I have the keys to a BMW Z4 sDrive20i (thanks to Performance Premium Selection) and I have brought along my trusty old 1.9-litre Z3 Roadster for an automotive play-date of sorts and some rain would surely just be a first-world problem.

Besides, if anything, this pandemic has made me more resilient than ever where inconveniences are concerned – I'm supposed to accept it as the new normal, or so I keep getting told.

(Click HERE to read about our drive in two other 'old' BMW Zs... the Z1 and the Z8)

Speaking of the 'new', the BMW Z4 sDrive20i I find myself in on this wet humid afternoon is the latest iteration of the Z4 model line that can be traced back to 2002 (the year, not the model!).

To play 'fair' with the base Z3, the 20i is a base model of the Z4 range powered by a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine – as opposed to the straight-six you’d find in the range-topping Z4 M40i.

(Click HERE to read about our First Drive in the BMW Z4 M40i)

Not that the cylinder deficit affects it all that much. The 20i pulls eagerly, rides comfortably and stays sure-footed around corners. It even sounds great actually. There are little burbles and pops in the exhaust note when you lift off and the cabin does fill up with some rather aggressive, if slightly artificial, engine noise. It is all very sporty indeed.

At a traffic stop, I take my eyes off the road, and look around the cabin. There’s little doubt that I am in a premium roadster. The cabin is all about textured leather, tasteful accents and flashy info graphics.

There’s tech galore too, much of which unfortunately flies right over my head – but it’s there if anyone needs it. The cabin in the new Z4 is a world away from my Z3 but hints of familiarity prevail. It’s like I’ve seen this movie before; this version just has more CGI and more Hollywood in it.

No time to dwell on these philosophical thoughts though as the lights turn green. I give the car some gas and I am off.

Even on wet roads, the acceleration is faster than I thought it would be. The gearshifts are quick and the short gearing adds to the shove. The steering is not particularly communicative but it is precise enough.

Unless one intends to drive the car to its very performance limits, the base Z4 is hard to fault.

Judged as a GT car, the Z4 sDrive20i works like a charm. As a sportscar, I suspect most enthusiasts would say that it can certainly benefit from more power and a less relaxed suspension set-up. 

There’s a break in the rain and some sunshine is peeking through the clouds so we stop for a quick photo shoot. I try to keep out of the photographer’s way as I look at the Z4 from different angles.

All things considered, it is a handsome car and certainly one that looks better in the metal than in pictures. It’s good to see the fabric roof making a return because the hard folding roof just ruined the drive on the last Z4. The Z4 is better with a fabric roof and this latest version affirms that. 

Parked next to the Z4 is my Z3, a 1999 base model manual with a 1.9-litre 4cyl engine. 20 years separate the Z3 from the Z4 and it shows. Side by side, the Z3 is smaller and the materials in it less posh.

Even accounting for wear and tear, the Z4’s fit and finish is in a different league compared to the Z3; it might actually even be in an entirely different sport I think.

Yet somehow, the Z3 holds her own against the newer, shinier metal. There is something special about the Z3. Perhaps it’s the rarity of the car on our shores or simply nostalgia speaking. After all, Hollywood has proven time and again that CGI doesn’t always make a movie better.

Photoshoot over, I climb back into the Z3.  Unsurprisingly, the drive feels almost analogue and mechanical compared to the digital finesse of the Z4. It’s certainly not as quick and the ride not as refined.

The engine note while not harsh, is certainly not curated. It is buzzy and it creeps into the cabin not because of aural engineering but because in 1999, people presumably had better things to invent like Facebook instead of better sound insulation.

The plastics in the car feel like plastic and the most digital item in the car is the clock. And yet, it felt every bit as great to drive as the newer car. It may not be able to compete on statistics and materials, but in terms of sheer sense of occasion, the Z3 trumps the Z4.

At a traffic light, I spy a piece of trim that has come loose and gently try to work it back into place. It takes a bit of work but it finally clips back in – back to where it belonged as a perfect summary of how I felt in the Z3. I was back where I belonged.

The Z4 is everything a premium roadster needs to be these days. It is plush, tech-heavy and boasts accessible performance.

That is perhaps my biggest criticism of the car. It’s just too easy. It doesn’t make you work or want for anything. It filters and curates and delivers a driving experience that no reasonable human would complain about.

On the other hand, the Z3 is slower, less luxurious and requires more mechanical sympathy, but it also delivers a driving experience that has a character all of its own. I concede that where I see charm in the motoring experience, others may see inconvenience – but these are inconveniences that I can live with.

Like I said at the start, this pandemic has made me more resilient than ever where inconveniences are concerned.

If those inconveniences mean that I get to experience something special, why not? It is the new normal after all.

STORY Jarrod Ng
PHOTOS Zotiq Visuals / David Khoo
BMW Z4 sDrive20i courtesy of Performance Premium Selection

BMW Z3 Roadster 1.9i (M)
Engine 1895cc, inline4
Power/rpm 140hp/6000rpm
Torque/rpm 180Nm/4300rpm
Transmission 5spd manual
0-100km/h 9.5secs
Top Speed 205km/h
Fuel Consumption 8l/100km
CO2 189g/km
Kerbweight (EU) 1175kg

BMW Z4 sDrive20i
Engine 1998cc, inline4, turbo
Power/rpm 197hp/4500-6500rpm
Torque/rpm 320Nm/1450-4200rpm
Transmission 8spd Steptronic auto
0-100km/h 6.6secs
Top Speed 240km/h
Fuel Consumption 6.1-6.9l/100km
CO2 137-139g/km
Kerbweight (EU) 1480kg

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