By David Undercoffler, Los Angeles Times
August 5, 2010
God bless the Democrats.
Such was my thinking as I threw the horrifically named 2011 BMW Z4 sDrive35is hardtop convertible through turn after turn, high in the mountains in Malibu.
The top was down, the radio was off and the car's brain, which BMW calls Dynamic Driving Control (DDC), was in "sport plus" mode. The steering and throttle response, the transmission's shift points, and the suspension were all set to "Whoa!"
It was all the soundtrack I needed.
Acceleration with DDC in any mode unleashes an auditory amalgamation of everything that is right with a turbocharged engine. It only gets sweeter — and louder — as you dial up the system from normal to sport to sport plus. Stomp your foot on the gas and let the 35is race toward its 7,000-rpm redline and you're treated to a whoosh from the turbos and a sharp exhaust note with an intense, barely refined edge. Think of a velvet dagger.
Which brings us to the Democrats.
When BMW engineers sat down to create this latest Z4 roadster, they were faced with a choice nearly every automaker must make when producing a performance variant of a sports car: Republican or Democrat?
With the Republican route, less is more. Lighten the car up as best you can, be it with engineering sleight of hand or by excising porcine creature comforts. Power is increased slightly, if at all. If done right, the lighter version is faster and handles better. Heck, Lotus has based its entire existence around this philosophy.
Conversely, with the Democrat route, more is more. More horsepower and more torque are the usual suspects, whether it's by turbocharging, supercharging or just cramming in the biggest motor that will fit in the engine bay. Sure, weight is a consideration. No one is suggesting cast-iron bumpers here. But it's much lower on the list of priorities.
For the 35is, consider BMW a card-carrying Democrat all the way. More is more.
The heart of the vehicle is the 3.0-liter, twin-turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine found in numerous BMWs. The good folks in Munich tuned this unit to pump out 339 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque, while an overboost feature temporarily bumps the torque up to 369 pound-feet under hard acceleration. These figures put the 35is squarely between similar performance variants in its class like the Porsche Boxster Spyder (Republican) and the Mercedes Benz SLK 55 (Democrat), though at 3,549 pounds the BMW is certainly the heaviest.
Routing all this power to the rear wheels is a sublime seven-speed, double-clutch automatic transmission. This tranny is masterful at ripping off quick, seamless shifts faster than any human can. No manual is offered. And while this may deter a few purists, it's likely a vast majority of 35is customers won't miss it. Drivers can shift via the gear lever on the console or the unique paddle shifters on the steering wheel; to upshift, you pull either lever and to downshift you push either lever with your thumb.
For everyday driving, keep the DDC in sport mode, which lets you have plenty of throttle-blipping fun, both in a straight line and around curves. The traction control holds off just long enough for drivers to have a tire-squeaking thrill but prevents the rear from becoming too loose, and the suspension is on the firm side of sporty. There are whiffs of understeer and the 35is doesn't carve up canyon roads with the grip of a Boxster. But for a front-engine car, the result is impressive.
Drop the 35is into sport plus mode, which effectively turns the traction control off, and you're introduced to an entirely different beast. Oversteer is an understatement. Even light pressure on the gas as you push through a turn causes the rear end to get loose faster than Tom Vilsack can fire you. This isn't necessarily a mark against the 35is, but drivers beware: Push this car to its limit and it will push you to yours.
The biggest downside to the DDC system is the electronically assisted steering. It feels like there are too many layers of mechanics and software between your hands and the road to get a confident sense of control.
BMW says this powertrain makes for a 0-60 time of 4.8 seconds, though it's been conservative with such figures in the past. Purely seat-of-the-pants anecdotal evidence suggests the 35is is indeed quicker.
But what good is a car with a proclivity for going fast and sounding nice if it looks like Medusa's backside? Fortunately BMW did the world a favor when it introduced the Z4 last year. The entire Z4 line is well-proportioned and handsome, with a long hood and a wide, aggressive stance. BMW wisely resisted the common urge to set the 35is apart with ungainly body modifications that could mangle its silhouette. Rather, the car looks like a gold-medal athlete in a red-carpet dress. It's sexy, taut and asserts its abilities without flaunting them. That's for you to do.
The interior is comfortable, well-constructed and minimalist; though BMW took the minimalism a bit too far when it chose cryptic icons and labels for the switches and controls throughout the cabin. Some critics have griped about the paddle shifters, but they're really only bothersome if you're jumping from car to car. Spend a day with the setup and you'll take to it nicely. Trunk space is decent with the top up but downright nonexistent with the top down.
The 35is starts at $62,000. While this is about a $10,000 premium over a base 35i, you'd have to pile thousands of dollars of options onto the 35i to even out the spec sheet, and you still wouldn't have the 35is' output. The Boxster Spyder starts at $61,000 and Mercedes' SLK 55 starts at $66,000, placing the 35is nicely between the two in both power and price.
In sports car politics, the Democrats and the Republicans are never wrong. Less is more. More is more. Both ideologies work. They equal more. Which is exactly what the Z4 35is is all about. More of everything. Power, sound, speed and price.
I just wish I had more time with it.
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