Crossed Over

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?

 Backside design, photo (c)

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.

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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.

photo (c) Top Speed

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.

photo (c)

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


Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

10 thoughts on “Crossed Over”

  1. Unfortunately, the current worldwide infatuation with anything sporting a star, a propeller, or a few rings, means that the standards can be lowered, with no negative impact on sales… Let’s face it, the common “punter” isn’t aesthetically savvy enough, and is more easily swayed by abundant chrome lashings (real or not) and a bigger-the-better touch screen.

  2. A great (if depressing) write up, Kris. That quartet of show cars from Frankfurt is just so hideous.

    Mercedes seem to be chasing volume by pushing out hundreds of thousands of A class hatchbacks on cheap lease deals. I can’t believe this is enormously profitable, so BMW would be crazy to get caught up in this game.

    I do sometimes wonder what would have happened if the takeover of Rover Group in the 90s had been a success. BMW would have had Land Rover / Range Rover to cover the SUV market, and maybe Rover / Triumph / whatever to cover the other stuff. Those front drive BMWs might not have been BMWs at all, perhaps leaving the brand to focus on what it was good at.

    As it is, I really worry that BMW do not know what it is that makes a BMW anymore.

    1. There is a growing and palpable sense of fin de siècle about the recent products from the German prestige manufacturers, and from Sindelfingen and Munich especially. Perhaps it’s a final blast of devil may care excess before the music stops, the lights come on and everybody realises the party’s over. It could be ascribed to a number of other more prosaic factors too, but either way, it’s dispiriting fare.

      BMW’s crisis as well stated here is showing no signs of abating either, but as the author correctly states, it’s a little unfair to lay the blame solely at Adrian van Hooydonk’s feet. BMW management, faced with their Baden-Württemberg rivals’ lapse into parody should perhaps be commended for not blindly following them into an identical race to the bottom, but their crisis of confidence is evident in the tentative nature of BMW’s new product offerings and the utter stagnation within the design teams at their FIZ engineering centre.

      As pointed out elsewhere on this site, last year’s appointment of former Skoda design chief, Josef Kaban is a positive step, but one which really couldn’t have come at a worse time in BMW’s product cycle. As it stands, although we have yet to see the forthcoming 1 and 3-Series models, it’s abundantly clear they too will be visually uninspired. For the 1-er, read X2 and for the 3, read 5. QED.

      We will have to await the next generation of BMW models before we can see what (if any) impact Kaban can make. Unlike Mercedes-Benz, there remains some slight hope for BMW if senior management can regain a grip on their business model and start making the sort of product decisions that speaks to the future while avoiding a wholesale jettisoning of the past. However this would probably entail a change of leadership, but on the face of it at least, seems a price worth paying.

  3. Great piece, Kris (as always).
    In my view, the beginnings of the i sub-brand expressed a whiff of hope for the post-Bangle company, both technically and stylistically.

    That this ball has been thoroughly dropped is well documented. Not following through on the (admittedly weak-selling) i programme might well be regarded as Krüger’s original sin – voluntarily walking away from real ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’, something that can’t be regained by sheer (poetic and precise) force of will.

  4. Every time I seen an Active Tourer I have to run it through a list of possible cars. It is only because it is not the others that I conclude it must be that new BMW family van. I do the same with the current Focus. There are very few cars I know of that are so diffuse and unsatisfactory. I´d contend that BMW has been oscillating around the same theme or feeling for a decade. I don´t expect design revolutions for every new model – Renault do that and it is not a good approach. It may be that there isn´t a lot of progress in manufacturing methods and that in turn means that that parameter doesn´t change from model to model. It used to be that there was sufficient difference in assembly methods such that if the car´s theme stayed the same the detail changes were enough to signify a new model. Absent a technological driver, BMW is stuck with the same old thing, year after year and none of it is really nice either, exceptp maybe the 4-series coupe.

  5. So far North America has not been subjected to those BMW SAV tourers, thank goodness. Ungainly sums them up. We do get the X1 and will shortly get the X2, both ways to buy an expensive MINI from my viewpoint. At least the X3 still has a decent fore and aft layout and you can get the six cylinder engine if you can scrape together the lease payments. It seems good if undistinguished to behold.

    As for the aggressive styling of many BMWs, well, it’s awful, but not as artless as Lexus whose newest CUV based on the CH-R actually appears to be giving birth from its front grille. It is the height of poor taste.

    I can’t work out the Euro A B C D segments, cannot be bothered, nor recite Mercedes and BMW model numbers anorak train-spotting style, but the X3 size crossover dominates here. There is little reason beyond badge snobbery to buy anything but the mainstream offerings from Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Jeep, Ford, Mazda, GM, etc. They cost much less, are decently reliable, and if you are forced to adopt that dull-as-dishwater format and give up any hope of truly sporty handling, why pay more for a BMW? The Forester turbo is just as quick too. If BMWs looked as svelte as they used to 15 to 2o years ago instead of epitomising dominating German ground-pounders, BMW could sustain sales. So I agree, there’s serious design work needed, a new language, and soon.

  6. I think the issue stems from letting Chris Bangle go. While at the time people thought his designs were batshit crazy, they have stood the test of time. If the facelifted E60 were to debut today, it would be considered a daring, modern design that is more sophisticated than the the current generation 5 series. BMW flame surfacing, whether we want to admit it or not, was ahead of its time. If Bangle had stayed and was allowed to develop subsequent generations of product, BMW would still be leading the cutting edge of design. Instead, its pulling out this heinous crap (which isn’t enough from stopping me at looking for CPO manual 335xis)

    1. You are precisely right about the E60. There is one parked in the same garage as my car and it still looks fresh. I could quible about one or two details. Overall the shape is one which remains convincing. The two subsequent cars look like they came before the E60. More seriously, they look like rejected designs for the time the E60 was on sale. They aren´t dated so much as timelessly stale. I really regret being so hysterical about Chris Bangle´s methods. If some of the cars were a bit alarming they aren´t today with perhaps the exception of the 7-series headlamps.

  7. Wasn’t Chris Bangle still in charge when the F01 7 Series was launched? The F10 5 Series also arrived I recall not long after he left. Those two cars were near reversals of his styling regime.

    1. The Bangle retraction process had begun even earlier, when the E90 Three was developed.

      My personal assumption, which may or may not hold water, is that then-CEO, Helmut Panke, was less willing to follow Bangle’s ideas than his predecessors.

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