Introducing the first of a four-day meditation from the DTW editorial team: reconsidering the E65 Siebener on its 2oth anniversary.
Why are we still discussing the E65? It’s because twenty years ago it mattered when BMW produced a new model. As a clear leader in automotive engineering, people interested in the intellectual challenges of designing better cars looked to BMW’s products for clues about the rate and direction of progress. Retrospectively, we still wonder about whether BMW’s thinking was wrong, ahead of its time or instructive. Or a combination of all three.
The E65 attempted to answer some pressing questions, offering solutions to the problem of a changing market, solutions that many did not understand at the time or could accept. The first change in the market related to Europe’s ageing population and a greater awareness of the urgent need to design to accommodate this. The second change concerned the integration of more controls for features because (a) more features were inevitable and (b) more features could be offered.
The E65 had to showcase a new styling direction for this too. BMW’s Chris Bangle wished for BMW to carve up some new ground. He wanted to move BMW away from evolution and towards greater heterogeneity in the brand’s styling vocabulary. Ford played with New Edge and Renault demonstrated confidence during this period. So, Bangle’s experimental approach could not be called an anomaly.
Looking at BMW’s launches we can see the search for a new direction under Bangle´s command, in part a reaction to the 1997 3-series. That car wore a festival of lines and followed a path consistent with previous model changes in the Three lineup. Then X5 appeared in 1999 as the next major product – it’s a mix of sharp lines and soft surfaces, an uncertain-looking thing. In 2000, the retro Z8 emerged, a toy for film makers more than a serious addition to the range. In the diversity of the designs you can sense the uncertainty or the probing of a way forward.
Only the X5 hints at the surprise that the E65 would provoke: it’s technicalesque in places and suggests product design solutions . So, in these four cars there’s evidence of a search for a new expression for BMW values. The tropes that make the E65 so distinctive show up most clearly in the 1999 Z9 concept.
We can infer from the timelines of car production that management signed off the E65 before the Z9’s styling froze: the Z9 is most likely a retrospective concept car, intended to soften the blow of an unexpected production car already barrelling down the duct. The same distinctive boot-lid principle can be seen on the E65 and Z9, as can some of the sharper folds in the body work. The grille and lamps are clearly a step forward from other BMWs; the flanks’ surfacing is plain; the rear door shut-line is the same as the E65.
Could one perhaps guess that the BMW E65 ought to have looked like a four door version of the Z9? Packaging most probably doomed the convincing boot-lid design of the Z9.
Whereas the Z9’s bootlid and rear quarter panel look like two equally important volumes, the E65’s bootlid is clearly secondary. The shutline placement really gets in the way whereas on the Z9 a much better placement avoids sending distracting signals.
What one gets from the E65 is a sense of compromise. Aspects of the design could have been the usual evolution of the previous 7. Grafted on to it are the peculiarly fussy headlamps (while the grille is quite predictable). The awkward boot-lid suggests the tail lamps continue on behind the shut-line, that there’s more lamp waiting when you lift the boot lid. The matter of accommodating older customers who like a higher H-point plus the fact people were getting taller every decade meant also the car lost the sleek proportions of predecessors: it’s a big, square thing, the E65. Like the Lancia Thesis, it’s a car that’s a shade too tall for its length – and it is not a short car.
Inside the car, the burgeoning feature count and increased functionality resulted in the deployment of a menu-selector in the centre console. And like most car companies, BMW found adding a large screen incredibly disruptive of the long-established norms for dashboard architecture. The dual-cowl could be justified on theoretical grounds: it makes semantic sense to articulate the new set-up. The result is a very thick wedge of plastic between the speedo panel and navigation panel. That its profile derives from the continuation of the surface right of the cowl is not apparent.
The i-Drive control succumbed to a problem Citroen knew from decades past. This is the conflict between ease-of-first-use versus maximum possible effectiveness. The multiple-functions the i-Drive can operate offer more choice to the driver but also crowd out basic functions. Ergonomically, it places high demands on the driver’s concentration which probably results in a sense of stress and anxiety: do I change the back seat temperature now via a dive into the sub-menus or wait 20 minutes until I get to a safe place to stop?
Unlike Citroen’s concept which dealt with frequently used controls and works very nicely, the functions embedded in the i-Drive could most probably be ignored. So, in a sense BMW offered more functions and then locked them away under a metallic mushroom, to be safely disregarded forever after.
One might be forgiven for thinking I don’t much care for the E65 and on balance, I don’t. I can respect the attempt to explore new concepts. It’s the execution that bothers me still; I also think that the 7 was the wrong place to set off some styling H-bombs. The Z9 concept hints at a more appropriate stage for surprising and emotive design experiments. The trouble is that the eventual application of the Z9’s features didn’t work too well on the 2003 6-series either. The sculpting didn’t support the kinds of shut-lines that can either disappear or be actively attractive graphics.
The ergonomics of the i-Drive needed further consideration. For designers used to toggling around CAD controls (in an office, at zero kmph) the compass-style menu works really well. I speak from experience: you can fly around a complex, multi-menu interface at the speed of thought. Context makes all the difference though and such an interface is at odds with the high-cognitive demands of driving a 1900 kg car at 140 kmph in traffic.
The E65 was an important car – it’s the last 7 I can remember bothering to look at and I still think about the design. BMW got its toes burned with the experience and so subsequent iterations of the 7 have been unremarkable in a way the predecessors never were. The E65, on the other hand, at least warrants examination and re-examination.
BMW was right to address the new requirements of consumers. What they might have done differently was to challenge the philosophy of more-is-more when it comes to functionality. Customers could have lived with the exterior styling but the i-Drive was likely seen as a nuisance more than a necessity.
A selection of DTW authors will present their views of the E65 over the coming days.
 The official BMW timeline does not refer to the E65.