This weekend on the shores of Lake Como, Italy, automobile history was celebrated during the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, a superlative car show. Alongside Bugatti, Ferrari and Mercedes, tens of millions of dollars worth of models have been icons of BMW’s performance heritage, from stylish M1s to classic, outfitted M3s.
As the brand’s history was displayed on the lawns, behind closed doors and on the terraces of the 16th-century estate-turned-holiday destination, executives made bold statements about the company’s future.
Like many automobile manufacturers, the BMW Group strives to harmonize engineering, technology, design and safety in a rapidly developing era of vehicle construction. The transition to electric powertrains is already underway, part of the company’s long-term sustainability promise.
But in a way, the BMW brand isn’t like other automakers, not even its brother Rolls-Royce. Throughout its long history, the focus has been on the driving experience, whether it’s a race car, sedan or seven-passenger SUV, ahead of comfort, elegant style and innovative infotainment experiences.
For the group’s M brand in particular, moving forward means moving the ball on several lanes at the same time.
For the BMW Group’s chief designer, Adrian van Hooydonk, the event at the Villa d’Este serves “as an inspiration or a reminder that my team and I should carry on, keep up this interest in individual mobility and this passion”.
The BMW mobility plan does not only include models for the mass market. There is room there for more niche customer vehicles like the new M4 CSL that just debuted, which will have a limited run of 1,000 units, and future models, possibly even electric, that will be even smaller in volume.
Rolls-Royce, the super-luxury division of the BMW Group, already offers customers personalization options. The business case for a more bespoke division, Rolls-Royce Coachbuild, takes the artisanal idea of luxury one step further, offering customers a complete one-off. Its latest iteration is a second Boat Tail that is said to have cost its owner over $20 million.
“When you make something extremely quiet, very exclusive, it has to be just right,” said van Hooydonk news week during a round table discussion. “It can’t just be a remake of something else. So the difficulty with low volume is always, in a company that produces, say, over 2 million new vehicles a year, finding the time, finding the resources to get it done.
“The problem, of course, is that nowadays if you design a car and only make one, the effort, research, testing and regulatory requirements for that vehicle are the same as if you make almost 1 million of them, and the cost is always the same .”
In addition to exploring how mass-market color-changing vehicles can become a reality, Van Hooydonk is interested in exploring what new levels of customization might look like under the BMW brand umbrella. The designer says the key to executing customization under the BMW brand will be making sure it’s “clever”.
It could be similar to how Porsche runs its manufacture brand, offering more material, paint color and accessory options to customers willing to pay for an upscale shopping experience.
The company recently acquired luxury brand Alpina, which a spokesman for the company says is expected to take three years to fully integrate under the group’s umbrella.
The shift under the body of BMW vehicles will affect almost every model decision that the company will make in the future. BMW is working on its next Neue Klasse initiative (the original was in 1962, when the company emerged from a period of financial uncertainty), which will see the debut of a new platform in 2025 that will only accommodate electric vehicles.
This advancement is the foundation of what von Hooydonk and his team are now working on in their studios around the world. “There’s a bit more flexibility once you have the battery, the powertrain and whatnot; you start thinking about putting on different hats, but it’s never that easy.”
He sees that more production flexibility is coming into play thanks to advances in technology and manufacturing, but that as an established brand there may be setbacks as the industry transitions from internal combustion engines to all-electric models.
“If you’re a startup, nowadays it’s almost easier because you start building one car at a time … for us the whole transformation is much, much more difficult because you’re doing both things exceptionally well and you have to make sure you do them.” deal with the transformation that we are in the midst of,” he said.
This transformation does not only affect the design studio of the BMW Group. BMW M CEO Frank van Meel is aware of the legacy of the brand he leads, as well as what Oliver Zipse, CEO of the BMW Group, has formulated as corporate goals for the next decade as electrification progresses.
“I think there is no alternative to the electric drive. I think it’s just a matter of timing and that depends on timing [the company is capable of producing] what we really need. If we make an M, it has to be better than its predecessor and it has to be a typical M.
