By on March 20, 2010

The NYTimes reports that Norbert Reithofer, CEO of BMW AG, is thinking the unthinkable. Dr Reithofer said at a shareholders’ meeting in Munich: “We are exploring the possibility of developing a joint architecture for the front and four-wheel drive systems of these cars,” WHAT?! An FWD BMW? An act against nature. Say it isn’t so! He didn’t.

“In other words: There will be front wheel drive BMW’s in the smaller vehicle classes in the future.”

As if “Bangle-Butt” didn’t do enough damage to the BMW brand. Worried that this might have been a misquote, I snooped around for more information and it wasn’t a misquote. Nitrobahn confirms the comments. Quite what the reasoning behind this new development is, is a bit hazy, but Autoblog Green posits that the reason for BMW doing this is that the FWD chassis will make it easier for BMW to share platforms with other companies (very important when you consider that BMW is slowly turning into a minnow in a pond full of frogs) and also to reduce their fleet’s carbon emissions. I’ll keep my eyes open for stories in the papers of BMW fans beating greenies to death with the rear axle off a BMW M3.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

56 Comments on “BMW Does The Unthinkable: They Go Forward...”


  • avatar
    th009

    Most BMW buyers (most of whom are not enthusiasts as such) can barely tell the difference between FWD and RWD; based on Audi’s success with the FWD/AWD combination, this change is unlikely to cost BMW many sales.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      Sad, but true. The vast majority of those who own BMWs where I live are attracted to one thing only: the propeller on the hood. They are the ones who would say what propeller. These people actually think the the awd versions are better than the RWD models and they view the awd version as superior and more “desirable”…these are the ones who should be beat with rear axle of a M3. But these are the customers that BMW markets to…So, it is safe to say that if BMW dilutes it’s recipe (as it did when it went soft on its signature steering for awhile some years ago) then it stands to lose little among its core customers by adding FWD to its lineup. Audi markets FWD/AWD and they get away with it…too bad that the marketing people have brainwashed people into thinking that most need awd…some surely do, but please, to tackle a 3 inch “snowstorm?”

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      @golden2husky:

      No one says you use the AWD system on a car like a BMW to go conquer a mountain – it’s there to make the car more usable in winter conditions.

      Powerful RWD sports sedan with performance tires + a few inches of snow = one helluva lousy commute. Yes, you can buy snow tires, but who wants to hassle with that?

      I live in Denver and see RWD M/B and BMW performance sedans struggling up hills in stop-and-go traffic all the time.

    • 0 avatar
      twonius

      you may have awd but everyone has 4 wheel brakes (well most of us anyway). If its so bad that you think you need awd.. you need snow tires too.

    • 0 avatar
      th009

      Reinforcing my earlier point, BMW’s CEO Norbert Reinhofer is quoted in this morning’s Automotive News Europe: “Believe it or not, 80 percent of BMW 1-series owners believe they are driving a front-wheel-drive car. Given that today is March 22, I promise this is not an early April Fools’ Day joke.”

  • avatar
    HerrKaLeun

    Let’s welcome BMW to the 21st century. FWD for smaller motors, AWD for larger engines. More economical, better performance.
    Sometimes people have to think outside their 19th century RWD box.

    Let’s tackle the iDrive that distracts from driving

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Now they can merge with Honda.

  • avatar
    tced2

    For smaller cars, moving the entire drive train to the ends of the car obtains better space efficiency. Probably the rear engine/rear drive configuration is the most efficient with steering on the front wheels. It does have a compromised trunk. I wonder who has that configuration?
    Front engine/front drive with steering on the front yields the best space utilization. But has compromised steering because the front wheels are doing two jobs.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      Front engine/drive has the added advantage of allowing that mass to help protect passengers since most accidents are frontal. Rear engine/drive requires that the gas tank go up front to maintain weight distribution, increasing the risk of rupture in those frontal accidents.

    • 0 avatar
      tced2

      I forgot to mention that the move to smaller cars gets you a lighter car – all other things being equal. A lighter car gets you better fuel economy. And the District of Control is pushing better fuel economy.

    • 0 avatar
      HerrKaLeun

      this rear engine concept might work for Porsche… but Porsche drivers have a real car to do their normal driving. Most BMW I assume are 1st cars.

      You think a BMW is horrible in snow driving? Try the engine being back too, you gain traction, but lose steering and braking in front when road conditions are bad (hence, Porsches are not driven whne weather is bad)

      Skoda used to have that Porsche/Beetle configuration, in communist times

  • avatar
    Stingray

    This has been on the net for almost 2 weeks now. It’s an heresy. It goes against their very brand definition and I guess their own principles…

    Audi is trying to emulate RWD with their “rear-biased” AWD system and BMW is going Wrong Wheel Drive? LOL

  • avatar
    crash sled

    Well hey, BMW is making joy, and what’s more joyful than FWD?

