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BMW Powers Up Its Roadster

With a heavy, substantial feel and sexy styling, this Z4 provides a distinctly different kind of roadster ride.

MUNICH (AP) -- If you envy folks who can enjoy autumn's scenery with the top down, you'll be positively jealous of anyone behind the wheel of BMW's 2011 top-level Z4 roadster.

The 2011 Z4 sDrive35is boasts the most horsepower -- 335 -- of new-model, regular-production convertibles with fewer than eight cylinders. The engine also generates quick low-end "oomph" with peak torque of 332 foot-pounds coming on by 1,500 rpm and continuing to 4,500 rpm -- a significant range that makes this Z4 forceful in both city and highway traffic.

Zero to 60 miles per hour in a surprising 4.7 seconds, to be exact.

With a heavy, substantial feel -- thanks in part to a retractable hardtop roof -- and sexy styling, this Z4 provides a distinctly different kind of roadster ride.

But it sure is pricey. Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $46,875 for a 2011 Z4 with regular 255-horsepower, six-cylinder engine and manual transmission. With automatic transmission, the 2011 Z4 starts at $48,250, and the uplevel Z4 that's the highlight of the lineup -- with the 335-horsepower, twin-turbo six-cylinder -- starts at $52,775.

By comparison, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLK with 228-horsepower six cylinder and manual transmission starts at $48,525.

Needless to say, the Z4 isn't fuel efficient. The three-liter, double overhead cam, twin-turbocharged, inline six-cylinder, gasoline engine is used here for only a two-seater. Yet, the car is rated at just 17 miles a gallon in city driving and 24 mpg on the highway. That's using premium gasoline, too. And during my test drive in the city and on the highway, I wound up in the 19.5 mpg range, meaning I needed to stop well before 300 miles to fill up the tank.

Several sport utility vehicles, including the gasoline-powered Mercedes ML-Class sport utility vehicle with six-cylinder engine, have higher fuel mileage.

Ah, but it's the way you travel in the Z4 that appeals.

Passenger and driver sit low in the car, in typical roadster fashion. It's not as fun these days as it was in the heydays of roadsters, decades ago, because today's roads carry so many pickups and SUVs that obscure roadster views. I even looked up from the Z4 to see the top of the trunk lid on a Ford Taurus.

The Z4 sDrive35is starts up with a throaty sound and keeps it going during acceleration.

The test car passed others swiftly. With just a nudge of the accelerator pedal, the car sped up, and turbo lag was negligible. I had to monitor the speedometer all the time, because the Z4 tester crept up to higher speeds easily. It's a car that doesn't want to be second or third in line or mired in traffic. There's too much power for that kind of travel; it's hard to moderate your speed.

Open roads proved to be the best showcase areas. On straightaways, the Z4's power propelled the car strongly and forcefully. Passing on two-lane roads was a quick maneuver and didn't require long distances of planning and anxiety. On curvy mountain roads, the car carved up the switchbacks. But the rear end had a way of stepping out if the driver was going too fast.

Drivers tailor their ride with the push of a button, selecting normal, sport or sport-plus mode for slightly stiffer ride and shift pattern changes in the transmission. And on the test car, the adjustments made electronically in these different modes were noticeable.

Paddle shifters at the steering wheel worked well for quick shifts. But the variable speed electric power steering had an artificial feel at times.

The ride can be noisy, because of wind noise when the top is down and road noise from the sizable, run-flat tires.

The Z4 can't fit a spare tire into the back, because room is needed to stow the hard top when it's down. So, storage space is sparse. Indeed, even with the car's hard roof in place atop the vehicle, there's just 8 cubic feet of trunk space. With the roof down, much of this is taken up by the hardtop, and items must be rather narrow and soft-sided to fit comfortably in the trunk.

The car looks best and feels like it has a roomier interior when the roof is off the car. The hard top is power operated, so there's little for a driver to do but listen to some whirring motors and watch the stacking of metal roof pieces. It takes 20 seconds.

The Z4 has much standard safety equipment, including antilock brakes, brake fade compensation, traction control, electronic stability control and side air bags.

Be careful when getting into and out of the Z4; doors are longer than expected and can bang into adjacent vehicles. Passengers also drop down a ways to get into the seats -- a situation that can be troublesome for people with back problems.

One last complaint: Even with a base price of more than $52,000, the Z4 sDrive35is option list still includes a $400 charge for an iPod and USB connector for the car.