There are times in our automotive journeys when we find ourselves at a proverbial crossroads. The itch for something different becomes undeniably apparent, and the scenarios start swirling in our heads. Is it time to take a break from the routine of servicing and repairs and try something brand-new and fresh off the lot? Is it time to cull the herd and go after a model you’ve been pining over for years?
A lot can depend on your situation. If you’ve been slogging through the daily grind with a car that’s clearly beyond its prime and falling apart around you, the allure of something with zero miles (or close to it) on the odometer can be overwhelming. It can also make financial sense, if you’ve been pouring time and money into something that’s ready to be put out to pasture.
In my case, neither of these scenarios applies. I’ve got new(er) cars and older cars, and any of them can be fired up for a drive at a moment’s notice without much fear of their leaving me stranded. Nevertheless, the desire for something else remains.
I’ve never owned a new car, and I’ve always pined for a brand-new, zero-mile 3 Series. Since the days of the E46, I’ve wasted untold hours on the BMWUSA.com configurator, building my ideal version of the sport sedan that changed it all. Sometimes it’s a base-model stripper, with (when you could actually spec one) a manual transmission, manual seats, and halogen lights; other times it’s the fully-loaded range-topping model with all of the options.
In reality, I’d probably land somewhere in between if I were to go through with what has long persisted as a fantasy.
The current G20 3 Series is no exception, and I’ve considered one of these as well. The 330i is an excellent single-car solution that offers an essentially unmatched combination of performance and versatility, while the M340i seems to offer nearly all of the performance of the outgoing M3, but with a generation’s worth of refinement and improvement. BMW’s own finance and lease offers are as enticing as ever.
But there’s a caveat.
Once the new 3 Series has become what I refer to as normalized, I start to lose interest. I start seeing them everywhere, and before long they’re just not as cool as they were when the BMW press release and Internet rumors were all I had to go on. And then depreciation hits, and you start seeing the models that have been treated the worst appearing on the market for pennies on the dollar compared to what they cost just a few years before.
Of course, there’s still the allure of having something with no questions, no stories, and an otherwise clean slate, but new-car depreciation may be one reason why I’ve never owned a brand-new car—not to mention the fact that when I see a conventional model in traffic, I’m always glad that I held out for something a bit more driver-focused.
I could dedicate an entire series of articles examining the long list of BMW models I’d like to own—or at least drive for a week or two—before I’m no longer able. The array is wide and varied, with everything from a big-body 7 Series and grand tourers like the 8 Series and 6 Series, to entry-level four-cylinder 3 Series models and even the not-sold-here rear-drive M135i hatchback. They all excite me—but it’s the true driver-focused cars that really end up calling me to action.
I’ve long considered the S54 to be the pinnacle of the naturally-aspirated BMW inline-six engines, and a high-water mark for BMW engineering in general. The engine isn’t perfect, but I’ll never rule out an E46 M3, specifically an early model in Steel Grey with a slick top, cloth (!) seats, and low mileage. After owning two E46 330i sedans in the past, the E46 M3 often seemed like the path of least resistance, but I’ve never made it happen.
That may actually be a good thing, because there’s one model which uses the same power plant and offers a driving experience that is perhaps the best of any reasonably modern BMW. It’s the Z4 M, and while the E46 M3 market has been steadily appreciating, with the Z4 M coupe also demanding good money, the Z4 M roadster—like many convertibles—has lagged behind. I get it; I’ve been watching the online auction market for Porsche 997s and E46 M3s for years, and whenever a drop-top lands in my inbox, it’s almost instantaneously deleted.
The Z4 M roadster is different. Many reading this will already know why—and the reason is quite simple: The Z4 isn’t like other convertible models because it was designed as a roadster from the start, and not adapted to become a convertible like so many other cars with a disappearing roof. In fact, it was the other way around, with the Z4 coupe arriving years after its roadster stablemate.
For a long time I couldn’t get behind the idea of owning any type of convertible, but somewhere along the way, my mind changed. I’m not sure if it was a friend’s droptop E36 328i project, which I helped bring back to life, or learning about the Lotus-inspired Mazda Miata, but I eventually came around not only to understanding why automakers sell convertibles, but why people actually buy them. Some years ago I actually talked a friend into buying a Miata of the NA generation, and found myself looking for reasons to drive it, even though I was relying on a recently dialed-in E36 M3 for my own transportation needs.
Something about the Z4 M roadster strikes the same nerve as the Miata for me. That same seat-of-the-pants connection is undeniably apparent when relying on the traction of the rear end to help steer through a tight curve—just ask BMW CCA president Steve Johnson—and you just can’t find that in modern cars.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of putting over 4,000 miles on Roundel editor Satch Carlson’s M roadster, driving it from San Diego to New Orleans and back for O’Fest 2017, and I’ll never forget how downright soft and plush my 135i felt when I jumped back into it after an eight-hour drive in the roadster. Ever since, it’s been clear which model is the true driver’s car.
The Z4 M roadster is unlikely to stay relatively affordable forever, so I’m tempted. But buying one would disrupt what I’ve actually been planning to do for the last few years, and that is to buy one of the modern M cars, either an M4 or an M2—probably a Long Beach Blue M2. The M2 is the best of both worlds: new enough to still be under warranty, but raw enough to satisfy my driving style. I’ve long thought an M2 to be the next logical step in my automotive progression, but it’s still a compromise of sorts—my brain’s way of playing it safe.
Any of the cars mentioned in this column is a safe bet. Some are safer than others, whether in a financial or mechanical sense, but when the driving experience of a car makes an impression on you that lasts for years, logic may be excused when it flies out the window.
Or out of the open cabin of a Z4 M roadster.—Alex Tock
[Photos courtesy Alex Tock, BMW AG.]