Paul A. Eisenstein: 2009 BMW Z4 is a sports car in everyday driver’s clothing

Paul A. Eisenstein

As I climb steadily higher up the twisty stretch of tarmac that passes for a road, the rain quickly turns to sleet, then ice. It would be a daunting challenge in almost any car to make it over this particular pass through the Swiss Alps, but even more so for a rear-wheel-drive sports car.

Yet my new 2010 BMW Z4 roadster remains unexpectedly sure-footed, no matter what the skies throw at us, and by the time I’ve made it through the long pass, I pull the top down and enjoy the steadily warming air.

BMW has been building roadsters for more than three-quarters of a century, but its more recent offerings have built a reputation as something less than a true sports cars. So I found myself initially reluctant to try out the all-new model -- the first update of the Z since 2002 – especially when I might face such harsh conditions.

What I discovered was a very different vehicle than the outgoing Z4. For one thing, BMW has replaced the traditional canvas roof with a foldaway hardtop that can be opened or closed in barely 20 seconds with just the touch of a button. The new design means a quieter, more comfortable cabin – and also enhances safety and security.

Slightly larger than the old roadster, the new Z4 boasts both a roomier and decidedly more upscale interior, with gauge graphics that are both delightful and quite functional. The big news, though, is the addition of the BMW iDrive for the first time. Not the old iDrive, by the way, but a newly updated system that’s far easier to understand and operate, a big improvement since it runs everything from the navigation to audio systems.

BMW is offering two upgraded powertrains for 2010, starting with a sporty, 3.0-liter inline-six that is expected to deliver close to 20-mpg city, 30 highway. But the big news – and the package I toured the Alps in – is the Z4 with a 300-horsepower 3.5-liter, I-6 mated to a new, double-clutch gearbox. Badged the sDrive 35i, it delivers the best of a stick and an automatic, all-in-one, and allows rapid-fire shifts using steering wheel-mounted paddles.

The Z4 now comes with Dynamic Drive Control, and can now be configured with an adjustable M suspension. It’s a perfect package, whether you’re racing through the Alps or commuting on the interstate.

And that is the real revelation with the 2010 BMW Z4. While it’s certainly a great machine to take cruising over the weekend, the new version is equally adept as a daily driver. If two seats are all you need, it should be high on your shopping list.

Paul A. Eisenstein is an award-winning journalist who has spent more than 30 years covering the global auto industry. His work appears in a wide range of publications worldwide, and he is a frequent broadcast commentator on subjects automotive.

2010 BMW Z

MPG (est.): 20 city/30 highway

Engine options: 300-horsepower 3.5-liter Inline-Six with double-clutch electronically shifting transmission.

Manufacturer’s suggested retail price (est.): $47,000

Cost fully loaded (est.): $60,000