BMW has always held a special place in my list of carmakers. After the end of WWII, they were in tatters, like the other German car companies. But, in the 1960s and 1970s, their commitment to making cars that could make the driver grin endlessly (for a price) gave them a reputation of being a bit of an upper middle class car guy’s hero, in that for the price of a Cadillac or a Mercedes sedan, you could get a car that was capable of brightening your melancholy day with just a squeeze of the gas pedal and a turn of the wheel. But that was nearly 40 years ago, and based on what I’m seeing in the news (and what I’ve driven in the past year or two), I’m skeptical of their old motto.
BMW’s well-known mantra has been “The Ultimate Driving Machine”. For years, they definitely lived up to it, with such thrillers as the M3 and M5, thanks to screaming I4s and I6s, as well as the E60’s simply melting V10 engine. Nothing matched the poise, or the drama, or the outpouring of love from the automotive press (and owners) praising BMW’s perfection. But, I think that’s changing. BMW may be getting a little full of themselves. The same thing, in a sense, happened to Toyota. Once a reputation gets to your head, you have two options. One is ignoring this and continuing to do your job to the best of your ability, but the other (and the one that I think a lot of car companies have done, unfortunately) is to rest on your laurels and do the same thing you were doing, improving only a bit.
BMW did the latter, and I’m really embarrassed to find myself saying this. Over the past two years, I’ve driven the new 3, 6, and 7 Series, along with the previous generation E90 3 Series (I also took a short drive of the E46, but that wasn’t long enough to give me any impression of it), a 1997 840Ci, and a new 135i coupe. All were distinctly different, but somehow, the newer models were missing something. Could it be that BMW is losing the very qualities that got them where they are in the market now? I’m not sure, but the 6 and 7 Series, as well as the new 3-Series, do not give me much hope for BMW’s future as a driver’s car brand.
First things first, the 135i and the 328i wagon I drove in the previous year. I wasn’t completely disappointed, but I have my reservations. The E90 wagon I drove felt solid as a rock. Now, I wasn’t comparing it to the others solely because it was a BMW and I assumed it would be the best option. The BMW won my nod in that impromptu wagon rundown because it won on its own merits. Its torquey straight-6 provided a feel that made my right foot happy. The steering was accurate, well-weighted, and properly set up for a car of its size. It was expensive, but its pedigree and its build quality seemed to assure that the higher price point was justified. But then I tried the F30 328i sedan back in April of last year. The pedigree and the sense of style were still there, and so was everything that made sure my brain kept saying to me, “This is a BMW.” However, I struggled to find anything, other than the engine, that really improved my opinion of the 3-Series’s new digs. It didn’t strike me as a car ahead of its peers too much. I felt that BMW redesigned it, but didn’t put a lot of effort in. The interior wasn’t quite as logical and I found far too much “styling for styling’s sake”, the handling was very good but not that much better than the wagon I tried, and when I drove the 1-Series in January of 2012, I felt that, despite the inherent impracticality, I was sampling a far more capable car for only a bit less money. In fact, the little 135i coupe (yes, I know, different engine) felt closer to a 3-Series really should than the King itself. That’s not good news.
It gets worse as that first numeral rises. The 6 and the 7 Series are marketed differently. So I expected them to drive differently, too. I was wrong and being wrong was, in this case, disappointing to me. I like being proved wrong, and this time was a rare time where I didn’t want to be. On the same roads and in the same emergency situation (a deer jumped out in my way on both drives in Greenwich), the 6 responded just like the 7. Worse, they steered and braked alike on the backroads and didn’t stray much differently on the inside, either. I became convinced, after stepping out of the 750Li, that they were separated by just a body shell, which made me sad. In that case, considering the price difference, the 7 was, to me, a much more desirable car–which shouldn’t really make sense, as a GT car should normally be an aspirational car. The 6 just wasn’t a car to look up to as a potential dream purchase down the road, while the executive limo-style car, the 7, was a car I respected more. It dawened on me at that moment: Is BMW emphasizing driving enjoyment less, or are they trying to make their cars alike?
The truth of the matter is this. I don’t see BMW as an ultimate driving machine after the past year or so. They haven’t impressed me like others have, and in a world where we demand the roundel to be the best in its market, the roundel has consistently come up a bit short. Is BMW changing at this point? My answer: Yes. Is the change for the better? My answer: Not really. It seems that the badge is now more desirable than the car that wears it, and that worries me deeply.