A sedan in roadster’s clothing?

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A sedan in roadster’s clothing?

The BMW salesman called to confirm my appointment to test-drive the 2003 Z4 3.0i roadster at noon the next day. Lee Kyung-rok, the salesman from the Seocho dealership, said I would be driving the silver roadster around Apgujeong-dong, southern Seoul.
I fell asleep that night dreaming of a world where conspicuous consumption and technological sophistication rule. The next morning I awoke ready to put my spiritual awakening on hold, and got ready to indulge in unadulterated materialism. I slipped into a scandalous black Helmut Lang bondage dress and a pair of silver Narciso Rodriguez stilettoes.
The shimmering silver of the Z4’s body looked more like icing on a cake ― with all of the body’s creases, bumps and polyps ― than a paint job.
With a twist of the key in the ignition, the Z4’s six-cylinder, 225-horsepower engine revved to life; it sounded like cheerful laughter to my ears. The interior felt more spacious than the Z3, which the Z4 replaced, because the seats are positioned lower and the side panels are curved slightly outward. The sleek metallic-silver panel behind the black leather steering wheel gave a high-tech, modern feel. Most of the controls are discreet black buttons or set in electronic panels, except for the primary gauges. The fuel gauge, tachometer and speedometer are analogue. I glanced at the speedometer; it tops out at 260. BMW says the 3-liter version of the Z4 can reach 244 kilometers per hour; I doubt I’ll get to test that claim on the streets of Apgujeong-dong.
But then I realized that something was missing ― the clutch. “This is an automatic!?” I screeched. Oh-so-perceptively sensing my disappointment, Mr. Lee explained that the choices are limited in a market as small as Korea. Just 40 new Z4s ― all automatics ― have been shipped here. And there are only three colors to choose from ― black, titanium silver and metallic blue ― instead of the full range of six colors available worldwide.
Mr. Lee asked me to press one of the buttons for a few seconds. Both windows slid down halfway and the black soft-top slowly receded to reveal Seoul’s cloudless blue sky. I tested the automatic soft-top again, closing and opening it once more. Nice.
“Shall we head out on the highway?” Mr. Lee suggested. “Fantastic!” I answered.
One of the exciting things about driving a roadster is “feeling” the road through the car. The car simply becomes part of your body; its engine and gears become your muscles and sinews, its speed your energy.
Driving the north-bound eight-lane avenue from Nonhyeon-dong to the Seongsu Bridge, I noticed that despite the manhole covers, potholes and bumps the ride was smooth. So smooth, in fact, it felt more like driving a comfy sedan than a sporty roadster.
But when I stopped at a red light, I knew this was no sedan. I noticed people on the street stopping and staring. “Look, it’s a woman driver!” I heard one guy say to his buddy. I encourage every woman (especially single ones) to drive a cool sports car at least once; talk about turning heads. Of course it’s no guarantee of finding true love. You might just end up dating guys who only love you for your ride.
The Z4’s side mirrors and rear-view mirror are a bit narrower than conventional ones. Just where my elbow rests, there is a handy storage compartment that houses a six-CD changer. Mr. Lee explained that it comes with xenon headlights, which are twice as bright as halogen lamps.
Among the safety features are four airbags ― two in the front and one on each side ― and run-flat tires. “Even if you get the automatic warning signal detecting flat tires or low tire pressure, the car can travel as far as 80 kilometers at 100 kilometers per hour before you have to change the tires,” Mr. Lee said. Because there is no spare tire in the trunk, the compartment is a lot roomier than the Z3. “In every way, the Z4 is an improvement,” says Mr. Lee.
When I maneuvered the Z4 onto the Olympic expressway I saw my chance and floored it. The car’s state-of-the-art electrically assisted steering and braking are a quantum leap in handling from the Z3. Mr. Lee pressed the “Sport” button on the gearshift and within seconds I was driving beyond 100 kilometers per hour, blowing the doors off Korean-made sedans whose drivers were obviously worried about the speed guns overhead. If I get a ticket, Mr. Lee’s dealership foots the bill. I sensed the charge of the engine, quicker throttle response and more aggressive shifting ― but it still wasn’t like the raw power you feel with a manual transmission.
There is one problem: my long hair and short skirt were flying like crazy in the whirlwind. Maybe BMW engineers didn’t figure on long-haired drivers in skirts. The Z4 doesn’t come with a shield behind the headrests to cut the air current when the top is open. Mr. Lee said one can be installed, even if it looks like there’s no room for it. “Instead,” he said, “it has roll bars for maximum safety.” Safety? Who cares about that?
Turning off the expressway and onto a surface street in Gangnam I really missed the manual gearbox. The ever-perceptive Mr. Lee showed me how to use the Steptronic manual mode. With the click of a button, I at least got the “feel” of driving with a manual. But with the Steptronic system, even if I’m bad at shifting the car picks up its needed gear. This is one easy-to-drive roadster that lets you zip by other cars at the push of a button and enhances the sexy vroom of the engine with an amplifying tube between the engine compartment and the cabin. Now if only the car could drive itself while I wave at the people watching me buzz past.
In Korea, a 2003 BMW Z4 3.0i costs just under 77 million won ($62,000).

by Ines Cho
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