While the autoblogosphere frets bout whether BMW drivers can tell which wheels drive their cars, the real news in the BMW-goes-FWD storyline is the impact that the sea change in brand strategy is expected to have on volume. Automotive News [sub] reports that BMW is developing a new family of modular gas and diesel engines, which are intended “primarily for BMW’s new front-wheel-drive architecture, but the powerplants also will be used in the automaker’s rear-wheel-drive cars,” according to CEO Norbert Reithofer. And the volume at which this new family of three, four and six-cylinder engines will be produced is one of the early indications of where BMW is going with its FWD expansion. Today, BMW sells just under 1.3m vehicles worldwide. That’s fewer cars than will be powered by this new family of engines alone, which Reithofer says will motivate 1.5m vehicles worldwide. Considering BMW’s goal is to sell 2m vehicles of all its brands by 2020, it’s clear that much of that growth will be made possible by new FWD-inclusive drivetrain technology.
According to Reithofer, 700,000 to 1 million cars per year will be built on the firm’s new FWD platform by 2014 or 2015. By contrast, BMW currently sells about 400,000 small and compact cars annually, which includes the FWD MINI and the RWD 1 Series. Furthermore, it took eight years, between 2001 and June of 2009, to produce 1.5m MINI-branded vehicles. MINI’s best sales year was 2008, when it sold about 230,000 cars. BMW’s 1-series has performed similarly, selling 225,000 units in 2008 and 217,000 in 2009 [full BMW 2009 report in PDF format here]. Clearly BMW is going to need more than one new model to make serious inroads towards its hugely ambitious goal.
Currently, Reithofer is keeping his cards fairly close to his chest. A new MINI is due in 2014 and the “BMW 0 Series” FWD model will debut shortly thereafter, positioned under the RWD 1 Series. From there, it’s anyone’s guess. Or, as Reithofer puts it, BMW can’t spill the beans “because then [VW CEO Martin] Winterkorn knows it as well.” After all, the 3800mm to 4300mm size bracket for this new platform puts it squarely in Volkswagen Golf territory, and nobody wants to compete there with a single model. The Golf is based based on a modular platform, similar in concept to BMW’s, but between its many brands and bodystyles, Volkswagen plans to build no fewer than 60 variants of the MQB (Golf) platform.
In short, BMW is planning on running right into the buzzsaw that is the most competitive segment in Europe. Of course, there’s not much choice involved in the decision, because steep ramp-ups in European emissions standards will make BMW’s current business model largely impracticable. Meanwhile, faced with the same pressure, Mercedes will be launching a similar FWD volume-grab based on platforms and technology that will emerge from ongoing talks with Renault/Nissan. Audi has already moved to downsize with its new A1, and with sales and perception momentum as well as VW’s platform synergies behind it, Ingolstadt has already stolen the march on BMW. Which means the market for premium (or not) front-drive compact cars is going to be white-hot within the next few years.
BMW is increasingly an anomaly within the auto business: a privately-owned, independent manufacturer that is not quite a focused niche player and yet also isn’t prepared to compete in the scary world of true volume automaking. With emissions standards nipping at its heels, and with growth a necessary constant for industry success, BMW has little choice but to commit to a full-on, mass-market transformation. Whether BMW can perform this shift while keeping its all-important brand equity intact is a huge open question, and one that will be answered by the firm’s execution from here on out.