Feature: A Nose For The Road



Wine is utterly wasted on CarBuyer’s chief editor, luckily BMW’s convertibles have an intoxicating charm of their own

Photos: Matt Hull, Derryn Wong

Nagambie, Victoria, Australia 

In wine there is truth the Latin saying ‘in vino veritas’ proclaims. 

I drink very little, since I have grown into a mild allergy to alcohol. So typically at formal dinners I watch everyone else do it and enjoy the nonsense hitting the fan, then eat too much bread to make up for a lack of alcohol punctuation. 

Sans vin, here’s a truth anyway: Convertibles are meant to inject joy into your life, but honestly Singapore isn’t the best place to drive them al fresco on a regular basis. 

Since I commute by motorcycle, I get my daily dose of sulphur dioxide and other lovelies courtesy of old taxis and the legion light, medium and heavy commercial vehicles plying our roads thanks to the MRT construction boom.  If pedestrians and cyclists survive long enough, who knows? They might even enjoy car-lite.

With our CarBuyer Cynical Comments™ (CCC) out of the way, here’s what it’s like to experience a brace of BMW convertibles in a place where driving top down does you more good than anything else, the countryside of Victoria and the Murray-Darling basin. 

About an hour-plus drive from Melbourne brings us to the Mitchelton Winery, our home base for the drive. As one of Australia’s numerous small-scale wineries, it grows a number of different grapes and takes others from various vineyards in the region, in order to make an excellent selection of wines.
I know there are wines for each colour of Singapore’s flag and that’s about it, but judging from my inebria… sorry more ‘vin-telligent’ companions the vintages we sampled were all uniformly impressive. 

That’s no surprise, since Mitchelton is part of Nagambie (town) and the Nagambie Lakes region, itself part of the Golbourn Valley Wine Region and the greater Murray-Darling basin, which Australia’s biggest wine-growing region of them all. 

The winery and hotel lie on the banks of the Golbourn River, so you’ll encounter plenty of wildlife just poking your head out the window: We saw kookaburras, ducks, cockatoos, galahs, parakeets, and even caught a glimpse of a platypus in the river itself.
Singaporeans are likely more familiar with the Margaret River, since it’s closer, just that being in Western Australia it’s literally on the opposite side of Oz. But the Murray-Darling is essentially the same thing wrought large, and the stunning beauty of the wetlands here are well worth a visit, and of course the roads and countryside. 

BMW Australia held its premiere of the new Z4 convertible here, which we were invited to gate-crash, and also got to witness the singular sight of a managing director giving a very in-depth product introduction.  

BMW Oz had a special guest in the form of our own Christopher Wehner (above), currently chief of BMW Group Asia and based in Singapore, but prior to that his resume’s first entry was product manager for the Z4. Since it’s his baby, and he knows the product inside out, he was back in his old groove for the launch. 

So what does a Z4 have to do? He has the essentials: “A BMW Z4 has to be a small, sporty car you can drive with the top down, allowing the driver to engage all their sense, and it also must deliver an amazing thrill with each corner that you take.”

As you’ve read in Ju-Len’s review, the Z4 is certainly back on track in this iteration. We’ll leave you to decide, but you don’t need to have drowned yourself in Merlot to fall in love with how it looks. 

You’ll of course want to be fully sober when driving the most powerful model, the M40i (the blue one), since with 340hp. Equally logical is the fact that Mr Wehner recommends it as the Z4 to get: “I always recommend the BMW Z4 M40i because the 6 cylinder engine is the best in our line up and even if the roads are terrible, you’ll still have a great drive!” he says.

It feels very rapid, almost too much so, even for Australian countryside roads which typically lack traffic but aren’t particularly wide, though they do run the same gamut of quality as we experience back in Singapore.  

The improvements on the new machine are immediately noticeable as the entire car simply feels much more focused and driver-centric, but zooming into the details it’s the balanced steering and suspension that really help.