  • avatar
    Jerome10

    MINI?

    Otherwise just more of this BMW all things to all people crap. They’d be wise to remember what made them….

    Why would I choose a BMW when they offer the exact same thing that Acura, Volvo, Lexus, Lincoln, and Audi offer?

    BMW is losing it. Simple as that.

  • avatar
    carguy

    For sub 1-series cars this is a much better solution as there are packaging problems of fitting RWD to a small hatch. Even in the 1-series hatch, the trade offs that had to be made to fit RWD really affect passenger and cargo room.

    Maybe next they can also get over the 6 cylinder obsession and start offering DI 4 cylinder turbo engines – these would be a much better choice than the entry level 3 liter 6 – particularly in the 1 series.

    • 0 avatar
      Uncle Mellow

      Our entry-level 1-Series is the 1600cc petrol , but most cars have the 2 litre diesel.
      I agree that most buyers choose BMW because of the blue and white badge on the front . I presume FWD models will still have this must-have feature.

    • 0 avatar
      ihatetrees

      For sub 1-series cars this is a much better solution as there are packaging problems of fitting RWD to a small hatch.

      That’s why the Mini brand exists. For FWD, they should expand Mini before crapping all over the BMW brand.

      Maybe next they can also get over the 6 cylinder obsession and start offering DI 4 cylinder turbo engines – these would be a much better choice than the entry level 3 liter 6 – particularly in the 1 series.

      You may have a point there – there are more engine choices euro-wise. As long as they don’t dump the I6 for a V6…

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Let’s not forget Mercedes has been building FWD cars for years, and their image and tradition was just as RWD-centric as BMW. This is no big deal.

    • 0 avatar
      Garak

      But Mercedes also builds vans (which used to be FWD from the ’60s to about 2002), trucks, buses, tractors and whatnot. BMW has a much more strictly defined brand, and building some rebadged Mini could easily dilute it.

    • 0 avatar
      Uncle Mellow

      Do you not think that the FWD Mercs have hurt their image ? OK , this in not BECAUSE they are FWD but because they are so troublesome.

  • avatar

    After I saw a Neon come 8th overall in One Lap of America, beating dozens of RWDs including BMWs, I became very unconcerned about the supposed horror of FWD that supposed enthusiasts talk up. Of course I’m no Erich Heischulle, but so is every other BMW jock who is equally not Michael Cooper.

    • 0 avatar
      twonius

      of cours FWD cars can be fast. If driving is a technical exercise in getting A-B in minimum time then a fwd or awd car is definititly worth considering.

      However pushing a FWD car around corners just isn’t that fun (for me) . That’s why enthusiasts like RWD, not necessarily because every RWD car is faster than a FWD car, but because it provides a nicer handling balance all things being equal.

      Automatics are now getting close to manual transmissions in terms of speed and fuel efficiency but (most?) enthusiasts still prefer stick.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    For us Audi drivers, how sweet it is!

  • avatar
    Hank

    Shock! HORROR! OUTRAGE!!!

    Meh. Big whoop. You don’t want a FWD? Skip it.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    And don’t worry, with EPAS, you can build-in a degree of active anti-torque-steer functionality.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Meh, Bad cess to the lot of them. I have enough spares and connections to keep my pair of’88 528es going for at least another decade. Front wheel drive is a hoot, but I’m an old fahht, and prefer hooning in RWD,just like in my ’47 GMC PU of yore. I can fix them in my driveway. My cars will be
    putterin’ along when the newer bimmers are being recycled, because the electronics goes. Not to mention flimsy cooling systems, sealed trans, plastic everywhere. None of it DIY friendly.

  • avatar
    stuki

    Why the heck could they not just have bought Saab instead, and put that badge on their transverse FWD efforts?

    I mean, FWD is one thing, but with it will also go BMW’s 50/50 weight distribution (which truthfully ain’t all that, but still “better” than any distribution with more than 50% forward.)

    Also, fat chance any manual FF gearbox, economical enough for the other parties in the joint project, will be particularly slick shifting. Unless the other party is Honda, which is highly unlikely.

    And as far as awd goes, the good ones, again excepting Honda, all have longitudinally mounted engines, anyway.

    As anyone with experience from Integra R’s can tell you, there’s nothing wrong with FF. When done right, it’s as good as anything in passenger cars under 5 meters and 200hp. But FF is just not BMW. The Miata is a great car, but that doesn’t mean Jeep ought to run out and build one. Or GMC.

