(Full disclosure: Besides shared ownership of these fine automobiles, the author has no real credibility in journalism nor car reviews. Opinions taken from 1-2 years of daily driving, canyon runs and track outings. Your mileage may vary.)
Given a blank check for $32,000, most car enthusiasts would drive themselves and any innocent bystander crazy. New, used, restomod, engine swapped, etc; the combinations of car purchases are infinite. Let’s assume for simplicity sake the buyer is constrained to one make (BMW) and seeks a well respected car reflective of the company’s heritage.
In the new corner we have the BMW 228i MSport MT. A now seasoned car released in 2014 that has risen to the top of its segment including accolades from Road & Track and Jalopnik itself, despite heavy favoritism garnered towards it’s big bad brother the M2.
In the old corner we have the BMW Z4M Coupe. Long heralded as one of the last true drivers cars to leave BMW with a manual transmission, hydraulic steering and naturally aspirated inline 6 cylinder engine. Not fully appreciated during its brief tenure, the Z4M coupe sits somewhere alongside the iconic E46 M3 and 1M in terms of desirability and collectability.
Taking from my own prior musings, the 2 series is a slightly more grown up, refined and in my opinion stylish remake of the previous 1 series. A crease wraps around the car into BMWs new rear end which feels the same for nearly every numerical designation, this time it gets a tiny integrated spoiler. The front hood extends further to a menacing grill I find more appealing than that presented in the M2. In estoril blue, it is an attractive car no doubt, however it still feels a bit emasculated in the face of the 3 series. 6/10
The Z4M is a bright spot in Chris Bangle’s tenure as head designer (attributed mainly to Anders Warming), throwing back to the iconic Z3 clownshoe days with a GT style elongated hoodline, pumped up rear fenders and low stance. Although not for everybody, it’s compact package and wide hips make for a fun sports car experience. 7/10
BMW circa 2006 vs modern BMW - I can tell you it’s not all progress. The 228i interior is admittedly a much more pleasant place to spend time. It’s spacious, full of leather everywhere with usable rear seats and center console. The M seats hug the driver and the M steering wheel falls into place. Negatives - the seating position forces the steering wheel to obscure part of the digital dash from the driver. There is no sunglasses holder and the infotainment system feels like a tablet stuck to the dash. 7/10
Meanwhile both the driver and passenger literally fall into the low slung Z4M coupe and sit far back, as if piloting a boat deep within the hull. Folks over 6 ft are going to feel a squeeze here as head and leg room are sparse. Less is more here, and all the controls are easily within the driver’s reach. The extended leather package and ‘carbon’ trim work well here to hide the cars age, however the radio, GPS! And cup holders feel like last minute choices that provide plenty of rattles 10 years later. Nevermind the doors, ambient traffic and tire noise are your companions. Ohh and one more thing, you never know where the front bumper ends and the curb begins. 6/10.
The 228i is a bit of surprise in this segment with the new turbocharged four cylinder (N20B20?). Sport mode, check. Blip the throttle, point and go and the little BMW obliges, offering a slight whoosh as the turbo comes off boost. It scoots no doubt, but it never truly feels FAST. Below 3700 rpm the car sheds its turbo character and is rather docile. 6.5/10
Step on it in the Z4M and you’ll quickly be reminded of the S54 engines notorious character. 2000 rpm check. 3000 rpm check. 4000 rpm - here we go. 5000 holy hell VANOS and induction wail. Continue climbing towards an 8500rpm redline and feel torque that can actually pin you to your seat (however briefly). In the modern era of big power it’s not catch-you-by-surprise fast, just genuine speed that will push you deeper into the brake pedal at the next stoplight. The throttle response is instant and almost overly aggressive with Sport Mode engaged - this car likes to buck. 8/10
Unfortunately I lack any real acuity to help differentiate the pedal feel, brake characteristics and fade of these two cars. Only the Z4M has seen the track - defer to the big guns here and I’ll supplement my 2 cents. On the street and canyon the 228i MSport brakes provide no complaints - predictable, smooth and chalk full of magic German brake dust. The Z4M comes standard with the drilled rotors and brake package from the E46 M3 CSL edition. They do a stellar job but most track veterans seek aftermarket alternatives. NA/10.
Riding on KW Clubsports, the Z4M constantly reminds its driver just how crappy of a job the road maintenance crews are doing. It’s low, bumpy and easily upset making stop-n-go a real chore. Hydraulic steering garners precise feedback to the driver making them ever-connected to the road. On a smooth back road or track the car is sublime.. 7/10
For what it’s worth, the 228i also boasts a near 50/50 weight distribution making it rather agile and confidence inspiring. Steering is quick, but it lacks feel and a connection to the road. General comfort is a bit softer and more compliant, making it joyful to drive in all traffic situations. Press the //M button and you get another animal altogether with more poised steering and sharper inputs. Wherein the 228i absolutely wins ride quality, the electronic steering offers a very different definition of feel compared to its hydraulic counterpart in the Z4M. Steering feel is muted at best and does not inspire confidence in the driver when pushing hard corners. 7/10
I envision the 228i gearbox is an evolution of the E46/E86 era with a reformed ethos. Shifts are smooth and forgiving with a slightly longer throw than desired, coupled with a 1->2 shift that never seems to come perfectly. It does the trick but those hunting lap times will find a more precise and quicker setup to their liking. 7/10
The Z4M shift is hair shorter and more direct, leading to a much more pleasing shift. Touchy gas and clutch pedals can make the car finicky and likely to shutter aggressively under the control of those uninitiated. BMW still lacks the complete package of a Porsche gearbox and is not so flickable as a S2K or Miata. 8/10
Let’s face it, the average joe is not going to cross shop these cars. The 228i MSport is above and beyond a better car in all situations encountered by the driver. It’s compliant, usable for long trips, seats 4 and can rear its sports car heritage when asked. It’s proportions are refreshing in a sea of bloated sedans and SUVs, most of all I never feel stressed when behind the wheel.
The Z4M coupe enters traffic with the strut of a cowboy gunslinger. It means business and provides ear to ear grins. Driving it is a treat, and you truly sit IN the car not ON the car. Place it on a backroad and cherish the inline 6 induction wail followed by aftermarket exhaust bangs and pops down the rev range. Maintenance is no cake walk, with most parts showing wear and tear from simple age or miles covered. Not to be seduced by the presence of a large trunk or sunglasses holder, every trip in bumper-to-bumper traffic on cruddy pavement will remind you of it’s true home.
I am fortunate to have access to both these cars and enjoy them in all duties. Review rankings do little to sway a decision - the everyday usability of the 228i shines while I try to resist the look and feel of a true sports car. Forced to pick just one, I am afraid my wallet and appetite for repair stories may be the deciding factor. Luckily that is a decision I do not have to make today.