The recent crop of new models coming from Munich inevitably leads to a simple question: What on Earth has been going on at BMW in recent years?
Ever since the Neue Klasse reinvented and saved the brand, BMW could only ever, leaving matters such as personal taste aside, be described as assertive.
Assertively conservative insofar as an adherence to driven rear wheels, straight six engines and the evolution of the themes established by the Neue Klasse were concerned. Assertively daring when it comes to embracing electric propulsion and truly challenging automotive design notions.
Over the past few years however, none of this assertiveness has been in evidence on any automobile coming from Munich Milbertshofen in any abundance.
These most recent BMWs all bear the hallmarks of a serious crisis of confidence, albeit in different variations.
Least offensive of them all is the most recent 5 series range, which, stylistically speaking, does little different from its immediate predecessor, and nothing better. No Five, not even the ’95 E39 generation – which was lambasted for its conservatism back in the day, was as timid an evolution as this 2017 take on the concept.
The only clear statement this car makes is that its F10 predecessor’s success has utterly stifled those tasked with finding a form for its successor. And no faintly desperate dart feature line gimmick can change this perception. To the contrary.
The 2 series Active Tourer, on the other hand, is a first-rate brand killer of a car. Created solely to steal sales from Mercedes’ (hardly revered) B-class, the 2, with its frumpy stance, ill-fitting kidney grille and lorry-like steering wheel position, can only be described as a complete sell-out. Those poor souls in charge of finding its form deserve our pity.
Even more contrived is the Bavarians’ answer to the Range Rover Evoque, dubbed X2. Sporting the nastiest facial expression of any production BMW yet, this ‘S-yoof-V’ tries to be many things at once and ends up being unpleasant above all else. There’s van den Acker sneakeresque body cladding, as well as front air intakes (half of which are probably fake) so convoluted they could be seen as an homage to the revered Mercedes R231 SL.
This air of creative desperation is crowned by the addition of a Propeller badge to the car’s c-pilar – which suggests this may have been a last-minute addition to a greenhouse that would otherwise have been just a generic C-segment hatchback’s top end.
Rather more bland is the new X3, which isn’t just terribly hard to distinguish from its relatively new X1 sibling (a car whose stylistic qualities precisely match the X3’s), but also generally amorphous to the point of hardly being recognisable as a new model. Or a BMW.
It would hence arguably make for a decent Toyota RAV-4, but simply baffles when held to the standard of a ‘premium’ product: Apart from its China-friendly, oversized kidney grille and vaguely L-shaped rear lamps, the X3 exhibits the kind of flaccid surfacing and artless shutlines that would make Škoda designers throw hissy fits.
However, even against the backdrop of such thoroughly underwhelming car designs, the all-new BMW X4 stands a good chance of being awarded the title of ‘worst BMW ever’.
Hastily replacing the first-generation X4, this new ‘Sports Activity Coupé’ appears to combine the worst traits of this repulsive category of automobile. For unlike its predecessor and larger X6 brother (both being bonafide eyesores themselves), the new X4’s silhouette appears to not emulate the lower body of an SUV with the roofline of a coupé, but goes for the tortoise shell outline established by Mercedes’ GLC & GLE Coupés. The result is a stance lacking most of the X6’s outright aggression, which would appear to be the very raison d’être of this kind of vehicle.
The resultant car therefore boasts an massive rear aspect at odds with any sporting pretensions. The clumsy bulging wheel arches don’t help the cause either, as does the ill-placed rear door handle.
Even disregarding one’s own distaste for this class of car, one is left head scratching at the sheer artlessness of this X4. An effect incidentally felt by any visitor to BMW’s hall at last year’s Frankfurt Motor Show.
Maniacal facial expressions and blade-like rear lights apart, the concept cars shown exhibited neither the sophistication of a great many of the Bavarians’ traditionalist designs, nor the boldness Chris Bangle had brought with him to the BMW’s FIZ r&d centre.
Even disregarding the hastily cobbled together i Vision Dynamics on the basis that it was a full-size clay model, rather than a proper concept car, the creativity on show left a lot to be desired. And while the 8 series coupé could, oversized grille apart, at least be described as a rather generic, but competent piece of design, the repugnant X7 would simply have baffled anyone with even a modicum of appreciation of BMW design values.
As if to add insult to injury, there was even a half-hearted attempt at ‘doing a Wagener’ at BMW last year, when the brand’s stylists started blabbering about how the company’s stylistic efforts were all about ‘Precision & Poetry’. Desperate times call for desperate measures, it would appear.
Given the depth of issues plaguing BMW’s design department, there cannot be any simple answers to the question as to why the Bavarians appear to have so thoroughly lost the plot over the past few years.
One main issue though would have to be the personnel involved, even more so as BMW has had to cope with quite a few high-profile losses in the design department. BMW brand chief designer, Karim Habib, under whose watch the gems discussed here were cut, has found a new home at Infiniti, where he’s since presented the Q Inspiration concept car as a statement of intent.
Astonishingly, his first effort on behalf of the Japanese is a lot more consistent and appealing than any of the concepts BMW had brought along to the IAA, even though Habib appears to have a caveat for overdone down-the-road graphics that hasn’t been left behind in Munich.
Ex-Mini chief designer, Anders Warming, meanwhile chose to call resurgent Borgward his new home. His Isabella concept car, also unveiled at Frankfurt, happened to be almost the antithesis of the i Vision Dynamics. It even had an interior.
Benoît Jacob, previously in charge of BMW i, has joined Chinese startup, Future Mobility Corp, which meant that the chief designers posts of all BMW automobile brands – Rolls-Royce & M apart – were left vacant for a considerable amount of time.
Taking all these factors into consideration, pointing fingers at BMW Group’s chief designer Adrian van Hooydonk, would appear to be the most logical consequence.
Indeed, the Dutchman has obviously failed at offering his team of executive designers attractive enough a perspective for them to remain at the FIZ. Similarly, it could be argued that he hasn’t pushed his underlings enough for them to deliver designs of a higher standard than what’s discussed here.
But the latent sense of insecurity far exceeds BMW’s design studios. Even BMW’s A, as any CEO at Petuelring is internally known, is undergoing a very public crisis of confidence. The current incumbent, Harald Krüger, has certainly had to face an uphill struggle since his very public fainting at the 2015 IAA. The press have since devoted more than one article on his perceived (or actual) weakness, indecision and lack of vision.
BMW, probably the best led automotive company of the Western world, is finding itself amidst a perfect storm of an equally unpredictable and dramatically changing market, the loss of sales leadership in the ‘premium’ sector to Daimler AG, dramatic internal upheavals and weakened leadership. That this would be reflected in the products in some way should hardly come as a surprise.
The days of staunch Prussian nobleman, Eberhard von Kuenheim, leading BMW with the policy of ‘always selling one less car than the market demands’ have long since gone. As are the days when Bavarian motors stood for perfected conservatism, with a dash of athleticism and extra performance. Or the daring to push boundaries.
Krüger, van Hooydonk et al now need to reinvent what the Bayerische Motorenwerke stand for in 2018 and beyond. Let’s just hope the result of this isn’t ‘precision & poetry’.
The author of this piece runs an obscure motoring site of his own, which you may or may not choose to visit at www.auto-didakt.com