Taking the reloaded BMW Z4 on a spin through a Romanian mountain pass
The formidable topography of the Transfagarasan makes for an exhilarating ride, as we zipped through the "best road in the world" in the ultra sexy roadster.
Steep hairpin turns, long S-curves and sharp descents possibly more daunting than even a Formula One race track. Welcome to the Transfagarasan, Romania’s second-highest mountain pass after the Transalpina.
The name itself intimidates, as it somehow conjures up images of impending doom. And one actually wouldn’t be too far of the mark considering the area’s ominous past – if certain myths and legends are to be believed.
Along the southern section of the 90km winding road, which cuts through the Fagaras Mountains that divide northwestern and southern Romania, stands Poenari Castle. The castle, also known as Poenari Citadel, was the 15th century residence of Vlad the Impaler, on which Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula is most notoriously based.
This narrow mountain pass was, after all, constructed in the early 1970s as a strategic military route connecting Wallachia and Transylvania.
It was during the rule of Romania’s last Communist leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, as a response to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. Ceauşescu wanted to ensure quick military access across the Southern Carpathians (also known as the Transylvanian Alps) in the event of a future invasion.
Romania already had several strategic mountain passes through the mountainous region at the time; some inherited from the pre-communist era and others built during the initial years of the Communist regime. However, these passes were mostly through river valleys, which would be easy for the Soviets to block and attack.
Ceausescu therefore ordered the construction of the Transfagarasan which, today, hosts annual cycling competitions such as the Tour of Romania. Several of these sections in the north are said to be similar in difficulty to hors categorie climbs in the Tour de France: Mountain roads so treacherous they’re considered “beyond categorisation” as cars were not expected to be able to pass.
A challenging terrain equally loved by motoring enthusiasts. The Transfagarasan was even declared “the best road in the world” by Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson – a title previously bestowed upon Italy’s Stelvio Pass.
Having travelled some 150km from the capital of Bucharest, we passed through the gateway city of Brasov and arrived at the foot of the Transfagarasan.
We began our ascent in the X7, BMW’s first-ever SUV. The hefty, heavy-duty four-wheel drive dominated the narrow, snaking lanes of the formidable topography that rises to a height of 6,699 ft at its peak.
It was excitement at every turn on the winding track dubbed “Ceausescu's Folly” by locals. We broke mid-way for lunch. Afterwards, the Transfagarasan became our playground.
We took command of the Z4 M40i and it was quickly apparent how the dramatic twists and turns on these dynamite-forged roads made for excellent ground to test the agility, performance and precise handling of the two-seater roadster.
The reloaded Z4, which arrived in Singapore in April this year, features an all-new lightweight design optimised for aerodynamism: Compact proportions, a very rigid body and chassis structure, low centre of gravity and ideal 50:50 weight distribution – the perfect formula for an exhilarating ride.
Our variant, the top-of-the-line M40i, conjures power from a 3.0-litre six-cylinder in-line engine featuring M Performance TwinPower Turbo technology that delivers 340 hp of power between 5,000 and 6,500 rpm, as well as 500 Nm of peak torque from 1,600 to 4,500 rpm. Together, they produce a low growl that’s added auralgasm against the stunning, picturesque backdrop.
Then, there’s the ability to make the century sprint in 4.5 seconds – fast enough to outpace any of Dracula’s descendents, we hoped.
SUPREME AGILITY, AWESOME CORNERING
Taking on the Transfagarasan’s circuit-like conditions was pure joy in the Z4 thanks to a suite of performance-boosting technology.
For starters, its superior agility and handling dynamics come courtesy of a new chassis design comprised of a double-joint spring strut axle at the front and a five-link rear axle making its debut in a BMW roadster.
The sports car tuning of the front axle elastokinematics further aids the Z4’s steering precision while dynamically enhancing its lateral handling characteristics for more precise and more awesome cornering. It also enhances the drivetrain’s acoustics, delivering that signature sexy purr I’m dangerously close to falling in love with.
"Sometimes, it’s the subtlest of details that lend the most powerful edge."
We kicked into SPORT+ mode and darted through – and powered out of – corners of the Transfagarasan with remarkable verve. This was thanks to an electric motor that generates a locking effect, limiting speed equalisation between the inside and outside rear wheel when cornering, thereby providing greater stability and traction for the Z4 to take on corners comfortably.
The new generation eight-speed Steptronic transmission directs the engines’ power to the rear wheels, offering even more sportier gear shifts, with the shorter ratios on the lower gears producing more powerful acceleration.
As nimble as it is sexy, the Z4 is also fitted with a lightweight but powerful braking system essential to its dynamic handling and extraordinary performance in challenging conditions.
The Dynamic Stability Control system includes a wealth of features: Anti-lock braking system, dynamic traction control, cornering brake control and dynamic brake control. Meanwhile, the variable distribution of drive torque between the left and right-hand rear wheels nips any understeer or oversteer in the bud – without the need to brake.
It’s easy to fall in love with the Z4. Particularly if you’re one of those with an appreciation for all things beautiful. The low-slung, open-top sports car is all about the curves. And strong character lines that seemingly surge forward.
The Z4 strikes a sexy figure, from any angle. From its powerfully sculpted front apron with large air breathers to the elongated bonnet with arrow-shaped contour lines directed at the track-inspired, honeycomb-patterned kidney grille, the interplay of surfaces and textures echoes the flow of air sweeping along the length of its body.
The entirety of its beautiful form sits on 19-inch light-alloy wheels, and, when taken in from behind, the boot lid’s spoiler integrated with the slender, L-shape light assemblies give the tail of the Z4 a wide, road-hugging appearance. It’s a distinctive look further accentuated by the rear apron’s side surrounds and trapezoidal exhaust tailpipes flanking the eye-catching diffuser.
Sometimes, it’s the subtlest of details that lend the most powerful edge: The Adaptive M Sport suspension on the M40i lowers the car’s ride height by 10mm, for decidedly more sporty swag over its sDrive20i and sDrive30i siblings.
We kept the fully-electric soft-top roof down as we cruised along the Transfagarasan’s peak where holidaymakers gather around Lake Balea. Some stopped to gawk and we witnessed a few jaws drop.
It was a great day to go topless.
BMW Z4 M40i
Six-cylinder petrol engine, BMW TwinPower Turbo technology: TwinScroll turbocharger, High Precision Direct Injection, VALVETRONIC fully variable valve control, Double-VANOS variable camshaft timing
Capacity: 2,998 cc
Power: 340 hp at 5,000 – 6,500 rpm
Torque: 500 Nm at 1,600 – 4,500 rpm
Acceleration (0 – 100 km/h): 4.5 seconds
Top speed: 250 km/h
Combined fuel consumption: 7.4 l/100 km