BMW is moving upmarket with its controversial new “flame surfacing” styled Z4 roadster, and that’s bad news for Audi TT and Mercedes SLK sales. Initial reaction suggests the Z4 is a quantum leap over the car it succeeds – the Z3. Report by Neil Winton.

The Z4, which replaces the smaller Z3 two-seater, is on sale now in the U.S. Sales start in Europe next spring. BMW says the Z4 will be a player in what it calls the “premium roadster” segment – taking it up and away from the likes of the Mazda MX5, MG TF, and Toyota MR2 – and facing down much more formidable and expensive competition led by the Porsche Boxster.

Audi TT, Mercedes-Benz SLK in the firing line

According to Al Bedwell, analyst with J.D.Power-LMC Automotive, the Boxster isn’t under much pressure from the BMW, Bedwell says the Z4’s annual sales, which he estimates at around 50,000 globally, will obviously have to be won from somewhere and the Mercedes SLK, Audi TT, and the much more marginal seller, the Honda S2000, will suffer the most.

“The Audi TT stands to take the biggest hit, with only a marginal impact on the Boxster. The Porsche is seen as the ultimate, what I call semi-affordable sports car, not beyond the wildest dreams of quite a few people, unlike the Ferrari, for instance,” Bedwell said.

“The Audi TT still looks good but it is a few years old now, and is more likely to be hit than the Boxster. The Porsche has enduring appeal. The SLK is also getting on a bit,” he said.

Boxster safe

The Boxster’s global annual sales of around 25,000 won’t be affected, according to Bedwell. But does the Z4 have what it takes to perform in this much more demanding sector?

From the reaction of journalists and analysts who have been driving the car at its launch in southern Portugal, the answer would appear to be an unequivocal “Yes”. The old, smaller  Z3 was mocked because of its retro styling and its effeminate looks.

“It took a while for people to realise that the Z3 wasn’t really a great car. The BMW badge helped and it was a bit underpowered, but this didn’t really damage sales; its image got it moving,” said Bedwell. The Z4 is much more muscular looking. The Z3 was so small that golf clubs wouldn’t fit in the trunk. BMW has put this right, claiming that the Z4 can carry two sets of golf clubs. The Z4 is 100 mm longer than the Z3 with more cabin room. It will be between 10 and 15% more expensive.

No four-cylinder versions

The Z4 will only be available with six cylinder motors – 2.5 litre or 3.0 litre petrol, with manual, automatic or Sequential Mechanical Gearbox (SMG) transmissions. The cars only come with canvass retractable roofs – no folding metal contraption, a la SLK. The Z4’s suspension has been uprated compared with the Z3, and uses a modified version borrowed from the latest “3” series.

Upmarket versions of the Z4 have a sports mode “power” button, which gives the engine even more “kick” when you want it and tightens up the steering as you approach a series of bends. The Dynamic Traction Control can be set to have your pulse racing towards danger levels, by allowing the tail to slide out a bit before the computer drags it back on line again.

Sacrifices have been made in the interests of more boot space. There is no spare tyre, the regular tyres are run-flat only. BMW says if there is tyre problem, there will be plenty of range to get to a garage for help. The electric power steering saves energy over conventional hydraulic systems – using up to one litre of petrol less, every 250 miles.

Startling design

When the car was unveiled at the Paris Car Show in October the controversial Chris Bangle-design startled many. Journalists and analysts at the launch though reckoned the Z4 has great presence on the road, and the styling will not repel any buyers. Investment bankers have no qualms about the Z4’s sales prospects.

Merrill Lynch reckons that there will be about 45,000 buyers in 2003 and 55,000 in 2004.

“(the car is) Bolder, bigger and better than the Z3, although volumes are too small to make a major difference to BMW financials,” said Schroder Salomon Smith Barney (SSSB). But SSSB is slightly less bullish, seeing sales of 40,000 next year, and 42,000 in 2004 and 2005.

“The Z3 averaged around 50,000 unit sales over its life. We regard 40,000 as quite possible for this more upscale replacement. We reckon the vehicle will be received well but it is too small to make a major difference. Our concerns centre more on MINI profits and the potential for Rolls-Royce and the (upcoming) 1 series,” SSSB said.

BMW will launch its new Rolls-Royce limousine next year. The BMW “1” series, which will compete in the Volkswagen Golf sector, will be launched in 2004. According to Deutsche Bank, the new styling does provide a question mark, but one that will go away.

“The design, while not as controversial as the 7 series, is also breaking new ground and will take some time to get used to. For 2003 we expect volumes of 40,000 to 50,000. The pricing will be about €5,000 below the comparable Porsche,” Deutsche Bank said. Deutsche Bank analysts drove the car, and they liked it.

“Tremendous driving excitement”

“We can confirm that the Z4 offers tremendous driving excitement. One feature increasing driving excitement is the DTC system (dynamic traction control) which allows a limited skidding of the wheels during acceleration and turns, while keeping the full safety of the electronic stability programme,” Deutsche Bank said.

BMW says there will be no coupe, no “M” or hotted up Z4, no 4-cylinder versions, and no diesel power. Even though the Z4 is bigger than the Z3, the use of lightweight technology like aluminium and magnesium means it is actually lighter than the smaller car.

“Weighing in at 1,290 kg, the Z4 3.0i is 25 kg lighter than the former Z3 3.0i – despite larger exterior dimensions, larger wheels and the six-speed gearbox,” BMW said. The Z4’s body is more than twice as stiff as the Z3. BMW can’t hold itself back from self-congratulation.

“Never before has a convertible or roadster offered torsional stiffness of this standard brilliantly solving the conflict of interests between saloon-like smoothness and vibration control, on the one hand, and dynamic, sporting suspension set-up, on the other,” BMW enthuses.

Made in the US

The Z4, like the Z3, will be built at the Spartanburg plant in South Carolina. The US is expected to be its biggest market, accounting for about 50 per cent of sales. Most of Europe can expect deliveries to start in the spring of 2003, with the right-hand drive U.K. market having to wait until the summer of 2003.

 Z4 at a glance……..


Engine type


Top Speed




3.0 litre 231 bhp

Straight six petrol

0-62 mph 5.9 seconds

155 mph

6 speed manual, automatic, SMG

221 g/km

from €40,900

2.5 litre 192 bhp

Straight six petrol

0-62 mph 7.0 seconds

146 mph

5 speed manual, automatic

216 g/km

from €35,500