But I wasn't prepared for the exhilaration I felt from hearing the engine's throaty growl, dropping the top, and heading out on the highway. The BMW Z4, the bigger, badder brother of the Z3, is a sheer performance ride, a driver's dream-come-true.

Under the long hood lies a 3.0-liter V6 with variable-valve timing and a dual resonance intake system. The powerplant provides a healthy 170 hp at 5,900 rpm with a reported top speed of 146 mph. The 3.0i's engine mates to a six-speed manual that provides the smoothest shifting I've ever experienced, with short throws between gears and a nearly effortless clutch.

To test its mettle, I took it through a curvy, challenging exit ramp at a speed I wouldn't dare attempt with most vehicles. I'm happy to report the Z4 hugged the corners tightly with no sloppy wheel play or panic braking on my part. And, for drivers who haven't mastered the art of manual shifting, there's an optional six-speed SMG (sequential mechanical gearbox) available. The SMG features shift-by-wire technology, letting drivers shift gears by either using the gearshift or engaging one of two paddles on the steering wheel. However, no matter how high-falutin' the system, nothing beats clutching and shifting.

Perhaps one contributor to the car's smooth handling is its electric power steering. The Z4 is touted as the first BMW to have electric rather than hydraulic power steering. Steering is controlled by software, said to be more flexible than hydraulic steering, and gives quicker feedback to drivers. I would have to agree: steering is crisp and responds immediately to whatever is requested of it.

The rear-wheel-drive Z4 has a central-link suspension with cast-aluminum upper transverse links and twin-tube gas pressure shocks in back, and a strut-type front suspension with forged-aluminum lower arms and hydraulic cushions. Antiroll stabilizer bars sit front and rear. For safety, the Z4 comes standard with Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and Dynamic Traction Control (DTC). By touching a button, DTC increases the slip on rear wheels to coincide with actual driving conditions. This is said to offer the same agility as a sports car with a limited-slip differential without forfeiting the benefits of the stability control system.

While the BMW handles like a dream, this is not the car to take on a long trip. A 6-hr trek to and from Pittsburgh (complete with stop-and-go traffic) proved this roadster is meant for fun, not business travel. The ride is tight and hard, and the seats are a bit wearing.

The Z4 comes fairly well stocked with all the typical bells and whistles, including a Carver CD system, 10 speakers, and two subwoofers. Other standard features include power windows and heated side mirrors complete with heated windshield-washer jets; cruise control; and remote keyless entry. Our test vehicle came with a premium package, which includes a fully automatic soft top and power seats with driver's side memory (a whopping $1,500 option). Other options included $500 heated seats, bi-xenon headlights ($700), and automatic air conditioning ($700). Now, call me crazy, but if heated windshield-washer jets and side mirrors come standard, why are heated seats optional? That being said, with options and a $695 destination charge you're looking at a $44,820 bottom line. The Z4 is perfect for someone with a practical car or two in the garage, some extra money to burn, and a strong desire to be looked at.

- Sherri Koucky