Twenty years ago, BMW was the coolest automaker in the world. I know this because I – as a young lad of less than ten, growing up in the 1990s – desperately wanted my father to purchase a BMW. And he – as a rational, middle-aged man in his 40s – ended up in a Camry with cloth seats and a tape player. He wasn’t the BMW type. He wasn’t cool enough. Back then, few were.
Remember the BMW of yore? The sharknose 6 Series. That late-1990s 7 Series (E38) that looked like the kind of thing the devil would drive, if he was late to a board meeting in Hell. The beautiful mid-1990s 5 Series (E34), and the perfect late-1990s 5 Series (E39) that followed it. The Z8. The Z3, which – although it hasn’t aged well – came out to universal acclaim in the mid-90s, and made its way into a Bond movie soon after. And then there was the 3 Series: the E30. The E36. The E46. The brand’s bread-and-butter, perfectly executed, perfectly sized, perfect to drive.
Little did we know, it was the brand’s all-time peak.
Twenty years later, here we are: the BMW of now. Gran Coupes. Gran Turismos. xDrive35i. Sports activity vehicles. iDrive. And a front-wheel drive electric car with a trim level called Giga World. I swear that if a meeting ever took place between the two BMW eras, 1990s BMW would punch 2010s BMW in the face and give it a wedgie while it was lying on the ground.
Things have gotten so bad that there’s kind of a running understanding among modern car enthusiasts that BMW has turned to crap. It’s like when you’re on a boat, and you’re rapidly taking on water. Nobody says you’re taking on water, but it’s plain to see: there you are, in the middle of the ocean, with minnows swimming around your ankles.
Essentially, the problems are as follows: the cars are bloated. The segments make no sense. The names are bizarre. And what the hell is the 2 Series Active Sports Tourer? Is that a joke? Are we supposed to pretend that thing simply doesn’t exist?
So my question today is: what the hell happened? Where did BMW go wrong? When did the once almighty BMW, the ambassador of cool, the diplomat of debonair (eh? EH?!), finally go off into the deep end and lose the plot? I’ll give you my theory – and below, you can submit yours.
My theory: it wasn’t a car that caused BMW to lose it. It was an all-out, no-holds-barred sales-chasing mentality; the kind of mentality Chrysler has with the rental fleets. I think it was this strategy – and not the vehicles themselves – that led to the decline of BMW. Essentially, it was the moment the automaker went from “How can we make this car cooler?” to “Why don’t we have a vehicle in the all-wheel drive rhombus segment?”
Of course, the “sell everything” mentality dramatically affected the products. Out went the careful styling decisions and the restrained lineup; in came segment-busting products and low-payment lease deals. The 3 Series grew huge. The X1 came into existence. And the 5 Series went from “desirable and stealthy” to “enormous and anonymous.”
But in my opinion, none of that would’ve happened if BMW had remained happy with the status quo: build cool cars, and sell a lot of them. Not tons of them, mind you. Not zillions. Not eleven crossovers and twelve variants of the 3 Series. But enough cars to generate a big profit while retaining the “cool guy” image.
So, what say you? Where do you think BMW took a wrong turn?