views

Preaching to the converted

INVERNESS. Picture-postcard scenes. Cloudless blue skies and 26 degrees. It&rsquo;s May. Added to that, there are miles upon miles of clear winding roads, the occasional switchback series of bends and rarely a building in sight. All in all, it&rsquo;s not a bad draw for a weekday.<br /><br />BMW has also given me the key to a new Z4 coupe/convertible, the little two-seat sports car whose looks have divided opinion. For me, in its first guise and in its new and subtly restyled form, it was and continues to be a great combination of looks and performance. And now we have new engines to choose from, more of which shortly.<br /><br />Surprisingly, the UK buys more convertible cars than any other country in Europe. It&rsquo;s lucky for us that when the sun does push through, coupes such as this take just 20 seconds to get the top down. A few years ago, this would have entailed pulling over, unbuttoning the fabric roof and throwing that and anything lying loose on the back seat into the boot, by which time the sun would have drained its battery.<br /><br />This is a hard top, the roof created in separate panels that glide cleverly on a melee of hinges and struts to fold away neatly into the boot without eating into too much of the vital boot space. Generally there&rsquo;s not a lot of storage in cars like this, so the boot needs to be as effective as possible. And so it is here, with adequate space for weekend bags and more, even with the roof stowed.<br /><br /><strong>RIDES FIRMLY</strong><br />And hardtop convertibles &ndash; known as roadsters &ndash; are the way most manufacturers are going, even the likes of Ferrari who brought out the California last September to the frowns of purists. Mercedes-Benz&rsquo;s SLK has one too, and that is the Z4&rsquo;s biggest threat, outselling the Beemer as it does.<br /><br />Who has the better-looking car, though? That&rsquo;s for you to decide, but the Z4 offers plenty of folds and darts along its flanks. It&rsquo;s a little wider than its predecessor and longer by some 120mm, but is it as good dynamically?<br /><br />It rides slightly more firmly and I felt more aware of the odd crumbling road surface, especially in Sport mode, selected from BMW&rsquo;s Dynamic Drive Control, but if you opted for bigger tyres (standard 17s here), I fear some bouncy castle action might occur. It may make the car look more hardcore but at what cost? Stay in Normal mode and those super-grippy boots will look after you well.<br /><br /> <!--StartFragment--> <strong>OH-SO MUFFLED</strong><br />Steering is not pin-point accurate but I&rsquo;m going to pause there and move on to the engines, of which at launch there are two variants, both six-cylinders. There is the 2.5 litre (known as the 23i) and then the 304bhp 3.0 litre (known as the 35i). I drove both and the latter is a superb unit in this car, which married well with the seven-speed dual clutch paddle-shifting box. If it&rsquo;s power you&rsquo;re after, it&rsquo;s here in spades. If you&rsquo;ve got the cash, you&rsquo;ll have an absolute blast with it.<br /><br />But this won&rsquo;t be the big seller in the range &ndash; the 23i will, and that won&rsquo;t disappoint either with 202bhp on tap. Matched here with a six-speed manual gearbox, it&rsquo;s more frugal and offers better performance and lower emissions than before. Changing up and down was a tad heavy going for the first few miles but there&rsquo;s nothing like a few short, sharp apexes to hone the skills and voila, it all came together just as I hoped it would.<br /><br />I really enjoyed driving the Z4. It&rsquo;s beautifully put together, just as engaging and now with more interior space offers a genuinely comfortable long-distance cruiser. With the roof up, it&rsquo;s oh-so muffled and quiet.<br /><br />I referred to the steering a few paragraphs back and although it&rsquo;s not super-sharp, it still offers good feedback and ultimately, a fun package. The Z4 will put a smile on your face every time you&rsquo;re in it.<br /><br /><strong>THE FACTS:</strong><br />BMW Z4<br />6-speed manual<br /><br /><strong>PRICE:</strong> &pound;28.650<br /><strong>0-62MPH:</strong> 6.6 secs<br /><strong>TOP SPEED:</strong> 150mph<br /><strong>MPG COMBINED:</strong> 33.2<br /><strong>CO2 G/KM:</strong> 199 g/km&nbsp;