    • 0 avatar
      ihatetrees

      As anyone with experience from Integra R’s can tell you, there’s nothing wrong with FF.

      With new roll over and other safety regs, could a competitive Integra R even be built today?

      I liked your Bavarian Saab idea. Although GM and various governments may have played kickback politics and ruined it.

    • 0 avatar

      +1! Good idea.
      And the bavarians could probably make a real go of it & iron out the problems.
      Maybe even share Marketing efforts; possibly even use Saab as a more volume-oriented more Volkswagen-like brand to support more expensive efforts that have higher betas.

  • avatar

    Uh BMWS been building FWD cars for years…theyre called MINIs. And yes, they probably should have bought Saab. Maybe they still will. GM would not have sold Saab to BMW for no $.5Billion(or $75M cash) though.

  • avatar
    joeveto3

    Like i-drive, and active steering, moving to front-wheel-drive is a crappy idea. I wonder what could possibly be wrong with leaving the driving experience alone, and focusing on balance, steering feel, ergonomics…Would BMW lose that many sales to the competition?

    BMW has been the leader for so long, with everyone down to Kia trying to emulate that special essence of BMW, a manufacturer of real driver’s cars…why can’t BMW simply continue to pursue excellence and continue to lead? Is there that much profit in fluff? Nevermind.

  • avatar
    niky

    Having driven a bevy of rear-wheel drive BMWs in the past few years, all I can say is… meh.

    Seriously. Most people wouldn’t know the difference between rear-wheel drive and front-wheel drive if it came up to them and slapped them on the buttocks. 99.9% of modern cars do the exact same thing when you get to a corner. They understeer. 95% of modern cars do the same thing when you give them the beans in a corner. They understeer some more.

    Unless you have a limited slip differential, driving a rear-wheel drive car nowadays is not much different from driving anything else… except without DSC or ESP, they’re squirrely in the snow.

    BMW’s cars are not much different. Everything below the M-models and the 6-series understeers just like the front-drive competition. They feel keener up to that point, because of a weight distribution that varies between 51:49 (for the big-engined ones) and 49:51 (for the small engined ones… bless them four-pots), but it’s not something that presents an overwhelmingly good reason to put up with the extremely cramped quarters of the (woefully heavy) 1-series hatchback or a possible sub-1-series BMW.

    With the MINI experiment, BMW have shown that front-wheel drive does not necessarily preclude sideways shenanigans, so I have no doubt that a front-wheel drive BMW will handle quite well… even if they take the front-i-fi-cation of BMW up to the 3 series level (though I will honestly mourn the death of the RWD 3-series if that happens). The big problem is… BMW already has MINI.

    Market cannibalization? Maybe. Maybe not, if BMW are counting on luring buyers who are off-put by the extroverted styling of the MINI line-up. Only time will tell.

    As for the other methods of lightening… word already came out a few months ago that BMW is looking to equip future 3-series cars with 1.5 liter turbocharged three-pots. The 3-liter six is only a base model in the US. Elsewhere, even the 5-series comes with the 2 liter engine… which fits the car just fine, giving it a more nimble nature and better balance than the 3 liter or V8. The 2 liter diesel gets to 5 series to 60 in under 9 seconds (closer to 8 flat if we’re talking the higher horsepower mill) and allows it to cruise at nearly 140 mph… which is far faster than anyone (anyone sane, that is) actually considers cruising.

    • 0 avatar
      ihatetrees

      Having driven a bevy of rear-wheel drive BMWs in the past few years, all I can say is… meh.

      Having driven many FWD and RWD cars and trucks, the difference is significant (to me). Is a base G8 ‘better’ than an Impala? It depends on the person…

      Seriously. Most people wouldn’t know the difference between rear-wheel drive and front-wheel drive if it came up to them and slapped them on the buttocks…

      If BMW wants to make cars for ‘most people’, they’re lost.

      BMW’s cars are not much different…

      Lack of torque steer is a major difference…

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      @ihatetrees:

      I doubt that BMW will go all Lexus on us simply because it produces a AWD/FWD car.

  • avatar
    A is A

    * There was a time when rear engined, air cooled was the “brand definition” of VW. That time is over.

    * There was a time when a Japanese branded car had to be actually “Made in Japan”. That time is over.

    * There was a time when Citröens had to be quirky, technically extravagant and with hydropneumatic suspension. That time is over.

    * There was a time when Volvos had to be boxy and simple. That time is over.

    * There was a time when Hondas had to be small and light. That time is over.

