BMW Has Evolved, But It Hasn't Lost Its Way, Automaker Exec Says
Many hardcore enthusiasts think BMW has fallen from grace. This legendary Bavarian brand became famous for building engaging, sophisticated vehicles that were the envy of the auto industry.
But today, many think the company’s “Ultimate Driving Machine” tagline is watered down by a swollen product range comprised largely of crossover vehicles with a few hybrids thrown in as an electrified twist of the knife.
Reinforcing this opinion, BMWs have become more commodity items than coveted automobiles. Last year, it was the top-selling luxury car company in the U.S. with nearly 350,000 vehicles delivered; it was also the most popular premium automotive brand globally in 2015.
But has the company really strayed that far from its enthusiast roots? A chat with Hildegard Wortmann, senior vice-president of BMW product management and aftersales, put things into perspective.
Plenty of Performance
Asked point-blank whether BMW has lost its way, Wortmann said, “No, I would be surprised to hear that question.” Many people seem to have forgotten that the company still offers a wide range of high-performance vehicles and it even unveiled another one in Motown, the new M2 coupe, which promises to be a true driver’s machine.
“For me, I always call it the ‘little devil,’ ” said Wortmann commenting on this new model. “I think for the M enthusiasts and BMW enthusiasts, it’s a great piece.”
Comparisons between the company’s classic 2002 model and the new M2 are obvious and Wortmann said, “I think it shows where the roots are, where the genes of the brand are … I’m sure it [the M2] will be a top seller.”
There are plenty of M fans in the U.S. and the brand’s M3 and M4 cars are doing extremely well in this market. Wortmann said the new M2 has enormous potential here.
Bookending the Brand
BMW remains the core of the automaker, but it’s a brand flanked by two other divisions. M, of course, services the needs of driving enthusiasts, while i is the company’s sustainable transportation division.
“As times are changing, as consumers are changing, as the environment is changing, you need to make sure that you are carefully evolving your brand as well,” said Wortmann. Simply put, if BMW focused solely on performance, it would lead to a dead-end road in the 21st century.
SEE ALSO: 2016 BMW M2 Coupe Will Cost You $52,695
“I think what we’ve clearly proven over the last years is that … [we’ve] ensured that the brand at any point in time is future proof,” noted Wortmann, thanks to this three-pronged strategy. They can appeal to ravenous enthusiasts and they can offer squeaky-clean vehicles, all while continuing to attract traditional luxury buyers.
The Spice of Life
One complaint many have had about BMW is the confusing range of vehicles it offers. What separates a 4 Series Gran Coupe from a 3 Series Gran Turismo? How is an X6 different from a 5 Series GT? What does all of this mean?
Breaking things down, Wortmann explained, “We have to offer a certain variety of different concepts and different products.” Continuing, she said, “I think the times are gone where somebody buys a 3 Series 10 times in a row. They go and buy a 3, then they go for an X1 … then they go for a four-door coupe or something else.”
This is a prime reason why BMW offers such a broad portfolio of different vehicles; to appeal to more customers and to keep existing buyers coming back for more.
But will there ever be too many product variants? “BMW founded, for example, the segment of the sports activity coupe with the X6 [in 2008] and at that time, everybody thought, ‘My God, how niche can you go?’,” said Wortmann. But customers have responded. “We have sold far over 160,000 of those, so I wouldn’t call it a niche anymore.” So, what appears to offer limited appeal may actually be quite popular around the world.
Likewise, drivers have flocked to the rest of BMW’s crossover offerings. “I mean, if you look at the Spartanburg plant, it’s just produced over 400,000 X models,” Wortmann said. “It’s the biggest single plant of the BMW Group now worldwide.”
Additionally, on the performance side, BMW actually has dramatically less complexity than one of its key adversaries. According to Wortmann, Mercedes-Benz AMG is the M division’s arch rival; Audi’s RS is “far behind in the U.S.” Despite having a greater variety of vehicles, they haven’t been as successful.
“If you look at their range, they’re doing less volume than we do with 18 [AMG] models and we’re doing it with nine models.” How’s that for simplicity?
Too Much Technology?
Another complaint purists might lodge against BMW is the proliferation of distracting technology, features that may detract from the joy of driving. Defending their position as a leader in the market, Wortmann said, “There’s no issue with offering new technologies as long as you make sure that it’s doable for the customer.”
“There’s no point of putting 600,000 different apps into a car for just the sake of having the most apps,” Wortmann added. Things have to work and be easily understood by drivers, which is something BMW strives for, though it doesn’t always work. The original iDrive system, for example, was almost universally lambasted, though it has been much improved in the years since it launched.
Even if some customers aren’t a fan of the latest and greatest, this company has no plans to back down. Wortmann said, “BMW stands for innovation, and that’s certainly what we’ll continue.”
To some, BMW may have sold out, but perhaps that’s the wrong way of looking at this company. It still offers a broad stable of high-performance vehicles, but at the same time, has broadened its appeal by offering top-notch technology and sustainable-transportation options.
Assuaging enthusiasts’ fears Wortmann said, “So of course BMW, whatever we do, is the Ultimate Driving Machine, and that’s what it’s going to stay.”
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Born and raised in metro Detroit, Craig was steeped in mechanics from childhood. He feels as much at home with a wrench or welding gun in his hand as he does behind the wheel or in front of a camera. Putting his Bachelor's Degree in Journalism to good use, he's always pumping out videos, reviews, and features for AutoGuide.com. When the workday is over, he can be found out driving his fully restored 1936 Ford V8 sedan. Craig has covered the automotive industry full time for more than 10 years and is a member of the Automotive Press Association (APA) and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).
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