Thu, Oct 05, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Slip it on and off you go

It's a snug fit - the BMW Z4 M coupe is the motoring would's equivalent of Lycra sportwear

By Giles Smith  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Visitors look at the BMW Z4 Coupe on the opening day of the Paris Auto Show, Sept. 28, 2006.

PHOTOS: AP

The BMW Z4 M coupe is a joy to behold. Seen from the side, it appears to have been painted in a single brushstroke — a simple lick of shiny metal. It drew the full range of reactions from people on the pavement, from turning heads, through open-mouthed gasps of appreciation, to the occasional cry of pleasure. I've not heard a car get one of those since the rebirth of the Mini.

BMW decided that, as it was producing the Z4 roadster, and replacing the darkly glamorous and shark-like Z3, it might as well run off a few coupe versions, or “pocket GTs,” for a laugh. Hence the Z4 M, a niche car for the niche speed freak. BMW expects to sell around 200 of this special number in the UK (and 2,000 of the two lower-powered variants, the SE Coupe and Sport Coupe), meaning that this is not a vehicle that you are going to be seeing about the place all the time, unless you happen to live among footballers.

What separates the coupe from the roadster is, by definition, its permanent hard roof. That's a sign that the car has been built for the longer haul and a signal that it is more serious about speed and traction than the roadster and less serious about fresh air and showing off in built-up areas.

And a very fine roof it is, too, in a shape that BMW refers to as a “double bubble,” with a sunken ridge down the middle, as if a strong head-wind has given the car a center parting. This would be highly unfashionable on a human, but somehow ends up looking perfectly acceptable on a sports car.

The Z4 M is also distinguished by its greedier air intakes at the front and by the hump in its bonnet, known in the business as a “power bulge,” suggesting that its 3.2-liter engine is packing so much muscle that it is actually trying to force its way out. It's the automobile world's equivalent of Lycra sportswear.

In every sense, the car specializes in the vacuum-packing of its contents, including the driver. You don't so much climb into the Z4 as slip it on like a sock. The leather seats offer you and the partner of your choice a welcome so intimate that it could almost be described as presumptuous. From within, the body of the car also gives the impression — by turns intimidating and emboldening — of coming to an end directly behind your headrest. Accordingly, the anxiety briefly plays on your mind that if you push the seat back too hard, you'll end up sitting in the road.

Incidentally, my Z4 came with parking sensors. Obviously anything that diminishes the risk of grazing a car as beautiful and unflinchingly expensive as this can't be entirely unwelcome. Even so, a system of bleepers couldn't help but seem almost comically surplus to requirements. After all, in situations where there was any doubt, I could have turned around, wound down the window and felt my way back with an outstretched hand.

As it happens, there is a perfectly acceptable boot beneath the coupe's hatchback — as there should be in a grand tourer, given that nobody ever toured grandly without luggage. Yet you would barely divine its presence to look at the car, leading one to suspect the involvement of mirrors.

Nothing else about the Z4 M is remotely illusory. Its poise is unimpeachable. Even on 90o turns, slowing down appears to be optional. The rumble and blast of its engine, the sumptuous weight of its steering — it would be possible, I'm sure, not to be seduced by these things, but you would probably need a heart of flint.

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