Drop Top Special: Driving the BMW Z4 sDrive35is

Mockngbrd

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Before we start, a little history on the little used and sadly overlooked "iS" cars. Much more prevalent in the past generation of cars than today, the "iS" badges (and switched around once to "Si") used to signify cars that had that little bit extra of an edge. How deep that edge was, it wasn't clearly defined. What the "S" meant was also a mystery, some say it meant "Sport", but i prefer to think it meant "Special". After all, in BMW's history, there were less "iS" cars than "M" cars.

It all began with the E30 318is, a 4 cylinder 2 door coupe version of the beloved E30s. It was at the time, the most modern engine available in the E30 range. With it's excellent weight distribution and zingy M42 4 pot, it led to frequent comparisons with the famous E30 M3 and it's much lower price point earned it nicknames like "mini M3" or the "poor man's M3." Not bad company to be in.

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While the E30 318is might have been given the nickname the "poor man's M3", the rightful owner of the "mini M3" moniker should belong to the E30 320is. Sold only in Italy and Portugal in order to take advantage of the reduced taxes. It is powered by a 2-litre version of the M3's 4 cylinder S14 engine developed by BMW Motorsport. The 320is is one very unique car indeed, and they are now extremely rare and rising in value.

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Moving on, the 318is' M42 continued life into the E36 generation of 3's, spawning coupe and sedan version of the 318is. Though often criticized for being not as lively as the E30s due to additional weight of the later cars, the E36 "iS" cars found success on the racetracks as many were raced. In Japan, the strong 4 cylinder-ed cars were often looked at as the "German AE86" and many were brought to the track. Plenty of E36 318is' are still serving track duty in Japan.

The 6-cylindered cars were also recipients of the "iS" badge, with slight bumps in performance and equipment levels, but until recently had surprisingly never had the same cult appeal as their smaller engined siblings probably due to their initial higher price points which put them out of reach to most "hooners".

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The "iS" badge then skipped a generation and only resurfaced recently albeit with a flip from "iS" to "Si" with the E90 320Si, a limited (2600 units) edition of 3 Series saloon built to qualify the homologation requirement for the FIA World Touring Car Championship. The 320Si came only in sedan form and only manual drivers need apply. Some have called the 320Si a "hidden pearl" and one of the great modern driver's cars from BMW. Some say, 1 or 2 units made their way over to our local shores.

And now, the "iS" badge has finally returned but it's no longer on a 3 Series. This time, it's on the Z4 flagship. The sDriver35iS. So does the Z4 have what it takes to be a future classic "iS"? Here's our impressions.

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It's hard to believe, but the current Z4 has been around for almost half a decade. A true testament of the car's good design that only minimal revisions were made when it was time to give the Z4 range a "freshening up". Small nip and tucks to the front bumpers, revised headlights (incorporating LED technology), and redesigned side vents sum up most of the aesthetic changes.

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I'm guessing BMW felt the same, so they decided to splash on the very attractive shade of Valencia Orange and fitted a gorgeous set of 19s on our test car. Other new paint finishes include, Mineral Grey metallic and Glacier Silver metallic.

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Inside, the "Design Pure Traction Package" option gives the interior quite a different atmosphere. Swathes of alcantara line various parts of the trim and all the stiches are finished in a matching shade of orange. The center console receives a textured aluminium finish gives the roadster an interesting retro touch. Divided on opinion is the stripe of orange running down each of the seats. I thought it looked a little "baseball cap"ish but others seemed to really like it. One thing that hasn't changed though is the sitting position, low and set deep into the cabin, the long bonnet might initially catch new drivers off guard and takes a while to get accustomed to.

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What that long bonnet conceals underneath though needs no introduction. BMW's famed 3-litre boosted straight-6 engine. Pushing out 340 horses and 450Nm of torque (add another 50Nm with the overboost feature), it rockets the roadster up to 100km/h in a Boxster S beating 4.8 seconds. The numbers might be impressive but what they don't tell you is how lovely the engine sounds, with a melodic howl crescendo towards the redline. Easing off the throttle was even more addictive as the unburnt fuel gets shot out the exhaust and explodes with little thunderous pops and crackles. The noise on the overrun was enough to put a big smile on my face.

Heading out onto the roads, on the default "normal" setup, it soaks up the odd bumps well and remains composed throughout most of the time i had with it while giving a almost cushy ride. But, i'd wish BMW had tinkered a little more with the damping characteristics and gave it a sportier nature.

Being an "iS", this is supposed to be the slightly "sportier" version of the Z4. I don't want it to be cushy, i want it to be slightly harder than the "normal" Z4s. Sure there is the sport setting but as good as it is, i wished sport mode had been the default "normal" setting and BMW created another level up for "sport" to make it that little bit edgier.

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Personal preferences aside, the car drives and rides well even after selecting "sport" mode. The suspension does some magic, the steering stiffens up and most importantly, the throttle sharpens up and allows for much better modulation when pottering around town. Outside of town when the roads open up, the car cruises up to license busting speeds with ease and long meandering turns can be taken with ease. That might be a slight numbness between the front wheels and your fingertips but it always goes where you point it, although the steering could do with more feedback for confidence on more challenging roads. Pushing hard into corners result in the front scrubbing away into understeer and a quick stab of the throttle results a microscopic bit of a rear squirrel before the electronics cut in and prevent you from running off the road.

Throwing the car wildly into corners does seem to be at odds with the overall "feel" of the car though and bringing it back onto less twisty bits of road does allow you to enjoy the car alot more. Roof down and music up, with the sun setting in the horizon reflecting off the brilliant orange paintwork. That's what this car was made for and it just feels much better when taking the pace down a notch.

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So, what do we think about the sDrive35is? Well, to conclude, we would have to look at 2 other cars. The Porsche Boxster S and the newly launched Jaguar F-Type. Jaguar might have you believe the F-Type is a 911 Fighter, which might be true of the biggest engined cats but the base model, the Supercharged 3.0, sits well within targeting range of the BMW roadster. They both have the same torque figures but, the BMW has a few more horses and hits 100km/h just that little bit quicker. The BMW also costs less, much less, almost 60 thousand dollars less. The same goes for the Boxster S, less power, less torque, with a higher price tag. Sure the Boxster S might have the edge in handling (and badge snobbery) but as a value proposition, the sDrive35is does seem to be the more sensible and matured choice.

Future "iS" classic? Only time will tell, but i wouldn't bet against it.
 
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