“Now if you look at the M4 CSL, that’s kind of the benchmark and you say ‘okay, do that in an electric car that’s faster’, that’s a big challenge. But the good thing is we have the benchmark internally so we know what to look for.”
AutoPacific President and Chief Analyst Ed Kim believes M enthusiasts shouldn’t worry about the future of their beloved brand. “As the performance luxury EV scene has already been bustling with activity, BMW M will be a little late to this party, but it shouldn’t be ruled out that BMW M could set the bar for EV performance as it is doing with Its internal combustion engine has repeatedly done engine models over many decades. Consumers should expect that BMW M will continue to lead the way in the electrified future and that the halo effect of these electric M models will have a positive impact on the rest of the future mainstream BMW model range.”
Van Meel knows the electric path ahead may be unappealing to some older and enthusiastic customers, but he says there is precedent for adjusting expectations there.
“For example, the M3 has a very long history. It started with the four-cylinder engine, where everyone said: ‘Formula 1, four-cylinder engine, that’s the only engine you can have.’
“And then in the next generation we switched to a straight-six and everyone said, ‘Well, that’s not racing, really, that’s not Formula 1. It was an M1 professional car, but it wasn’t Formula 1 and it is harder . It works?’ And then, of course, they could drive the car and say, “Well, it’s better than its predecessor and it’s a typical M3.”
“Then, from the customer’s point of view, we changed it to a naturally aspirated, high-revving V8 engine, which was even worse. And everyone said, ‘Why are you doing this because it’s even harder? Then you drove the car and realized that it’s a typical M3 and better than its predecessor.
“The worst thing we did to the community then was go to turbocharged engines, because then it was like, ‘naturally aspirated, throttle response, racing… you go to turbocharged and it’s not going to work.’ Then you drove the M3 and said: ‘It’s better than its predecessor and it’s a typical M3.’
“And if you take that idea further, that’s the DNA that we come from. It’s supposed to drive like an M3 no matter what’s in it and it’s supposed to be better than its own predecessor and that’s just one goal we have for an electric… And so in the future you don’t have to worry about the drivetrain fear it won’t change what M stands for… It has to be an M3 or an M5 and it has to be better than its predecessor. “
With high horsepower and torque expectations for electric vehicles, van Meel makes it clear what the future of M will bring to the table. “It’s not just about lap times because sometimes you can’t have such emotional cars with good lap times. It’s also about the M, the emotion of M,” he said.
“Today, if you’re in a car, if you get into an M, you don’t have to drive to a track. You drive just 100 meters, turn left, turn right and you know which car you are in. It’s like a perfect suit. It fits perfectly. It’s precise, it’s agile, it’s dynamic and you have that M feeling.”
Kim agrees with van Meel: “BMW has long been known as a brand for performance drivers, a brand that values driving pleasure above almost everything else. Importantly, BMW’s success in cultivating this brand image is largely due to BMW’s products being the talk of the town, it’s all about performance and driving pleasure. Even the most basic of 3 Series models have always been a pleasure to drive, but the BMW M vehicles are the ultimate expression of BMW values.
“Today, many luxury brands have bespoke performance sub-brands, from Mercedes-AMG to Cadillac V. None of these would likely exist without BMW’s legendary M division. Among the luxury brands, BMW was the first to create a major performance sub-brand, and because M fitted BMW’s values so well and basically bumped all existing BMW brand values to 11, it had credibility from day one. Even today, few performance luxury sub-brands possess the authenticity and desirability of BMW M.
Borrowing the abductive line of reasoning “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and croaks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck,” concluded van Meel, “that’s what you need going forward, an M, it.” feels like an M and drives like an M, then you don’t have to question anything.”
https://www.newsweek.com/they-hear-your-complaints-bmw-still-embracing-its-electric-future-1709268 Hear your complaints, but BMW is still embracing its electric future