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Think Austin Healey 3000, MGA, Sunbeam Tiger and AC Ace – all glorious-looking soft-top machines with a big engine up front and bags of character.


Fast forward to the year 2003 and their spirit is alive and well, although slightly diluted by political correctness and emissions and noise regulations. For the hardcore driver there is the choice of models from TVR and Porsche, while 'softer' drivers could opt for a Mercedes-Benz SLK or something similar.

But now BMW is offering a third way, mixing day-to-day practicality with the spirit of those sixties roadsters.

The Z4, which has just gone on sale, is in many ways a modern day Austin Healey, combining a lusty straight six engine enveloped in a long sweeping bonnet with a small two-seater cockpit and a menacing look.

It is worlds apart from its predecessor, the Z3, which was criticised for not being an enthusiast's car. The Z4 is much more driver-focused, offering a choice of two engines: a 2.5-litre straight six with 192bhp or a 231bhp 3.0-litre version.

So the Z4 certainly has the go but what about its looks? Designed by Chris Bangle, the man responsible for the 7 and 5-series, the Z4 is the most convincing interpretation of his 'flame surfacing' design. The front end is dominated by the traditional BMW kidney grille and a pair of lights which resemble droopy eyes.

As the bonnet flows back into the windscreen, Bangle's design cues begin appearing, with scoops in the doors rising up into the high-waisted rear and tapering into the rear lights and spoiler, which resembles the duck tail on Porsche's 911 2.7 RS of 1973.

Inside the car is a lesson is ergonomics with a broad swathe of metal dominating the dashboard, featuring only air vents and the stereo system.

All other buttons, controlling heating and ventilation, are enclosed in three small units in front of the gearstick. It all looks very clean, very clever and works brilliantly well. Another button worthy of note by the gearstick is the 'Sport' button, which changes the Z4's character in an instant. With Sport mode engaged, the steering rack and throttle pick up become much more responsive, allowing you to really press on with confidence.

On the road the Z4 excels, especially in 3.0-litre guise. While the 2.5 version is hardly slow, the extra grunt of the bigger engine, allied to its lovely six-speed manual gearbox, means it is the driver's choice of the range.

With 231bhp, the 3.0-litre is never found wanting for power: it sprints away from a standstill and once on the move it uses its torque to provide easy overtaking. With the roof down, sun shining and straight six engine booming away, there aren't many other places you would want to be when driving.

However, the Z4 3.0 is just £200 more expensive than a Porsche Boxster 2.7. If only I was in the position to making such a decision…

Z4 fact file
Model 2.5 3.0
Max power (bhp/rpm): 192/6,000 231/5,900
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 181/3,500 221/3,500
Max speed (mph): 146 155
0-62mph (secs): 7.0 5.9
Fuel consumption (mpg): 30.4 31.7
CO2 emissions (g/km): 216 221
Transmission: 6-sp man
Fuel tank capacity (litres): 55 55
On sale: Now
Prices: £26,655 £30,855

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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