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Reader: Has BMW lost its mojo?

2014-03-07 11:49


HERE'S NO.2: BMW has unveiled the next model in its 2 Series range, the Active Tourer. It arrives in South Africa in October 2014. Image: BMW

The recent launch the 2 Series Active Tourer, the first of BMW's front-wheel drive offerings, is perhaps the inflection point in the brand’s value as represented as “sheer driving pleasure”.

With the launch of the 3 Series' ancestor, the 2000, BMW owned the sports sedan segment of the market (it could be argued that the Alfa Romeo Giulia was the original sports sedan, but that’s a discussion for another day).

Competitors have been slowly chipping away at the brand's ownership of that particular space defined by a silky straight-six at the front, 50/50 weight distribution giving sharp handing characteristics, and drive to the rear wheels.


Conventional suspension requires a high degree of engineering wizardry to achieve the perfect balance between sporty handling and bump-soaking magic-carpet ride. The problem is wickedly complex and requires the use of multi-link suspension and careful geometry in conjunction with judicious calibration of spring and damping rates and, generally, is the result of extensive and time-consuming development and some black magic.

Indeed, the target performance criteria in terms of handling precision for the M3 (now M4) is a veritable icon, the Porsche 911.

It is easier to sidestep all this hard work and use electronics and variable damping to achieve the same end; indeed, even BMW uses this route on its more expensive models. Magneto-rheological dampers can be tuned for a sporty, firm suspension when pin-sharp handling is called for, or bump-soaking comfort, at the touch of a button.

Even steering rate and assistance, accelerator response etc. can be electronically changed, giving modern cars electronic schizophrenia - multiple personalities of comfort, normal, sport, sport+, track... you get the drift.


Even where no electronic trickery is used, the gap between the veritable 3-series (…and its progenitor), a benchmark for its class for nearly 50yrs, is now so small some scribes have dared to say the new Lexus IS is the new alpha dog on the block.  Suffice to say, ‘Sheer Driving Pleasure’ no longer holds the cache it once held.

Unfortunately the degeneration doesn’t stop there. The interiors have lost that driver-focused facia that clearly announces this is a driver’s car. It’s an incoherent, unbalanced mish-mash of slashes and curves with weird finishes (3 Series modern trim) and some downright poor quality materials that you don’t find in a modern Golf, never mind a premium BMW; I’m sure my daughter’s Lego has better plastic!

The exterior fares no better, with yawning panel gaps and orange-peel paint. The Golf 7 has tighter panel gaps than a current 3 Series. Some compromises such as the bonnet not flowing into the grille, leaving a horizontal gap the width of the Grand Canyon, are a direct result of bean counters wanting to reduce costs associated with misalignment; it ruins the car's looks.


BMW engines, the straight-six in particular, are legendary in terms of performance and smoothness, winning many awards over the years. You haven’t driven a BMW unless you’ve driven a straight-six. With orgasmic aural qualities, linear power delivery and high specific power output, it is engineering nirvana. The BMW boffins know how to build engines.

Unfortunately all this is being sacrificed on the altar of fuel-efficiency and emissions control.  If you want a straight-six you’ll have to mortgage your arm and leg for an x35i (x = 1, 2, 3, 4, 5...).  Anything else is a four-pot in various states of tune. If you’ve driven a non-turbo six-cylinder, these turbo fours, while providing ample power and better torque, sound abrasive, gutless and gruff; as if a conscientious objector has been called on to do mandatory military service.

Good design is a sine qua non to sell cars - people buy cars because they look good. It's an emotive purchase. Current BMW design, as engendered by the liberal use of flame-surfacing, forgets good proportions outweigh superfluous use of creases and curves as a crutch to make a car visually interesting. One look at the Volvo Coupe concept distils great proportions and a total absence of creases and slashes.


Volvo should just go ahead and build it; as is, it would fly off the showroom floors. Land Rover has shown this is what car buyers want: they can’t build Evoques fast enough.  The current 1 Series hatch shows an absolute dearth ideas and may as well have been designed in individual parts by a virtual team, none knowing what the others are doing.

The 2 Series Active Tourer is absolute anathema to the to ti esti* of BMW. While as a car it’s not visually offensive, it has limited appeal; it does not move the brand forward and neither does it increase its cachet. Some ideas, though they may seem great within the confines of Europe, in trying to be all things to all men dilute the brand essence and will eventually destroy value.

BMW has a perfectly good sub-brand - Mini - where front-wheel drive is not just an engineering requirement but is in fact celebrated.

*The what it is...


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