For many of the brand’s faithful, a front-driver BMW is a revolting prospect. It’s the four-wheeled equivalent of tofu-based bacon or a cigarette without nicotine. But BMW is banking on small cars in a big way – their new front drive architecture, dubbed UKL, will underpin as many as 12 front-drive products from BMW and Mini. And frankly, not doing a front-drive range would be a display of poor judgement on the part of management.
Lest anyone accuse me of apostasy, let’s look at the facts. Mercedes-Benz did a front-drive platform and survived. Audi is making some of the most significant advancements in modern automobile production with the new A3 which uses – you guessed it – the front-drive MQB platform. Both of these auto makers have BMW squarely in the sights. They want to overtake BMW as the number one premium auto maker, and they can easily do it – unless BMW builds a front-drive car of their own.
Notice how the front-drivers from Mercedes and Audi are all compact hatchbacks while the serious stuff, the models we all know and love, use longitudinal layouts and rear or all-wheel drive? That’s not going to change any time soon at those two companies or BMW. All three of them are smart enough to know that their core vehicles need to retain this layout for a number of reasons.
But the post-recession era has seen a whole new segment of luxury vehicles pop up; the premium small car. Many are tempted to write off cars like the Mini, the Fiat 500 and the Opel Adam as limp-wristed compacts for self-concious urbanites who wouldn’t dare condescend to a mainstream economy car. In many parts of the world, it’s not just strivers who buy these cars, but financially secure (and even the truly wealthy) consumers who don’t want or need a larger car. Parking, vehicle taxes, fuel consumption, emissions and other factors can all be taken into account as well, but sales of these cars are on the rise and BMW wants a piece of the action. And it doesn’t look like it will be so terrible. European media have already driven powertrain mules of the new 3-cylinder engine set to be used in the UKL cars. How does a 221-horsepower turbocharged three-banger sound?
The only way to build any kind of car these days is maximize the economies of scale. The development of a new car costs billions, and the best way to amortize this is to do what Volkswagen did – build everything from the Polo to the next-generation Passat on one modular architecture. Ironically, Volkswagen took their cues from BMW, who had a “1.0″ version of the modular platform in effect with the 3-Series and 5-Series.
For BMW to make the investment in an all-new architecture worthwhile, they’re going to have to spread UKL around as much as possible – that means a new 1-Series with sedan, coupe, convertible, hatchback and crossover variants (1-Series GT anyone?), as well as a new MINI and all the variants that entails. This is the kind of thing that makes “enthusiasts” (of the sort with very narrow definitions of what a car should be) roll their eyes, but for better or worse, this is the way things are done in the automotive world these days. And if BMW’s projections are correct, you better get used to it real fast – an interview with Automotive News has one BMW exec stating that UKL vehicles are expected to account for 40 percent of BMW Group’s global sales within a decade.