    Now it is a time when BMWs “have” to be RWD. That time will probably be over.

  • avatar
    another_pleb

    When a marque loses its “essence” (for want of a better word) and become just like its competition but with a different badge, why should anyone continue to buy it over something cheaper. BMW only has 3 marques, only one of which makes FWD cars. They should probably confine FWD to Mini.

    Citroen, to go slightly off topic, have always straddled the line between technically adventurous machines and doggedly utilitarian transportation for the hoi-polloi, including pretty much everything they produced before the TAV. Their recent cars have all been comparitively adventurous.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    First, let’s talk some sense here. No way BMW is going to start making anything larger than a 3-series on a FWD platform. Not happening. Clearly, this is a move intended to help them produce a true entry-level model, which they desperately need, as the 3-series is too pricey, and the sales-bust 1-series is, for all intents and purposes, a two-seater. A FWD platform would also be ideal for making a compact SUV.

    Having said that, does anyone really think a AWD compact BMW would be anything but a blast to drive? This talk about BMW “losing its soul” because it makes a FWD-based compact is pure rubbish – the soul of a BMW is its driving experience, and if these guys can make a two-ton SUV drive like a BMW, they can certainly do it with a compact car.

    • 0 avatar

      In fact, remember Mazda 3. It’s a ridiculous fun despite the nose weight above 60%!

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      Cars like the MINI and Mazda3 do have good dynamics, but neither matches something like a 128i or RX-8. Is the Maxima a match for the M35?
      ____
      I don’t think a compact AWD/FWD BMW will be a Corolla, but I also don’t think it will be as good as a hypothetical RWD compact BMW.

    • 0 avatar
      PanzerJaeger

      The 1-series has outsold its sales projections.

    • 0 avatar
      srogers

      A small sporty FWD BMW might help BMW remember what it’s like to build a light weight responsive car.

      Even the 1 series is a fat pig of a car – overweight and over equipped. If they want to keep their performance image, they ought to do something about this.

      These days, everyone is stuffing more power into RWD sedans and who’s going to win that race? Are you really giving up much of a driving experience by buying an Infiniti or Audi rather than a BMW? Not any more. Now it’s just a status contest.

      As a former 2002 owner, I remember a time when there was no comparison in the ‘lively sedan’ market. Since then BMW has abandoned that market to focus on high powered GTs. I’d like for them to try the small lively sedan/hatch thing again. And I think that only an FWD car can do that if it’s going to have more than 2 seats.

  • avatar
    Stingray

    “Also, fat chance any manual FF gearbox, economical enough for the other parties in the joint project, will be particularly slick shifting. Unless the other party is Honda, which is highly unlikely.”

    Negative. I’m driving a Peugeot derived car, and from an old platform (no less) and the gearbox shifting is a delight. The linkage is a frenchy complication, but it works. And takes a LOT of serious abuse without complain.

    BMW has teamed with PSA for the MINI’s engines. I guess some platform work is being done too.

  • avatar
    venator

    For a few years now from the front BMWs look like Pontiacs… Why not front-wheel-drive? They never were the “ultimate driving machines”, now they will have to stop spouting that rubbish…

  • avatar
    werewolf34

    BMW is out of ideas. They now have a product in every niche of the luxury car market.

    As the world deleverages (double-talk for less cheap debt) the number of people able to pay 40-50k for an entry-level luxury car should dwindle

    Cheaper cars including fwd for packaging purposes are necessary as BMW will need to look to emerging markets for additional customers / suckers

  • avatar
    segfault

    Reithofer went on to say, “I drove a Toyota Avalon recently, and couldn’t help but think to myself, ‘wow, this is what the 5-series should be like!’”

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    The MINI is a kick-ass little FWD car. The VW GTI is a kick-ass little FWD car. The Mazda3 is a kick-ass….and so on.

    I say let’s see what they can do before we shit ourselves over it. Remember they made the Isetta as well……

    DeLorenzo may be right this week. Audi > BMW

    I wholeheartedly disagree. Audi’s specialness was their interiors…that may not longer be the case. They build a premium FWD line (AWD sometimes), from all indications Audi’s are rather leased than bought. Resale is weak, especially out of warranty. Finally, Peter D. goes off on BMW spinning out a whole bunch of niche models….so what? They have only one brand (well, with 2 MINI models), as opposed to Audi, which is part of the VW/Skoda/Seat/Porsche family. I think the BMW GT is hideous, as well as the 6, but I can always not choose to buy them.

