Yes, that’s right: it’s now easily possible to blow seventy thousand dollars or more on a two-liter, four-cylinder BMW sedan. The image you see above is not an attempt to make the most expensive 528i possible; it’s simply a car with most of the options. The ones you’d want, like the best sound system and the heated/cooled seats.
Of course, most of the cheapo Funfers you’ll see on the street won’t be loaded like this; they’ll be $53,000 Premium-Packaged specials designed to lease for $600 a month including tax. In other words, they’re base Delta 88s, and the one above is a Delta 88 Royale Brougham. BMW has become Oldsmobile circa 1973, the same way Mercedes-Benz has become Cadillac circa 1973. Were you alive for the Seventies? Did you enjoy the era? I hope you did, because it’s returning. Brougham is back, baby. With a vengeance.
Surely you didn’t think the party would last forever. Surely you didn’t think that the combination of rising fuel prices and rapacious insurance rates and a stagnant economy would produce anything but the conditions that they produced forty years ago. The only difference is that last time, OPEC accidentally burned its consumer-frogs and they jumped out of the pan — into Hondas, into anything with four cylinders, into a President begging Americans to put on a sweater in their own houses. This time the cost of fuel has been turned up relatively slowly and as a result many of us have found ourselves boiling behind the wheel of a Tahoe or Tundra or BMW X5, watching the pump ring past seventy or eighty dollars once or twice every week.
“But wait,” I can hear you saying. “You forgot another reason the cars of the early Seventies sucked: they had ridiculous bumper regulations that put a hundred pound’s worth of steel and hydraulic rams out at both ends of the car.” True… but look at what European pedestrian-safety regulations are doing to modern cars. Today’s EU-compliant car is at least six inches higher at the A-pillar/doorsill interaction point than its immediate predecessor and as much as a foot higher than the sleek Bimmers or Benzes of the Seventies. I’d rather have an old Mercedes SL with the big bumpers. Hell, I do have a Mercedes SL with the big bumpers. I found myself face-to-face with a new SLK350 in traffic the other day. It was like looking up at a minivan.
“Fair enough,” you might respond, “but what about the emissions regulations that hung thermal reactors and first-generation cats and CVCC on once-mighty engines, reducing them to shadows of their former selves?” There’s a modern equivalent to that as well, and as with the pedestrian regulation, it’s coming from the Europeans this time, not Richard Nixon. CO2 “emissions” have become as important to the bureaucrats of Brussels as volatile organics were to California smog regulators in 1973. The only difference is that CARB’s efforts eventually bore tangible fruit, mostly because Los Angeles is pretty far away from China’s coal-burning power plants.
Carbon dioxide is a natural byproduct of combustion that occurs at pretty much the rate of combustion, so the only way you can avoid being taxed into the depths of your colon by Euro-regulators is to reduce the amount of fuel you burn. Or, I should say, the amount of fuel you burn during EU testing. This could theoretically be handled with cylinder deactivation but in Europe the authorities often seem to be willing and able to enforce the spirit, rather than the letter, of the law.
Which is how we’ve stumbled into this turbo-four-cylinder stupidity. Let me clearly delineate the hierarchy of common gasoline-burning engine designs for those of you who are new to this, from best and most admirable to least interesting:
Gas turbine a la Chrysler experimental
The Sea Of Despair across which manufacturers travel when cost, regulations, or packaging considerations make it necessary. Above this line are things you want to drive, below it are compromises.
The addition of a turbocharger to any of the engines above does not dramatically change their desirability; witness the degradation of the Audi S5 when it abandoned the sublime, throaty 4.2 V-8 for a blown chugger of a V-6. Supercars are never designed to take one of those compromise engine types; on the rare occasion when one is substituted, as with the Jaguar XJ220, it ruins the car’s desirability. Think about it: the XJ220 didn’t just use any V-6, it used one that was designed and built from the freaking ground up as a competition engine. It used an engine that was in Group B, in a car designed by Williams Grand Prix. Then they turbocharged it on top of that…
…and people still said, “Oh, it’s a V-6″. But if the V-6 is a despicable bastardy born of the necessity to fit more twist under the noses of transverse prole-mobiles, the inline four is yet still more miserable. It’s the community college of engines. It’s poverty and misery on the trot. It’s unbalanced and it sounds lousy and it looks stupid and it is about the last thing you’d ever willingly have in a car. Yes, I know that there are many Honda fans who sing rapturous praises about their paint-shakers, but consider this: the one time that sainted Honda really decided to take a swing at building something that was awesome, without regard for efficiency or even decency, what did they build? Don’t say NSX, dumb-ass; that was meant from the start to be a practical alternative to dreamy V-8-powered Ferraris that were themselves meant to be practical alternatives to dreamier V-12-powered Ferraris.
Honda’s moonshot was the CBX.
The world’s first Japanese straight-six production motorcycle.
