The 3 Series and the “Ultimate Driving Machine” slogan both debuted in 1975. Younger buyers leapt at the double-hooked bait, and BMW put the “same sausage, different lengths” school of car design to very profitable use. As age, pay, and family members increased, those 3 Series buyers progressed to the 5 and 7 to get more of the same, only bigger. Or, eventually, hopped over the SUV fence to get even more bigger.
Car enthusiasts would complain from time to time about this approach, wanting more differentiation between Series, but traditionally balked at the results. See the E60 5 Series and just about anything introduced after the X7 and its enormous kidney grilles. Most recently, BMW went all in with the front fascias on the standard 4 Series, the M3, and the M4. The next phase commences with the just-debuted i4 and iX battery electric vehicles. Enthusiasts haven’t been too pleased with those, either.
BMW hosted a virtual design roundtable to give its head of brand design, Domogoj Dukec, a chance to explain some of the reasons for colossal kidneys and tiny, squiggly headlights.
Globalization, rising incomes, and BMW’s own exploding model lineup have not only swelled the pool of potential buyers, they’ve enticed buyers of wildly different cultures and tastes. So BMW freed itself from trying to please an archetypal brand advocate with every car on the showroom floor. Instead, individual models will be honed to specific appeal. “We want to please single customers,” Dukec said.
The brand has adopted this stance to prepare itself for the impending Brave New World of transportation and that world’s buyers, who will be unlike historical and current buyers.
“We are not designing cars in the future. In the future we are designing the experience of joy,” Dukec said. The first rule of BMW design going forward, then, is, “Be stunning, which is the ‘Joy of wow.'”
Yeah, cue the alarms, we won’t blame you. But the din won’t stop the future. You should also know that BMW has been trying to ring the “joy” bell for at least 15 years. In 2009, BMW retired the Ultimate Driving Machine for “Joy is BMW.” Three years later BMW reverted to the old slogan, albeit determined to “take the ultimate driving machine and define what it will be in the future.”
The same thing is happening now. Gen Z’ers, and especially the Generation Alphas that follow them, will soon be the coveted demo in a landscape where private vehicle ownership isn’t necessary. On top of that, egregious congestion, ubiquitous autonomy, and on-demand transport will weaken the Alphas’ connection to one of the car world’s most famous and enduring slogans. At that point, the Ultimate Driving Machine won’t be what we envision it now; it will be the car people have to have when they don’t need a car. To create such desire, “You have to understand the reason certain customers want a car,” Dukec said. “We want to address just the ‘I want’ customers,” not those who need an appliance with seats to connect two points.
This requires demolishing the sausage factory as well as the corollary notion of buyer choice based on income.
“There’s not one recipe where we will make one kidney and then we’ll do all BMWs like this and scale them,” Dukec said, “because this is not customer-centric, this is just to please ourselves. You have to understand why a customer says and makes the choice for a certain product.”
Nor does it serve the brand to believe someone buys a 2 Series because he can’t yet afford a 3. The new standard is that he chooses the 2 because he wants the 2. That puts onus on each model to attract buyers on its own merits, not (only) by family association.
BMW has broken the customer base into two rough categories. About 70% are “Elegant Creators” who are more about harmonious design integration and the shared experience of the drive, and don’t want to be showy about it. The remainder are “Expressive Performers,” the bolder, hands-on-the-wheel types who want to drive something “really different to anything else on the market … but of course in line with the character of the car.”
Guess who the big grilles are for? And that’s why they appear on the 4 Series and M cars. Dukec said the designs aren’t trying to be provocative. “These cars look very different because they have a certain position in our portfolio.” Bread and butter propositions like the X3 and 5 Series “don’t have to be so different because [the] customers are not looking to be early adopters [and don’t] want to be so loud, so distinguished.”
The iX electric crossover has the Elegant Creator in mind. The large kidney grille arguably puts these buyers at the more daring end of the elegant spectrum, but that’s fitting for someone purchasing a pure electric people hauler. BMW designed the interior as “an intriguing living space” shorn of pure ornament. Everything is functional and real, the decorative elements serve a purpose – there’s nothing purely ornamental. It’s also genuine; anything that looks like wood comes from trees, anything in metal comes from mines. This will be a hallmark of the i brand that will migrate to the main brand, the initiative having already made small inroads on the X7 and X5.
The bifurcation is only a beginning. There will be as many subgroups as the brand thinks necessary, then “BMW will try to figure out what is relevant for [them], and we will then develop the experience for them, [because] you can’t make a generic experience of joy for the whole BMW portfolio.” The brand has tried this before, too, at the advertising level: in 2006, the automaker briefly toyed with a campaign aimed at “the creative class.”
The second rule of BMW design is, “Make a difference, (which) must also be meaningful.” BMW Global Vice President of Design Adrian van Hooydonk has talked about reducing the number of lines on a vehicle and highlighting the remaining design flourishes. That will apply to interiors, too, Dukec saying, “We want to show that less can be more” by employing technology and craftsmanship to combine the functional and ornamental into a seamless, rewarding experience.
We asked Dukec if this design philosophy has a name. He said no. “The only thing you could say is, ‘Form follows experience'”– specifically, the customer experience the vehicle has been designed for. And that’s not limited to the sheetmetal. “Experience” means everything from first contact with the brand and using a BMW configurator to the aftermarket and 10 years of ownership. “This all has to be an experience of joy that [makes] BMW relevant to our customers.”
The bitter pill is that there’s no room for arbitrary retro, so anyone hoping for Hofmeister kinks and round headlamps will need to go fish. The Hofmeister kink was the result of 1960s technology, when BMW designer Wilhelm Hofmeister wanted a rear door opening that didn’t leave an orphan quarter window cut into the C-pillar. Round headlamps were products of the following decades, when reflectors only came in circles and squares.
The brand is committed to new expressions enabled by new high- and low-tech innovations. “If you always react to technology you will always make icons, otherwise you will always be retro.” Dukec’s goal is to create new icons around the vehicle such that any BMW “should always be recognized from front, side, and rear.”
Attempting to creating new icons is a risky, expensive business, especially now. An impatient public, skewed development cycles, heaps of new tech, and a tumultuous transportation sector force designers into a different framework than a buyer. The BMWs we’re seeing now like the M4, i4, and iX were designed years ago and will need to last anywhere from six to 10 years on the market.
“First contact with a product that has to stay seven years on the market is more complex than just the first contact,” Dukec said.
The brand’s done all right with playing such a long game so far, though. In the 21st century, BMW’s daring larks have given us gadgets and baubles like iDrive, the Bangle Butt, and a mainstream M car with a V10. Go back a little further, there was the M Coupe, affectionately known as the Z3 Clown Shoe. They have all aged much better than their initial public reactions indicated.
“I think you have to face critique and where people are struggling, [asking] is this the right way? There’s no 100% guarantee that you succeed,” Dukec said. “But we do our best to always be ahead.”
“Is it good or bad?” he asked. “Let’s see.”