One common affliction we Malaysians bear is the accusation of bringing our tropical rain with us whenever we travel abroad. That was the case when we landed in Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport to cloudy skies, before starting our hour-and-a-half journey to the wine region of Nagambie.
The rain started pouring soon after we arrived at the Mitchelton Winery Estate, marked by its distinctive 1970s architecture that includes a landmark 55m-tall tower. While we were not the most elated about starting our country road drive with BMW on a gloomy note, the locals were more welcoming of a wet spell, declaring enthusiastically that it was the first rain they had got in a long season of dryness.
Well then, feeling like we Malaysians have accomplished a good deed, we settled into a relatively relaxed day — one that included wining, dining and getting to know the brand new BMW 8 Series and Z4 cars.
While the German carmaker has a few more models that show off their cutting-edge innovation and sophistication in driving technology, the combination of the 8 and Z4 offers more than enough to benchmark what being a leader of the pack should be.
At first glance, they are distinctly different animals. Called a “true sports car”, the 8 Series — we drove the coupé and convertible — is the pinnacle of what BMW does best, crafting a daily-use luxury car with track-capable abilities. In turn, the 2019 version of the Z4 is a step up in almost every way from previous generations of the roadster — a stylish and more flamboyant performance machine that, nevertheless, proved capable of settling into long drives comfortably.
The 8 Series coupé
The flagship grand tourer has a unique history. Unlike the typical BMW cars with clear genealogy, the 8 Series was created in the 1990s, when the company introduced the now legendary E31 8 Series, a two-door coupé. It is also popularly reiterated that the 8 Series is a souped-up, more luxurious and aspirational replacement of the 6 Series, despite BMW’s continued rejection of it being a direct successor.
Understandably, there was a lot of excitement over the return of the 8 Series after 19 years, as well as the launch of the first-ever convertible in the series, not to mention the much anticipated Gran Coupé to come. However, the M850i xDrive coupé (the convertible has not been brought in) we get here in Malaysia is by no means shabby.
Boasting a sleek but mature look befitting a GT, its signature wide body is visually tempered by well-designed curves and lines, notably two character lines running the length of the body on the side that project a handsome sense of performance, complete with large air breathers. A tucked-in glasshouse also accentuates its muscular hips and creates a low slung and athletic appearance.
The BMW kidney grille here is characterised by strong, clean lines, adopting a wide stance and narrowed height that exudes sportiness. The 8 also has the narrowest headlight ever used on any of its cars, featuring laser beams that shine through 500m as standard. Also on all models are 20-inch alloy wheels, but the Sunset Orange metallic version (our favourite out of six exterior colours) is fitted with jet black rims.
The “M” prefix equates the coupé to M-level performance, rather than it being a full M car. Nonetheless, it bears more than a few characteristics of the M car. Looks-wise, the most obvious would be the carbon roof — another first in a non-M car. Weight reducing and helping in lowering the centre of gravity, the “double-bubble” feature also pays homage to classic grand touring sports cars of the 1960s.
Under the hood, the M850i comes with the latest generation 4.4-litre petrol V8 engine with the M TwinPower Turbo technology, which delivers 750Nm of torque from 1,800 to 4,600rpm, capable of accelerating the coupé from 0 to 100kph in just an incredible 3.7 seconds. Fuel consumption is rated at 10.4 litres per 100km while the car has an electronically limited top speed of 250kph.
For the chassis, the coupé features the xDrive’s rear-biased all-wheel drive system, a technology that enables power to be transferred to where it is needed most at any given time. At speeds below 60kph, the rear wheels also counter steer up to 2.5 degrees as part of the Integral Active Steering function, shortening the wheelbase to allow for tight turns. At higher speeds, the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the front for more stability.
The 8 Series’ four-seating interior has the finest luxury that BMW can offer — for example, its sports seats are wrapped in the highest grade Merino leather. And if you need another reminder that the car epitomises the pinnacle of craftsmanship, the glimmering gear shifter — try taking a look when the sunlight strikes it — is made from Swarovski crystal. Perhaps more importantly for some, wireless smartphone charging also comes as standard.
One major change in the 2019 Z4 is the return to a soft top design. BMW offers three reasons — to allow more freedom with creating a sporty and powerful car; in turn, making it a true sports car with reduced weight, a lowered centre of gravity and achieving a 50-50 weight distribution between the axles; and the hard top of the 2009 version meant there was barely any space in the trunk for luggage before this marginally better 280-litre capacity model.
A fun fact is that the “Z” in the model comes from the German word zukunft, which means future. BMW’s roadster heritage harks back to 1934, when the 315/1 sports car was first created, though the Z4’s look was largely evolved from the 507 created in 1958. Famously owned by Elvis Presley, that car was one that set imaginations running with its beautiful design (even if it did not sell well by any measure), which included scenes of long winding drives on open roads, free and uninhibited in spirit.