There was a time when all the great luxury cars came with inline sixes, and that time was known as “The Nineties”. Sure, the Jaguar XJ6 had an inline six, as did the majestic, unparalleled E34-generation BMW 535i. But did you know that even Mercedes-Benz had a proper six? It’s true. Even the despised W210 was a straight-six in both gasoline and diesel until the facelift, when a V-6 took over for petrol-power applications. Your humble author managed to win his class in One Lap of America driving one of the last straight-six Mercedes Benz automobiles — the W211 E320 CDI. There are rumors that M-B might bring the straight-six back, but so far the rumors haven’t taken any tangible form. Let’s hope.
If you look at the current sedan range from Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Jaguar, however, you won’t see very many of those proper engines. Instead, you’ll see a range of… turbo fours. The bulk of the 3-Series and 5-Series and C-Class and A4 range now runs on the same number of cylinders as the Chevrolet Chevette. And too often, your only option is for a V-6, usually one with a blower of some type hanging off the exhaust.
The bright bulbs at BMW and Benz are already considering the fact that there’s no need to have long noses in the next generation of mid-sizers. A four-cylinder will be the majority engine and a small-displacement V-8 with high-pressure turbos will satisfy the AMG and M crowd. Better to have a short, tall front end for pedestrian impact. As long as you’re doing that, you can move the hip point up to make the transition from CUV to My First Luxury Sedan a little bit more palatable.
But that’s not enough to satisfy the coming regulatory and societal demands. The entry-luxury car needs to be radically lighter and lower-powered to meet 98-gram CO2 requirements. It will need a higher hood and a shorter front overhang and it will need to be oddly-shaped for maximum aero and,
most of all,
it will need to be slower. The Euros have always had slow “luxury cars”, whether we’re talking 516i or 280SEL, but this time around the Americans won’t escape the pain, because the things that make the cars slow will be baked into them. The W126 was available with everything from a 2.8-liter six to a 5.6-liter V-8 but we no longer live in an era where you can engineer that kind of variance into a platform. It’s wasteful. Better to engineer around the four-cylinder and turn up the boost, a la CLA and CLA45.
The sublime everyday excellence of something like a previous-generation 528i or an old W124 300E is going to disappear. Hell, it’s already disappeared. Does anybody think the current BMW sedans are improvements on their predecessors? Of course not. Audi and Mercedes-Benz are starting, frankly speaking, from a lower base so we don’t mourn the old A6 or E320 quite as much — but that doesn’t mean the new cars are in any way outstanding.
We’ve turned a corner, the same way we turned a corner in 1973. Tomorrow’s cars will be slower, uglier, less interesting, less enthusiast-friendly. Forget nostalgia for the E46 — nostalgia for the E90 and E60 is where it’s at now, and it’s justified nostalgia. New cars, with their popcorn-popper forced-induction four-bangers tucked beneath twelve inches of foam padding and plastic modesty panels, are less desirable than they’ve been in forty years.
The auto industry isn’t made up of stupid people. They know what’s going on, same as we do. And they know what the playbook calls for in this situation. They know what the proven success methods are, because they can read a history book and a new-car sales sheet just as well as we can. It’s easy to forget that cars like the Chrysler 300 and Cadillac Coupe de Ville were once performance cars in the Fifties. It’s easy to forget that, once upon a time, the luxury car buyer expected to leave poor people in his dust up a steep hill or down a long highway. BMW and Mercedes-Benz didn’t invent the idea of an expensive car that happened to be faster than what the average man on the street could afford.
Come 1973, even five hundred smog-strangled cubic inches couldn’t make Cadillacs fast enough to matter, the same way the super-puffer AMG four-cylinder won’t really impress anyone by the time it gets dropped in a two-ton E-Class. The underhood arms race has come to an end. Sure, there will continue to be fast cars, the same way you could run thirteens in a Trans Am in 1975, but most mass-market vehicles will be slower than their predecessors in the years to come. The sporting pretensions of the 3-Series and the C-Class will be slowly disassembled by low-power engines and low-rolling-resistance tires. What will be left?
The answer will come easily to anybody who remembers 1975. In place of speed and power and beauty, we will have prestige and upscale appeal and market positioning. You won’t buy a BMW because it smokes down a back road; you’ll buy a BMW because it’s expensive and because it has “DNA” from a car that once smoked down a back road. You’ll buy a Mercedes because it has a three-pointed LED star on it and because you dimly remember taking a ride in a CL65 AMG once. The “heritage” predecessors will appear in the ads more often; one way to know that a brand is bankrupt of ideas is when you see the new cars juxtaposed with the old ones on television.
There will be more toys, more options, more Individual things to make your car more “personal”. More special editions, more shades of window-frame trim, more wheels, more bumper treatments. More gadgets, more connectivity to distract you from the fact that you’re not ripping the tread off the tires down the freeway entrance ramp.
Already we’re seeing engine nomenclature disappear from the trunks and fenders of prestige automobiles as engines shrink and horsepower drops. If the Germans are smart, they’ll eventually dispense with it entirely, replacing badges like “E250″ with simple “E” or “5” or something like that. The big money options won’t be powerplants anymore; they’ll be complex packages of luxury and technology and interior trim. At some point, somebody is going to need a name for these packages, something to clearly demonstrate to the valet who has the $50,000 four-cylinder BMW and who has the $100,000 four-cylinder BMW. I have a few suggestions. They’re all time-tested and proven to work in situations like this: