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In its element

Justin Harper
Justin Harper • 9 min read
In its element
The BMW Z4 handles exceptionally well on Romania’s winding roads
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The BMW Z4 handles exceptionally well on Romania’s winding roads

(Sept 9): Just looking at the many twists and turns of the Transfăgărășan will leave most motorists in a cold sweat as this epic road snakes its way up the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. And so it was with a heady mixture of fear and excitement that I embarked on a 290km road trip that would take me along this infamous road. And my weapon of choice for this battle between man and mountain was BMW’s new Z4, a compact sports car that is now in its third generation.

I was in the M40i version of the Z4, a cool-looking convertible perfect for the warm European sunshine of late July, but slightly challenging in the snowy climes of the Carpathian Mountains. My favourite type of car is the roadster, broadly defined as a smallish, open-top, two-seater sports car. In this category, you will find the Jaguar F-Type, the Mazda MX-5, the Audi TT and, of course, the BMW Z4. Roadsters have a rich and colourful history, but it is not often that one gets to drive them in this sort of environment — on windy and scenic mountain roads.

With its elongated hood and shortened rear, the Z4 has arguably earned its status as a classic roadster

The drive along the Transfăgărășan was the highlight of a three-day driving tour of Romania, a country I had never visited during my 30-plus years of living in Europe. In all, I covered about 700km in the three days, scaling huge motorways, pot-hole-filled country roads and ear-popping mountain passes. It was not just the Z4 I was driving on this cross-country journey but a selection of BMW’s newest and finest additions to its range. These included its new, luxury SUV, the X7, and the M850i coupé. Each car comes into its own on a particular surface, and I was glad for the chunky-tired and sturdy X7 to navigate the bumps and potholes of Romania’s country roads.

Once you reach the Transfăgărășan, the Z4 is the car you want to be driving as you test your skills on the tight bends, zig-zagging corners and smooth turns. It is low to the ground, has very responsive handling and is powered by a sweet 3-litre engine. It also looks great. My test-drive car was finished in matt-grey coachwork, which is achingly trendy nowadays. With its elongated hood and shortened rear, the Z4 has arguably earned its status as a classic roadster. Its striking and bold curves never failed to turn the heads of both Romanians and tourists.

On the Transfăgărășan, the Z4 is the car you want to be driving as you test your skills on the hairpin turns

But the crazy thing is that the fourth generation of this fun roadster may never have seen the light of day had it not been for Toyota. Yes, the rival Japanese carmaker. For the Z4 is a joint venture between the two car brands. Why? Carmakers do not sell that many sports cars these days. So, to make a profit, they need to keep costs low.

And what better way to do this than by sharing them with another car manu-facturer? Toyota was also looking to relaunch its Supra sports coupé, so they decided to join forces. While both cars share the same chassis, underbodies, engines and a few other hidden parts, that is where the similarities end. The BMW Z4 is very much its own car and so too is the Toyota Supra. This is not the first time two rival brands have worked together like this and we will probably see more collaborations down the road.

Back to the Z4. Its handling is sublime and gave me the confidence to really put my foot down on the mountain roads, even when there was just a crash barrier between me and a long fall down. It is lightweight and very agile, and with the top down you really get a sense of how fast you are going. Speed limits in Romania are pretty flexible, unlike in Singapore.

BMW Z4 M40i
$340,888 including COE
Engine: 2,998cc, six-cylinder, in-line, turbocharged
Power/torque: 335 bhp/500 Nm
Fuel consumption: 7.4L/100km
0 to 100 kph: 4.5 seconds
Top speed: 250kph

When you see a sign with a 100kph speed restriction, you can go 30kph to 40kph above this before the police will stop you, so I was told. I was happy to do this on the expressway (and did not pick up a speeding ticket), but on the Transfăgărășan, this is not such a good idea. You respect the mountain, and the mountain will respect you. I did have one minor scrape with a motorbike, but that was down to his impatience, trying to squeeze past me at a narrow bottleneck when he should have waited.

Inside the Z4, I felt snug and very safe. It is a tight squeeze but, once you are seated, you soon get accustomed to the small cabin. With the roof open, there is an airiness that makes it feel a lot bigger. It can get a bit blustery when you pick up speed, but that is the charm of a convertible.

Thankfully, there is not a huge compromise on boot space despite having to accommodate the folding roof. The trunk is fairly deep and I could easily fit a couple of carry-on suitcases inside. It is actually 281 litres, which is nearly twice the size of the old Z4. On the rougher and bumpier roads, the Z4 stood up to the test (but not as well as the X7 did, naturally) but this will not be an issue in Singapore. It is also very easy to park, so it makes a great city car. With 500Nm of torque, you can whizz around the CBD in style. And if you find yourself driving one around the mountain ranges of Romania, even better.

Justin Harper is a freelance journalist with a passion for all things fast

Only in Romania

(Sept 9): Situated in Eastern Europe, Romania borders a number of countries, including Bulgaria, Hungary, Moldova, Ukraine and Serbia. This has allowed it to take on many different cultural and culinary influences since it was founded as part of the original Roman Empire. It is the 12th-largest county in the European Union and has a population of 20 million. Bucharest is its capital as well as its cultural, industrial and financial centre.

While it has beautiful landmarks and many historic buildings, Bucharest is not a fun city to drive around. Unfortunately, it is the most congested city in Europe and the fifth most congested in the world. You will find drivers impatient and aggressive, especially if you are used to Singapore’s calmer motorists.

Thankfully, once you get out into the countryside, things calm down a lot and you can literally park your car on the road and people will not honk or hassle you, but just drive around you. That is perfect when you are on a mountain road and want to take a picture of the scenery below you.

Regional dishes

Foodies will love Romania, given its diverse cuisine. Eastern Europe is known for its love of meat and heavy dishes such as goulash, and Romania is no different. But there is a new wave of lighter, more organic dishes being created in the bigger cities as the farm-to-table concept gathers pace.

Romanian cuisine is split into six distinctive regions, which have all been exposed to different influences. As a result, Romanian cuisine is a melting pot of mostly Turkish, Greek and Slavik. Romania’s de facto national dish is sarmale (sometimes seen on menus as sărmăluţe). These are cabbage rolls, stuffed with spiced pork and rice, and are very tasty.

Romanian cuisine is a melting pot of different countries and cultures

Pork is very popular in the country and pig skin is a local snack, although I could not get past the chewy texture. A few other popular foods I encountered during my trip were schnitzel (pork, of course) and a dessert called papanasi. It looks like a doughnut but is filled with cottage cheese that is sweetened and mixed with semolina, and coated in breadcrumbs.

Romanians love their meat, but lighter, organic dishes are becoming more popular

Romania is one of Europe’s biggest wine producers, although much of it is aimed at the lower end of the market, which will please students and tightwads. But you can still find good-quality wines, and I was very impressed with the reds I drank. This came as a surprise for me, as beer is usually brewed and drunk ubiquitously throughout Eastern Europe, along with white spirits such as schnapps, which are often drunk at the start of a meal.

The real Romanians

Romanians are considered among the world’s most friendly and hospitable people. They are fun-loving and have a great sense of humour. While this sounds like exaggerated guidebook talk, I found this to be spot-on with the people I met, from the witty Bucharest tour guide to BMW Romania’s head of communication Alex. All had a huge arsenal of jokes and funny stories to tell, even about life under Nicolae Ceaușescu, the former Communist dictator.

During the trip, I also got to meet some of the Székely (Szekler) people, who have a distinctive architecture, language and culture. In many of their villages, craftsmen still pass down their skills from generation to generation. I visited workshops of weavers and wood carvers, and an ancient, yet functional, water mill.

The Székely people are based in Transylvania, which is also famous for its association with Count Dracula, although locals laugh this off as myth and the work of fiction (largely that of Bram Stoker). Eerily, the local cemetery we visited revealed the old pagan custom of using totems rather than crosses on the graves. The Szeklers are Hungarians and one of the peculiarities of this colourful part of the world. -- Justin Harper

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