Mid-Decade Midliners

BMW’s E60 5-Series was a landmark design. Thirteen years on, it still is – something that could never be said about its main domestic rival. 

The W124 of its era. Image: BMWdrives.com

How long does it take for a car design to visually mature? I would suggest a good decade for the shape to either embed itself or to become hopelessly dated. Good design doesn’t really date that quickly – a notion I was reminded of the other day as I happened upon two mid-noughties contemporaries parked nose to tail in suburban Pinner and was struck by the modernity of one and the really quite homely appearance of the other. One was a Mercedes W211 E-Class and the other an E60 BMW 5-Series. I think you can guess which was which.

The design leadership under Peter Pffifer saw in the era of the disposable Merc, where flaccid surfaces and a lack of definition replaced his predecessor, Bruno Sacco’s more scientific approach. The W211 was introduced in 2002 to replace the truly frightful W210 and for a time, it seemed like something of a return to form – well, wouldn’t just about anything? Its styling theme was attributed to Hartmut Sinkwitz following the template set by the 1999 W203 C-Class and 1998 W220 S-Class. Of course it’s best remembered for a plague of electronic gremlins which saw Daimler-Benz’s reputation take its hardest knock in recent memory.

Dear oh dear… Image:honestjohn

One year later, Daimler-Benz’s troubles were redoubled by the advent of the E60 5-Series. The BMW appeared in 2003 and while its reception wasn’t exactly unanimously rapturous, it certainly got everyone’s attention. Davide Archangeli’s design broke several moulds both externally and internally – especially after its much-loved and visually conformist E39 predecessor. Loved and despised in equal measure to BMW’s evangelical design chief, Chris Bangle, the 5 codified BMW’s shift in creative direction and remains the most visually coherent exponent of his ‘Flame Surfacing’ design philosophy. But I’m telling you nothing you don’t already know.

I took this on my phone, hence the poor quality image.

No, the striking thing is how the dumpy looking Mercedes seems like a design from the 1990’s, whereas, details aside, the 5-Series could virtually be a brand new car. A further thought: as much as many of us abhor the current Gorden Wagener creative hegemomy, looking at the Pffifer cars, it’s clear something had to be done, although baby and bathwater does spring to mind.

Here’s something else to put in your pipe and smoke. The same year BMW launched the E60 saw Jaguar announce it’s reactionary X350 XJ. Staggering really, but under Bangle’s direction, BMW’s designers were operating at a different level to everyone at this time. What level Jaguar’s designers were operating remains an unfathomable mystery.

Another observation, by way of a question. Where is today’s landmark design – the latter day W124? No, I don’t see it either.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

20 thoughts on “Mid-Decade Midliners”

  1. If you had asked me in 2005 which I preferred I would undoubtedly said the Mercedes. You are right though, that was because of the truly terrible W210 it replaced. Anything would have looked good beside it. I was also disappointed with the E60 when compared to the E39. Now though you are absolutely right, the Mercedes seems to look more and more like its dumpy predecessor and describing it as “homely” is about as kind as you could be. I was never a big fan of the “flame surfacing” but this and the original one series are the best examples for me.

    1. There was a piece on the W211 in, I believe, Auto Motor & Sport, where the writer claimed that this was actually the prettiest E of them all and that it hence was all the more regrettable that it was plagued by ye electronice leprechauns. Otherwise it’d be a modern classic. Or so he said.

  2. Although not perfect (what car is) the E60 is a masterclass in how to play games with graphics, matched only by the first Ford Ka.

    Today’s problems arise from EU Regulation AM/7791/H/56999, which states that “sheet metal (or alternative material) on any motor vehicle cannot have an exterior surface area exceeding .097 sq m that is not interrupted by crease, fold or other entirely extraneous detail ….”. Oh dear me – legislation gone mad. Roll on the referendum and a return to slab sided Sunbeams.

  3. Now 2003, that was the last time I was truly excited by car design. Some of that may have been due to my age, but I’d also like you to consider this list: e60, Anders Warming’s original Z4, Okuyama’s Quattroporte V and Ferrari Enzo, the second-generation Audi A8…

    I actually always likened the E60 to Rover’s P6 in terms of its role among contemporary designs and in the context of its brand’s history. Of course, BMW chose not to follow it with an SD-1 (unless one was so unkind – to the Rover, that is – to label the 5GT thus), but the lovely in its own right E39 could be described as Auntie Rover’s bavarian relative.

    The one trait the W211 (in whose design process Murat Günak also had a hand) and the E60 do share is the awkwardness of their cabins. Both cars’ interiors feel cheap and flimsy, with the Benz suffering from the kind of ‘trendy’ styling that would have been below the three-pointed star a decade earlier and, more surprisingly, perceived quality that gave the impression of hollowness. The BMW’s main downfall was the cliff face of Karim Habib’s dashboard design, which seriously impaired its ambience. Perceived quality was arguably a bit more substantial than the Stuttgart car’s, but everything seemed to have been made of either rubber or plastic, which came as a surprise after the very pleasant and solid E39 interior.

    To me, the interiors remain Bangle’s Achilles’ heel.

  4. A W211 estate sits in our work car park most days. Were it a W210, I might hope it would be parked round the back, but it was a great improvement. Though you can imagine the ‘now Gorden, we want the next Mercedes to be more like these new fangled BMWs that Bangle chap’s doing. we want to … what’s the word … funk them up!” “Really, oh well, if you really want me to, I suppose I can … odd request but ….”

