BMW's Ultimatum

bmws ultimatum
According to BMW’s ad for its M products, “history and compromise cannot be made at the same time.” Huh? What about The Missouri Compromise, the Camp David accord and The SALT treaty? The headline’s patent absurdity is capped by the copy’s intellectual inanity. “Nothing about our M cars is a compromise.” Anyone familiar with automaking knows it’s nothing but compromise: design vs. packaging vs. performance vs. technology vs. price vs. regulations vs. cost vs. time vs. internal and external resources. To suggest otherwise isn’t just wrong, it’s nuts. A very strange kind of nuts…

Obviously, the German automaker fancies itself a company apart: the last great independent automobile manufacturer. Which is almost true and fair enough. But it’s one thing to weave a less tangled corporate web than your conglomerated competitors, and quite another to advertise the fact. It’s hard to imagine a potential Zephyr, 9-3 or LS430 buyer opting for an equivalent Bimmer simply because Lincoln, Saab and Toyota nestle within larger corporate structures. On the sharp end, it’s “don’t know, don’t care.”

Of course, BMW’s latest ads are designed to make you care; to explain how the company’s independence ultimately produces ultimate driving machines. Quite apart from the ads’ creepy subtext (Aryan purity produces purebred automobiles) and the strange non-sequiturs born of megalomania (“It is a high-performance vehicle that actually exists in the real world”), it’s simply not true. The dreaded iDrive mouse-driven multi-media controller proves that BMW’s corporate independence doesn’t guarantee “the pursuit of great ideas.” More to the point, BMW no longer produces “the ultimate driving machine.”

At the risk of being over-literal, which BMW model would that be? Yes, the M3 is a truly magnificent motor, well worth a seat in the Driver’s Car Hall of Fame. But anyone who’s driven a Porsche 911 or Ferrari knows the M3 doesn’t even play in the same league as these phenomenal foreigners. You could argue the point on price– the M3 offers maximum pistonhead pleasure for a more accessible entry fee– if BMW let you. Their M ad clearly states “We refuse to subject them [BMW’s M cars] to money-saving shortcuts or mass production.”

In truth, enthusiasts have known for over a decade that BMW has lost the plot. The company’s campaign to expand into every product niche extant has sacrificed their cars’ unique selling point on the altar of growth and profit. How can an SUV– any SUV– be an ultimate driving machine? Although you can credit the X5 for at least trying to satisfy the brand proposition, the X3’s execrable ride and handling demonstrate the company’s complete lack of commitment to their creed. By the same token, the rest of BMW’s product line has become heavier in weight and lighter in steering. The 6-Series is a travesty.

Look closely and the evidence of BMW’s ultimate brand betrayal is everywhere: the fitment of stiff run-flat tires (that tramline on smooth pavement), disastrous ergonomics (what happened to the driver-angled console?), compromised visibility, over-complicated driver interfaces (column-mounted shift knobs, starter buttons and the world’s worst gearbox); even Chris Bangles’ fussy exterior shapes reveal a distinct turn away from the company’s former focus on driver satisfaction. The fact that BMW hasn’t built a convincing answer to Porsche's Boxster in ten years tells the tale.

And now BMW is putting Dr. Norbert Reithofer at the helm. Dr. R is Bimmer’s production go-to guy, the man who ensured that the company’s factories in South Africa and Spartanburg, South Carolina created profitable products worthy of international export. In his treatise “The Fascinating Power of Production – Worldwide Competence in Producing Premium Products,” Dr. R touted the fact that Bimmer’s production process meant that luxobarge customers could have it their way, choosing from variations that “amount to 10 to the power of 17- that is 100,000,000,000,000,000, which is an incredibly high number.” Yes it is. It’s also a very revealing one. Instead of boasting that BMW makes one ultimate driving machine, Dr. R took pride in 100 quadrillion possible variations.

I suppose it only makes sense. When a car company loses focus, it can either accept the fact that it’s lost its way and begin the long, painful and expensive process of returning to its roots (wither Cadillac), or it can widen its original remit to justify– if not celebrate– it’s more expansive agenda. BMW's ad campaign and Dr. R’s appointment tell us which way BMW’s wind is blowing. They formalize Bimmer’s hugely successful growth-oriented philosophy, and ensure its continuation. Never mind that BMW no longer “sticks to the knitting.” The company has never been so profitable.

And yet, history will record that BMW’s decline began even as it entered its most vigorous period of growth. Ironically enough, the automaker’s fate was sealed years ago, when the company compromised it core value in the pursuit of profit.

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  • Crackity jones Crackity jones on Jul 24, 2006

    I agree with you. I do like the BMW SUV's. (I know that's crazy talk.) They do what they're set out to do. They look rugged. They drive great. And the X3 doesn't feel like a German car it's so generously proportioned inside. Also, I like the idea behind iDrive. I do like tech in vehicles. The issue I have is interface and usability. It's slow and not attractive-looking.

  • Josh365 Josh365 on Oct 06, 2006

    Why are all of you so upset about Bmw's path to success??? Business is business!!! Don't be upset, just buy what you like and be happy. Their sales and substantial profits are due to "intelligent marketing" and a history of great cars!! That said, look at the empirical data below. All figures in Billions: Source: BMW Gross Sales=60.16 Net Profit=3.01 Volkswagen Group Gross Sales= 112.61 Net Profit=1.32 Porsche Germany Gross Sales= 7.97 Net Profit=0.95 DaimlerChrysler Gross Sales=177.04 Net Profit= 3.36 The only company that beats Bmw's net profit margin is Porsche and they do make fabulous cars. I own one myself and enjoy every moment of it. So, the moral of the story is, Bmw does what it does best:-) I do love various makes and models of automobiles, however, Bmw has had a fine line of vehicles through the ages!!! Note: I didn't list Japanese or any countries' auto makers here for the sake of the subject!

  • DenverMike When was it ever a mystery? The Fairmont maybe, but only the 4-door "Futura" trim, that was distinctively upscale. The Citation and Volare didn't have competing trims, nor was there a base stripper Maxima at the time, if ever, crank windows, vinyl seats, 2-doors, etc. So it wasn't a "massacre", not even in spirit, just different market segments. It could be that the Maxima was intended to compete with those, but everything coming from Japan at the time had to take it up a notch, if not two.Thanks to the Japanese "voluntary" trade restriction, everything had extra options, if not hard loaded. The restriction limited how many vehicles were shipped, not what they retailed at. So Japanese automakers naturally raised the "price" (or stakes) without raising MSRP. What the dealers charged (gouged) was a different story.Realistically, the Maxima was going up against entry luxury sedans (except Cimarron lol), especially Euro/German, same as the Cressida. It definitely worked in Japanese automaker's favor, not to mention inspiring Lexus, Acura and Infiniti.
  • Ronnie Schreiber Hydrocarbon based fuels have become unreliable? More expensive at the moment but I haven't seen any lines gathering around gas stations lately, have you? I'm old enough to remember actual gasoline shortages in 1973 and 1979 (of course, since then there have been many recoverable oil deposits discovered around the world plus the introduction of fracking). Consumers Power is still supplying me with natural gas. I recently went camping and had no problem buying propane.Texas had grid problems last winter because they replaced fossil fueled power plants with wind and solar, which didn't work in the cold weather. That's the definition of unreliable.I'm an "all of the above" guy when it comes to energy: fossil fuels, hydro, wind (where it makes sense), nuclear (including funding for fusion research), and possibly solar.Environmental activists, it seems to me, have no interest in energy diversity. Based on what's happened in Sri Lanka and the push against agriculture in Europe and Canada, I think it's safe to say that some folks want most of us to live like medieval peasants to save the planet for their own private jets.
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  • MaintenanceCosts There's no mystery anymore about how the Japanese took over the prestige spot in the US mass market (especially on the west coast) when you realize that this thing was up against the likes of the Fairmont, Citation, and Volaré. A massacre.