While appearance-wise there is no drastic change in the new Z4, in many ways, the 2019 version once again signals a shift in design language for BMW, characterised by its softer and minimal lines paired alongside a few major ones, at least according to its designer, Calvin Luk.
A key change is the kidney grille, which spots a new mesh design that mimics mini aeroplanes. And for the first time in BMW history, the lenses of the headlights are stacked on top of one another while conversely, the clam shell bonnet is a feature carried over from the previous generation. An arrow shave at the sides pointing towards the kidney grille evocatively emits the sense of forward thrust that the carmaker is so fond of. The large air breathers and upward sloping door line at the side create a more angular feel. This is balanced by an integrated duck tail spoiler, which keeps the body design sleek and neat.
The new Z4 is slightly longer than its previous generations, by 85mm to be exact, and sits wider as well. However, the wheelbase has been shortened to give the car greater agility. M Sport features such as suspension, brakes and locking rear differential and a launch control function are in place as standard, with other top range functions, including Live Cockpit Professional and the BMW Digital Key. It is also the first Z4 model with a heads-up display.
For the sDrive30i M Sport model that is available in Malaysia, the engine is a 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, with a maximum output of 258hp and 400Nm torque capable of sprinting from 0 to 100kph in 5.4 seconds. Fuel consumption is 6.1 litres per 100km. This model comes with 19-inch non-run flat tyres.
On the road
While the day we arrived at Mitchelton’s in Nagambie was marked by rain, the next morning gave indication that it would be a great day for driving. And indeed it was — I mean cinematic blue skies and fluffy white clouds as far as the eye can see, and sunlight permeating through the trees as we zoomed past on the country roads while listening to the similarly titled John Denver song at one point.
At the starting growl, a low sexy one no less, the 8 Series M850i revealed its gentlemanly charms, albeit a very masculine and confident one. Meanwhile, the Z4 30i M Sport had a more rock ‘n’ roll purr that immediately excites, one that makes you want to rev it a few more times before hitting the road.
As a GT car, the 8 Series is designed for long drives, and what stands out is how light and nifty it feels despite being a sizeable vehicle. That agility is thanks to its superb chassis technology, as we navigated turns and bends with much ease. Another distinguishing factor is that while there will be inevitable comparisons to cars like the Mercedes S-Class or a Bentley, or even the BMW 7 Series, the 8 Series is designed for the driver, right down to its driver-angled console.
Switching modes between comfort, sport and sports plus reveals the 8’s different personalities, with just enough discernible shifts in deftness, engine response and sharpening in performance to thrill. Yet, at no time does the sense of smooth control go away, each transition seamless and natural. The braking system is sublime, ensuring maximum comfort with its break discs that measure a whopping 15½ inches.
In comparison, the two-seater Z4 has a more expressive power from the get-go, but remains refined in its control — some may say too much so. If there is one complaint about the car, it would be perhaps a little too much elegance for a roadster. Those who prefer a more palpable sense of sensation and driving thrill would lament the overly easy handling — for example, one that saw us take a bend at 125kph that felt like 40kph, with hardly any shift.
That said, what perhaps makes the Z4 more endearing is the comfort level on longer drives and heavy traffic, which we experienced while taking the car back to Melbourne. A smooth acceleration and ability to remain a good drive in slow traffic is vital especially in cities like ours in Kuala Lumpur. Similar to the 8 Series, the host of improvements in chassis technology is also perhaps one of the biggest enticements for the 2019 Z4.
This, coupled with an interior that does not feel too claustrophobic to sit in, even with the top up, as well as surprisingly comfortable seats that feels plush and absorbs movement well — so much so that we did not realise how low the car sits until we pulled up next to a larger vehicle — makes the Z4 a pleasant surprise when it comes to daily usability.
And a double layer-soft top means better heat and sound protection, but we also found that even with the top down, keeping the windows up made driving at high speeds perfectly fine, though those with long hair may want to tie it up. What’s more, the Harman Kardon sound system ensured that every song lyric can be heard amid the noise typical in a convertible.
There are some downsides in the 8 Series and the Z4, the former having snug back seats that would make your passengers curse the further along you drive. And if you are considering a long road trip, make sure you pack light as both cars are not designed to carry more than a couple of small to mid-sized luggage in the boot.
Perhaps the most compelling case for either of BMW’s new luxury cars is that while they are niched performance cars, if you are going to splurge on them anyway, rest assured that they do not need to sit in your garage waiting to be driven only on weekends or holidays.
The BMW M850i xDrive Coupé is priced at RM1,088,800 while the BMW Z4 sDrive30i M Sport costs about RM460,000. See here for more details.
This article first appeared on July 8, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.