BMW’s new Z4 is a return to its driver’s car roots.
Although summer is officially over and South Africa is transitioning into autumn and the inevitability of winter, BMW has just launched the sixth-generation of its Z series roadster locally. Over the last decade the roadster market has altered greatly, with many status buyers who were once wooed by the posing appeal of a two-seater open-top sports car, now lured away by a premium badge-branded crossover instead.
Globally the roadster market has shrunk and compact roadsters, such as the new Z4, have become the very definition of a niche automotive product.
With a new design, proven engines and a re-commitment to BMW’s longstanding customer promise of delivering a memorable driving experience, Z4 is a return to the original spirit of Munich’s Z cars. But which are the rivals left to compete with it?
Abarth 124 Spider - R602 358
You expected this list to start with an Audi, didn’t you? True, but the new TT Roadster won’t be here for a little while yet, so we start off with something very rare, Italian and somewhat affordable. The Abarth 124 is Fiat converted Mazda MX-5. What makes it different, and of more appeal to certain local roadster fans, are the bits which distinguish it from its Japanese twin. The first of those, is the engine, which is a 1.4-litre turbo, boosting slightly more power than the MX-5’s 2-litre (125kW versus 118kW), and more torque (250Nm versus 200Nm).
Being turbocharged also means that Abarth 124 will run truer to its specification potential in South Africa’s rarefied high-altitude inland atmosphere. Then there is the gearbox, which is a six-speed manual. This ensures you can double-declutch to your heart’s content and revel in the rewarding balance and mechanical purity of this Italian-Japanese collaboration.
Mercedes-Benz SLC43 AMG - R1 139 000
Born as the SLK more than 20 years ago, it was once the absolute vanguard for daring Mercedes-Benz design and innovation. The original version featured a wonderfully intricate folding hardtop roof, which was revolutionary in the mid-1990s. Over time the SLK became SLC and the current car is a forgotten model in Mercedes-Benz’s enormous product portfolio. At times the AMG 55-series version was entertaining, with the novelty of a massive naturally-aspirated V8 in a short-wheelbase roadster making it a beach boulevard dragster of sorts. Mercedes does not believe there is much business to be done with its compact roadster, which means the current third-generation car is the last one you’ll ever see. Hence the reveal of a Final Edition SLC43 earlier this year.
Mazda MX-5 RF - R538 200
The world’s favourite roadster and perhaps Mazda’s most endearing product. Boundlessly popular since its debut in 1989, the latest fourth-generation MX-5’s styling manages to echo that classic 1960s roadster aesthetic with modern, geometric, details. Ergonomics are credibly sensible, as you would expect from a Japanese car, and reliability faultless too. It might not be quick, powered by a naturally-aspirated 118kW 2-litre engine, but with a low overall mass (1080kg) and quick-witted steering, the MX-5 is a joy to drive, even at slower speeds. The only debit is that six-speed automatic gearbox, which is the only shifting option currently on offer – and it does dull the overall driving experience a tad compared to the launch car’s manual transmission.
Porsche 718 Boxster - R884 000
These 718 is the most affordable Porsche that is not an SUVs. It is also deeply iconic driver’s car, due to the mid-engined configuration. Engineered to be savoured by the enthusiast, the folding soft-top 718 Boxster is the definition of a responsive roadster. Porsche leverages the mass centre-point advantage of its mid-engined layout even further by placing a flat-four engine in the middle, which ensures the lowest possible centre of gravity. Traditionalists might find issue with the sound of a four-cylinder Porsche, but even the entry-level 718 Boxster offers spirited performance, with 220kW and 0-100kph in 4.7 seconds. Cornering agility is unrivalled in class.