    Finally, 20 years ago Audi sold the 80/90 and the 100/200. They now have now have nearly as many models as BMW. Sorry, but Peter D. went way off-course on this one. If you’re going to spend $60,000, are you really going to buy the A6 before the 5 series?

  • avatar
    niky

    Note: BMW Mini gearboxes aren’t butter churns… so I expect they’ll have a good go at making a halfway decent box for a front-drive beemer.

    Ah… torque steer. Blessed torque steer. Something which most drivers never experience for themselves. The only time you get significant amounts of torque steer from a modern front-wheel drive car (as opposed to some older ones, whose less-developed drive-axle geometries ensured torque-steer even in a perfectly straight line) is when exiting a corner at full-throttle or close to it.

    Torque steer is easily minimized by proper half-shaft design, LSD application and torque curve programming (on a turbocharged car). You’ll (almost) never feel torque-steer when driving a Mini, even on track… and if BMW does a sub-1, it’ll likely drive the same. Sure, you can get bad torque-steer when you’ve got a (small) front-driver with 250-300 horses, but such can be tamed using the same tricks used to keep rear-drivers from spinning out at the slightest provocation. And you don’t even have to build in extra understeer into the chassis… like you do with rear-drivers.

    And while torque steer does corrupt steering feel, I challenge anyone to say that any modern BMW has a surplus of that…

    Handling… if you’ve driven a proper hot hatch… like a Mini Cooper S… or even a warm hatch like a Ford Focus, you’ll know that handling is basically a function of suspension design and tires. Many RWD cars are more fun to drive than most others, yes, but the few road cars left that still have RWD are mostly sports-luxury sedans, and good handling is part of the mission brief.

    You have fewer front-wheel drive vehicles whose sole intent is “sportiness”, but those that are there are pretty good. The FWD Audi TT 2.0T doesn’t often get much love, but those who have driven both this and the V6 prefer it. FWD makes it lighter, and since the chassis was developed for sporty driving, it’s adjustable and nimble and entertaining. The Focus RS, Mazdaspeed3 and Renault Megane show that you can build an entertaining chassis around a motor that’s too big, too powerful and driving the wrong wheels.

    Honda is a bad example for this. While the new Civic and Civic Type Rs also show that FWD cars can be faster than RWD with the same power, weight and tires, they show that ultimate pace requires ultimate grip, and they’re not as adjustable or engaging as they should be.

    And this comes back around to why I feel that most BMW drivers will not even notice the change. Grip. In order to keep people safe, most cars on the road today are designed with an incredible amount of rear-end grip, which means that the only thing besides grip-induced neutrality you feel in any car is the inevitable understeer you get when you push it into a corner too fast. A BMW 1-series may feel more nimble than a Ford Focus going into a corner, thanks to its quicker steering, but coming out of it (from experience), you’re more likely to get the Focus sideways than the Beemer.

    Which is why the 1-series is pointless. BMW could make the 1-series a lairy little car, like the 2002 or even the V6 Clio… but they won’t. Killing off customers by having them go off the road backwards doesn’t encourage repeat business. Thus, for all intents and purposes, a front-wheel drive BMW 1-series makes perfect sense.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    Niky, why aren’t you writing for TTAC? I, at least, find your opinions thoughtful and intelligent. I especially like that you seem to have some real world experience and can write about it with clarity. So do we have another Lang or Baruth in our midst? Anyone else of this opinion?

  • avatar
    Steven02

    FWD is lighter. It is also more efficient. So unless we are going to have more rear engine cars, RWD will be only available on dedicated sports cars, like the Corvette, Miata, etc or on very expensive cars.

  • avatar
    niky

    More efficient in the sense that front-engined front drive cars and rear-engined rear drive cars don’t need propeller shafts… this eliminates extra weight and inertia from the drivetrain, leading to better power delivery and fuel economy.

    @Jeff: I submit articles once in a blue moon. Problem is I do car reviews in Asia… but our market usually gets cars long after everyone else does, so few of my articles will be of interest to US readers. Case in point: our benchmark for the compact class is the Ford Focus that America never got, and which a fellow contributor roundly bashed (and if he spent his time in a 1.6 rental, I can understand why).

    But seeing as how Soloviow has done a review of the Innova (horrible subject for review…), there might be one or two odd things that I can post up every now and then.

    And no, I’m no Baruth. The most powerful cars I’ve driven are all 275-300 horses, and I don’t have nearly as much track experience (and possibly skill or chutzpah) as he does. I do have an appreciation of a good hoon on track, but it’s not something I get to do more than five or six times a year.

    Also, the only times I actually drive over 70 mph is when my wife isn’t tut-tutting me from the passenger seat… which is quite rarely.


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Authors

  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India