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ZZ tops: BMW's long history of great roadsters continues with stunning new Z4

The convertible market usually takes one of three directions. First there's the half-baked, chopped-up hatchback or saloon, then there's the super-sporty soft-top, and finally there's the comfortable and glitzy cruiser.

It's these latter two that BMW seeks to blend together in the latest Z4. Buyers of cars such as this one won't tolerate a rough ride or spartan interior. BMW has a reputation to maintain, and giving it the title of "the ultimate driving machine" won't go unchallenged. So, with a new platform, upgraded interior and divisive new styling, can the latest Z4 take the fight to talented rivals such as the Porsche Boxster and Jaguar F-Type?

What's new?

Nearly everything. The Z4 shares only a few oily bits - a differential and front firewall - with its predecessor. Everything else is new or inherited from elsewhere in the BMW stable.

The styling and proportions have been given an overhaul, with a new cab-forward silhouette that puts the driver closer to the centre of the action. There's a choice of three engines initially - two four-cylinders and a straight six - while the only roof option is a quick-folding, electrically operated soft-top.

What's under the bonnet?

Basic Z4s feature a four-cylinder petrol engine in either 20i or 30i guises, packing 197bhp and 258bhp respectively. We drove the next rung on the ladder - the straight six M40i, which puts out 335bhp. That's good for a 0-60 time of 4.4 seconds and a limited top speed of 155mph.

All Z4s are rear-wheel drive and feature the same eight-speed torque converter automatic gearbox. It's a lovely combination - the engine has bags of power without ever feeling frantic or scary, and the gearbox can instantly switch between slurring gears together or rifling through them at high speed. It also sounds lovely, which is more than you can say of a four-cylinder Porsche Boxster.

What's it like to drive?

First, we'll cover the 'boulevard cruiser' side of the Z4. The incredibly stiff body - roof up or down - means that ride comfort can be achieved without compromising handling. It's not as soft as something like a Mercedes C-Class Cabriolet, but it's not trying to be - you still feel the bumps, but they're perfectly damped out, and combined with the excellent seats, you'll be able to cover long stretches in this car with no issue.

Turn up the wick, though, and the Z4 doesn't become unstuck. We hounded it around the former F1 circuit of Estoril and found it to be genuinely impressive in the bends.

The Z4's steering is weighty and accurate and the handling is superbly balanced. The 50/50 weight distribution and low centre of gravity keep things flat and true, while the specially developed Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres give brilliant agility.

It's not quite as thrillingly on the edge as a Porsche Boxster, though, and if you want muscle car character at this price, the Ford Mustang is pretty unbeatable - if less accomplished.

How does it look?

The Z4's looks are divisive - check social media and you'll see complaints that it's lost elegance, is too fussy and the grilles are too large, but we like it.

The Z4's cabin has moved forward and although it still retains the long-bonnet silhouette, the driver is now positioned more centrally.

The high-set headlights flank a new, wider kidney grille inspired by the iconic 507, while the rear deck is raised to give a real 'wedge' shape.

The proportions are wonderful, but it's the cuts and slashes across the flanks and rear that divide opinion. There's no doubt it's lost some of the elegance of its predecessor, but it's gained serious purpose. BMW reckons 90% of UK buyers will choose a meaner-looking M Sport model, too.

What's it like inside?

The Z4 is far less divisive inside, with a typically BMW cabin, including a driver-focused layout and the latest iteration of the firm's iDrive infotainment system.

We can't say we like BMW's new digital dials as much, though. Previous BMWs have used twin circular gauges that were some of the best in the business, but the half-octagon of the new cluster isn't as easy to read on the go, and we prefer the simplicity of the Porsche Boxster's.

The Z4 feels snug but not cramped, although it's a little dark and claustrophobic when the roof's up. Storage is decent, with a big glovebox, adequate boot and space behind the seats for smaller bags. However, the cupholders are placed just where your elbow wants to be, which isn't ideal.

What's the spec like?

As standard, there's a decent level of kit, including that iDrive infotainment system, leather upholstery, 18-inch alloy wheels, climate and cruise control, plus all-round parking sensors. Our M40i was rather more plush, with M Sport tweaks, 19-inch alloys, aluminium interior trim, electric and heated seats, upgraded brakes, an M differential, adaptive cruise control and upgraded infotainment. But it's not quite as plush as you might hope for its near-£50,000 price tag.

Verdict

The BMW Z4 successfully treads the fine line between grand tourer and sports car - and this M40i is great to drive. It's a shame that most buyers will opt for a lesser engine, as we're not sure the four-cylinder 20i will show off the Z4's characteristics at their best. Still, provided you like the looks, this is an excellent roadster.

Facts at a glance

Model as tested: BMW Z4 M40i

Price: £49,050

Engine: 3.0-litre straight-six petrol

Power: 335bhp

Torque: 500Nm

Max speed: 155mph (limited)

0-60mph: 4.4 seconds

Fuel economy: 38.2mpg

Emissions: 168g/km

Rivals (3): Porsche Boxster, Jaguar F-Type, Ford Mustang

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