There’s no slack in the latter, and the Z4 M40i has a balance that makes it feel meaty and convincing without being heavy. It also helps that there’s plenty of front end feel, a thing which is sometimes tricky to do in a long-nosed roadster with a cabin pushed toward the rear. 

But if it feels a tad too much for where we are, then a 2+2 grand touring cabriolet with 530hp, namely the M850i Convertible certainly sounds like overkill on paper. 

The M850i Coupe already felt likewise back home, with Singapore feeling far too tiny to contain its biturbo V8-powered brawn, but in line with the wine analogy, this is all about joie de vivre not joie de havoc.  

The Convertible, like many drop-tops, feels more civilised and adept at taking it easy, which is perfect for these surroundings. Our route takes us past flatter wetlands and farms, so we smell a sheep station before we see it. 

As we stop to take photos, the curious ungulates trot over to take a look at the M850i, which we’ve dubbed the White Shark. We’re curious ourselves to see just how quick it is in a straight line: launching it with a chirp of the tyres and the bellow the V8 sends our sheep audience bolting in the opposite direction, but it’s very un-shark like with nary a tail-waggle thanks to the all-wheel drive system. 

Our sheep-laden road is straight as an arrow into the distance, but the M850i simply disappears the runway with its effortless speed. Come the corners, it’s not a heifer either, but the obvious difference is that a Z4 driver focuses and savours each bend, while to an M850i driver it’s just a slightly more interesting part of the entire grand touring event. 

The roads prove an interesting mix with superb bump-free tarmac ranging into pitter-patter rail crossings and degenerated surfaces, and it’s here we pay the most attention to when driving the most interesting member of the Z4 family: The Z4 sDrive20i. 

It’s the least of the Z4s, with 197hp, 320Nm of torque from a 2.0-litre turbocharged four, in Singapore it costs S$281,888 with COE. Luxury roadster money yes, but a whole S$70k cheaper than the M40i model, though the punchier mid-range Z4 sDrive30i is just S$23k more at S$304,888 with COE. 

There’s much to be said about the benefits of modesty. 197hp is certainly nothing to write home to Mom about (‘Dear Mom, today a VW Golf GTI beat me in a drag race. Send replacement flashed ECU.’) but honestly, we had the most fun in this car bar none.

Ju-Len talks about how everything happens at once in the Z4 M40i, in the Z4 sDrive20i it happens at thrice: Do something, you prepare, car reacts. Sounds damned boring on paper, but as we’ve written in our feature story on How To Drive A BMW (Or Any Car) Better, it’s far superior to ‘Do something, whowhattheffff, you’re in a bush’.  

It also helps that the sDrive20i hasn’t got any sport kit or stiffer suspension tune, so handles the rough rail crossings as good as you can expect a two-seater, sporty roadster to – which means back home in Singapore you won’t need to add a chiropractor’s bill to the monthly car instalment. 

It’s tame and progressive enough to drive with the ESP in sport mode, allowing a little slippy-slidey fun, and honestly even if you wail on the engine you still have time to soak up the wonderful surroundings. 

After all these are the quintessential elements of an Australian road trip. The wide open vistas, the unique solitude of the Australian bush (meaning the forested wilderness areas, not another wilderness area), the smell of the gum trees, and of dead kangaroo. Nothing quite hits home that you’re Somewhere Else than lots of king-sized roadkill. 

If you haven’t done one, you certainly should in this lifetime, even if you’ve absolutely no interest in convertibles or the purity of driving. The exact same things that make the grapes possible – clean air, sunshine, a mild climate and plenty of water – also make al fresco drive one of the true joys of life. The wine, as I can attest, is totally optional.  



Wanna do it yourself? 

Mitchelton Winery
Mitchelton.com.au
470 Mitchellstown Road, Nagambie, VIC 3608

 

about the author

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Derryn Wong
Has a keen interest in all things mechanical, technological, animal and mineral. Is particularly fascinated by eco-cars and cars which make no logical sense. An avid motorcyclist and photographer, he also enjoys cats.