Australian designer Calvin Luk nearly threw his hand up to turn around a BMW Z4 that had become a stodgy, overweight shadow of its original self.
He knew, because the Z4 was close to his heart. He owned one. Not just as a company car, but with his own cash.
Luk, 31, uses an original E85 Z4 as his personal transport around Munich and, besides, it was his parents’ purchase of an E36 3 Series that hooked him on car design in the first place.
“All of these cars are very personal to me,” Luk told me in an exclusive interview in a Bavarian photographic studio in July. “One of our family friends got a Z3 when I was a kid and the designer of that car is now a mentor of mine.
“The Z8 is from the Bond film and that’s a big influence here, this E89 Z4 that my parents have and the Z4 that I use. I feel like I grew up with these cars.”
As soon as BMW’s engineering team took the decision to move the driver forward to tackle the Porsche 718 Boxster’s handling advantages, Luk felt like the 2000-2003 Z8’s proportions could make a comeback. “The Z8 proportions, you can see here. The lights are high up on the kidney grilles, like the Z8. Further down, we have the lowest kidney within BMW to ground it,” Luk said.
“We got the classical roadster proportions but moved the driver a bit more forward to give them a more focused driving experience,” he said.
“There is also just enough of the shark-nose lean in the front and the bonnet is really low so it’s attacking the road. The wedge makes it different to the previous two generations. This wedge really pronounces the pouncing feel.”
He was also given licence inside BMW to push the boundaries of its traditional design language, which has been criticised in the design community for holding the firm’s cars back.
“The design does not have to play exactly by all the rules because it’s a roadster,” Luk explained. “We still have the double round headlights, but they are vertically stacked and that’s the first time we have done that.”
The grille itself is initially quite confronting, though Luk believes its subtleties will help the Z4 age better than its predecessor. “The Z8 is more of a retro idea and we went for a mesh in the grille [in place of the vertical slats] because it’s more contemporary. There is still the verticality of the kidney bars that we show, but it’s subdivided now. It’s also mimicking the Mille Miglia car. Get closer to it and they [the individual components in the grille] are like mini aeroplanes in the sculpting.”
There are other tricks up front, too. Though the car is still [like all cars today] cursed by the little circles of the parking sensors, the radar has been hidden, to the point where you can’t find it even if you’re looking for it.
“The radar does not stand out. It’s integrated into the design of the air intakes for the brakes on the M Sport model,” Luk said.
“It is a duct for the brakes and air curtains on the side, like all BMWs, so you can’t see it. Those parking distance control circles: they all work with specific angles so we can’t change them. The engineers dictate where they go for optimal coverage. Every designer hates them.”
There is something strong and cohesive about the Z4’s side view, but it doesn’t immediately hit you until Luk explains it.
“There is one key line on the car from the side. It runs from the bottom of the clamshell bonnet at the [front] wheel all the way along the side and into the taillights,” he said.
“It’s extremely three-dimensional. With that one line we can play a lot with variations in the surface. It’s facing down from the wheel before and it starts twisting, so the shadow goes away and it turns into the shoulder line. From the back it’s easy to see how the line twists and flips into the muscle of the rear wheel arch.”
There’s a light catcher along the door sills to ground the car’s visual look and the M40i scores a little extra notch in its air breather that will separate it from lesser Z4s. The car runs a lot of sculpting over the rear wheels, primarily to add to its muscle and to visually enlarge the rear wheels.
“We always try playing the lines pretty close to the wheels to make the wheels bigger optically,” Luk said.
“That’s how we play to the proportions of the car. That’s always the start of it. How much fender muscle do we want and how we squeeze it? It seems to work with the X cars better but with a sports car we want to squeeze it down a bit. The muscle above the rear wheel is to get the mass to look lower.”
Luk was given more scope to fiddle with the BMW design legacy at the rear end, where he’s turned the L-shaped tail lights into something more three-dimensional than usual.
“The L has much more depth than we usually have. They are very slim with no shade line. This is the new design language for the brand.”
It’s a critical point for Luk, which has set him up for a strong future at BMW as the last people to set the design language for BMW were Chris Bangle and current BMW design boss Adrian van Hooydonk.
The language will debut on both the Z4 and the new 8 Series at about the same time, with super slim tail lights. But that’s not all that sets the rear end apart from its predecessor.
“We also placed the rear fog lamp in the centre, like a Formula 1 car and the brake light is smoked to place emphasis on the rear lights,” Luk said.
“The boot is plastic, because this shape is impossible to press in metal.”
There have been plenty of additions to the Z4, but one major subtraction. The roof. The outgoing car’s folding metal roof has gone, saving about 50kg and helping with the car’s proportions. The cloth roof isn’t as short or stumpy as the original, either, but looks sleeker, like a coupe shape, when it’s fixed.
“The roofline has a faster angle at the back than before. It’s about a 2/3 ratio to the glasshouse length. From the beginning, we knew we were going to do a soft top. That made it easier.” he said.
The interior makes, if anything, a bigger step forward than the exterior and though it wasn’t Luk’s work, he’s enthusiastic about it.
“The cockpit is really cool. The accents all pull you into the instrument cluster. All the switch gear is all focused on the driver,” he said.
“It’s much more minimal on the co-pilot side, but it’s very sculpted in front of them. It’s still exciting but not cluttered.”
The downside is that everything that looks like metal inside the cabin is actually galvanised plastic, and metal can’t be ordered as an option.
There are two 10.3-inch screens, including the instrument cluster, and it’s the first BMW roadster to score a full head-up display as an option.
The two cupholders are hidden, somewhat awkwardly, back near the driver’s elbow, and there are two ambient light strips that direct the eye towards the instrument cluster.
The new BMW Z4 is set to go on sale in SA in the first quarter of 2019.