I’ve never really been too partial to the look of the Z4, or to the man behind its lines. It came about during the much lamented/praised Chris Bangle era at BMW, and while the Z3 replacement was also conceived with the help of Danish designer Anders Warming, no doubt Bangle’s twisted notion of beauty was the guiding force in the Z4 coupe and roadster.

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Bangle’s time at BMW is over, and we are just seeing the evolution of his (some say) revolutionary designs. The 3-Series and 7-Series for 2009 got just a little more softened visually, and in the process laid the foundation for the next generation of BMW road cars. The next example of this shift is the redesigned 2009 Z4.

While the overall shape of the new Z4 is continued, the silly “switchblade” design has been dropped for smoother head and taillights, flowing body lines, and an all new retractable hard top.

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Compared with the outgoing model, I love this design. I don’t know if Bangle had a hand in this or if he pulled a Doc Brown (slipping and falling on his head in the bathroom, or something of that nature) letting Juliana Blasi do her design thing without intervention, but it’s a beautiful car. It’s almost scary to think this is what the world could’ve been like without Bangle at the design helm.

The new Z4 smoothes out the mistakes of its predecessor by focusing on the elements that make a car like a Z4 so attractive- long hood, short rear deck, sharply angled windshield- and add flowing body lines that go with the car rather than against it, to create a beautiful grand touring roadster. Industrial designer and car enthusiast Marc Newson once described the previous gen. Z4 as being designed with a machete. This one was finely carved with an exact-o-knife.

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OK, the style rants are over- onto the substance. This is a 2-door sports car meant to spice up the daily commute and have some fun in the sun. Well, with the old model you had to make a tough decision- the structural rigidity of the hardtop coupe? Or the fun-in-the-sun excitement of a soft-top convertible? Well, the new Z4 ends this debate by replacing both with a power retractable hardtop that stows neatly away in about 20 seconds. It is here that the switchblade comparison can be made as a compliment, as BMW engineers have found a way to pack the top so tightly behind the rear seats, that there is little to no hump in the back. (see: Lexus IS 350 C, Ferrari California, Pontiac G6) While the top adds about 500 pounds, it makes the convertible far more versatile, and with these powerplants, those extra five bills won’t be too much of an issue.

The base engine is a 3-liter straight-6, also found on the sDrive30i (???). At $45,750, it sends 255 horsepower to the rear wheels through either a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission. (So lemme get this straight- they give the all-wheel-drive system on the X6 a horrible naming convention, and decide the only way to remedy that is to carry it over to rear drive cars? BMW, get over yourselves. It’s rear wheel drive- everyone has heard of it, no one is going to call it what you call it. Stick to making up new vehicle segments.)

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I drove the sDrive35i model ($51,650). It was equipped with the twin-turbocharged 3-liter inline-6 found in the 335i, and generates 300 horsepower and 300 pound feet of torque. While BMW’s new 7-speed dual clutch transmission is an available option, I got the traditional 6-speed manual, and thank goodness I did.

On a straight stretch of road, I came to a stop so we could film acceleration taping. (video forthcoming) I put the chassis control on Sport+ mode (not much to explain there- stuck in traffic, go with normal mode. Want a more lively ride? Go switch to Sport or Sport+ with the push of a button) and put the pedal to the floor, manually swapping through the precision-built cogs as God intended. I forgot about the name Bangle, or why rear wheel drive needed its own silly trim level. The road turns into a tunnel, then I downshift, lay on the brakes, and pull off a side street, adrenaline full-on. I guess when you have three hundred horses, six gears, and three pedals, you really don’t care what it looks like- or what it’s called.

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So now that my spirits have been lifted by the power of forced induction, I finally took in the interior. It was simple, straightforward, and designed for the driver who cares about…well, driving. BMW’s iDrive was optional, and gasp it did not come on the test car. Who cares! I know many luxury car buyers crave all the tech-savvy features and gizmos, and I know the latest iDrive is a vast improvement on the product. However, if you are buying a car this fun to drive, and are fussing over a multimedia interface, then turn in the keys and go check out the 1-Series coupe. That should get you your precious iPod integration, without the nuisance of trying to get from zero-to-sixty in 5.8 seconds.

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An sDrive35i model with full options, such as the 7-speed dual clutch tranny, 19-inch alloy rims, and the available navigation system, will top out at just under $70,000. If you are considering this car (shopping it against the likes of the Mercedes SLK and Porsche Boxster/Cayman), do the right thing- get the turbocharged powerplant and 6-speed gearbox, and leave it at that. There’s little else you will need.

Bangle who?

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