  5. Eóin, you stole the thought from my head about the E60 5-Series. Observing one in traffic the other day, I noted how well it has dated. This is especially so compared to its replacement, which looked old immediately upon exiting the womb. It also appears well built and fondly regarded by its owners: you never see a truly knackered one.

    Often the designs that linger longest in the mind tease the margins of ready acceptability. I remember being distinctly ambivalent about the styling of the E60 at launch, it pushing existing BMW design tropes to the point that, to lay eyes at least, they became difficult to parse. Often the first reaction to such designs is either ambivalence or, for some, outright rejection. With time however, a design can be unpacked and early knee jerk rejections settle with the contemplation of the car’s form (actually quite conservative with the E60) and details, fostering later acceptance. The nebulous marketing term “mind share” is perhaps pertinent here: if you are thinking about one product, then you are not thinking about its rivals. I would guess that more collective brain power has been expended mulling over the E60 than the X350 XJ, purely because the latter was less of a challenge to read.

    1. I’m still slightly ambivalent about the E60, mostly because of those front light/indicators and the flat-looking bootlid. But I really can’t fault the rest.
      The Mercedes looks quite tidy to me.

    2. To be honest, although not a patch on the E60, I think the current car has dated better than I first expected. One passed me tho morning on a dual carriage way and I found myself warmly admiring the rear three quarter view. It’s much preferable to the just deceased E Class and has a well presented if slightly doughty style.

  6. I like the W211 in darker colours. just like the CLS it spawned, lighter colours simply don’t work with the design. most of the W211 problems, like the SBC brakes and the electronic gremlins, were sorted by the time the car received its facelift.

    that said, I also like the E60 exterior, but the E39 interior is way nicer – and a serious candidate to my all-time favourite interior.

    1. The E39 was a lovely car in general. Conservative, yes, but delightful nonetheless. And it also possibly was Claus Luthe’s final BMW.

  7. Thanks for bringing this up, Eóin. It made me rethink what the E60 means to me. I’m still not fully convinced, but yes, it has aged gracefully. The dark colours you show here also help to see it in a favourable light.

    I remember when I saw one of these around 2004 in white or silver. The rocker panel looked way too massive and the windows too small. The detailing and the surfaces looked good and modern, which I tend to like.

    Seen by today’s standards, the shape looks rather sleek and almost classical, and it avoids a good part of all the visual noise we have (not) got used to.

    1. The current 5 has less charisma than the Passat, Mondeo, Insignia and Mazda6. I barely register them. The E-class is not a pleasing thing yet it is distinctly itself. I feel that if BMW had carried on selling the Bangle 5 but with updated engines and toys it’d still be acceptable. I admit it took me five years to like it. Having eaten omble pie I can see the car’s an evergreen. That also tells you about the stagnation in automotive design we are living through.

    2. The whole current range of BMWs is confusing. The 3/4 series alone has at least 6 bodystyles, and nearly every size SUV has its ‘coupé’. Their designs are all so similar, meaningless and unremarkable, I couldn’t tell what I have in front of me without reading badges. Even size isn’t a big help, as a ‘mid-sized’ SUV like the X4 today is almost exactly as big as the first X5 some fifteen years ago.

  8. The problem boils down to the limitations of differentiation within a given form language. Also, people can’t easily distinguish between more than about four sizes without comparison. Actually, it might be three.
    With so many models all using the same styling the punter will soon find it hard to tell one from the other.
    I can spot a 3 saloon and a 7 but if I can’t tell then it’s a 5. The others require a look at the bootlid.

  9. The E60 in beige or light grey is the car I most often confuse at a quick glance with a 2006 to 2010 Hyundai Sonata. Embarrassing I know for a professed car nut, but since the brain operates on pictures/graphics recognition even to read, or so they say, there must be some similarity of stance or greenhouse to side view to rear 3/4 view that triggers the reaction in me.

    Of course, an extended look for a few seconds reveals the detail differences, but the E60 is a bit of a puffed marshmallow in lighter colours. Darker is better as are the more expensive wheels. The Mercedes E is not confusable at all with anything else. Beyond styling detail criticism, to which I suborn myself to the experts here (it’s why I come back for big helpings of DTW – to learn something enjoyably), perhaps the instant brand recognition is of more satisfaction to a manufacturer? Sales of both in North America would tend to confirm this over the years from 2004 when otherwise BMW was on a bit of a tearaway.

  10. Bill: maybe it’s more accurate to say you confuse the Hyundai with the E60 as the E60 emerged first. Dark colours hide the E60s sculpture, which is where the action is, in my view. Of course, some didn’t care for that aspect of it, and one is free to choose the colour anyway.
    We’re glad you like DTW’s little contribution to the world. It works for me as an enagaging break from weightier concerns.

  11. “Another observation, by way of a question. Where is today’s landmark design – the latter day W124? No, I don’t see it either.” – we don’t see it because Bangle changed contemporary automotive design language for all of the auto houses. He flattened it. It’s going to take another Bangle to do it again.

  12. The only reason it looks more modern is because the idiots won. That’s what we see around now so that’s what we associate with modern. The design sucks though.. I would take the simplicity of the the W211 any day over the E60. I would take a W124 or an E34 over any of them for that matter.

    Just because it’s more “modern” it isn’t necessarily a more timeless design.

    Ask the question again in another twenty years.

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