BMW Does The Unthinkable: They Go Forward

Cammy Corrigan
by Cammy Corrigan

The NYTimes reports that Norbert Reithofer, CEO of BMW AG, is thinking the unthinkable. Dr Reithofer said at a shareholders’ meeting in Munich: “We are exploring the possibility of developing a joint architecture for the front and four-wheel drive systems of these cars,” WHAT?! An FWD BMW? An act against nature. Say it isn’t so! He didn’t.

“In other words: There will be front wheel drive BMW’s in the smaller vehicle classes in the future.”

As if “Bangle-Butt” didn’t do enough damage to the BMW brand. Worried that this might have been a misquote, I snooped around for more information and it wasn’t a misquote. Nitrobahn confirms the comments. Quite what the reasoning behind this new development is, is a bit hazy, but Autoblog Green posits that the reason for BMW doing this is that the FWD chassis will make it easier for BMW to share platforms with other companies (very important when you consider that BMW is slowly turning into a minnow in a pond full of frogs) and also to reduce their fleet’s carbon emissions. I’ll keep my eyes open for stories in the papers of BMW fans beating greenies to death with the rear axle off a BMW M3.

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  • Niky Niky on Mar 21, 2010

    Note: BMW Mini gearboxes aren't butter churns... so I expect they'll have a good go at making a halfway decent box for a front-drive beemer. Ah... torque steer. Blessed torque steer. Something which most drivers never experience for themselves. The only time you get significant amounts of torque steer from a modern front-wheel drive car (as opposed to some older ones, whose less-developed drive-axle geometries ensured torque-steer even in a perfectly straight line) is when exiting a corner at full-throttle or close to it. Torque steer is easily minimized by proper half-shaft design, LSD application and torque curve programming (on a turbocharged car). You'll (almost) never feel torque-steer when driving a Mini, even on track... and if BMW does a sub-1, it'll likely drive the same. Sure, you can get bad torque-steer when you've got a (small) front-driver with 250-300 horses, but such can be tamed using the same tricks used to keep rear-drivers from spinning out at the slightest provocation. And you don't even have to build in extra understeer into the chassis... like you do with rear-drivers. And while torque steer does corrupt steering feel, I challenge anyone to say that any modern BMW has a surplus of that... Handling... if you've driven a proper hot hatch... like a Mini Cooper S... or even a warm hatch like a Ford Focus, you'll know that handling is basically a function of suspension design and tires. Many RWD cars are more fun to drive than most others, yes, but the few road cars left that still have RWD are mostly sports-luxury sedans, and good handling is part of the mission brief. You have fewer front-wheel drive vehicles whose sole intent is "sportiness", but those that are there are pretty good. The FWD Audi TT 2.0T doesn't often get much love, but those who have driven both this and the V6 prefer it. FWD makes it lighter, and since the chassis was developed for sporty driving, it's adjustable and nimble and entertaining. The Focus RS, Mazdaspeed3 and Renault Megane show that you can build an entertaining chassis around a motor that's too big, too powerful and driving the wrong wheels. Honda is a bad example for this. While the new Civic and Civic Type Rs also show that FWD cars can be faster than RWD with the same power, weight and tires, they show that ultimate pace requires ultimate grip, and they're not as adjustable or engaging as they should be. And this comes back around to why I feel that most BMW drivers will not even notice the change. Grip. In order to keep people safe, most cars on the road today are designed with an incredible amount of rear-end grip, which means that the only thing besides grip-induced neutrality you feel in any car is the inevitable understeer you get when you push it into a corner too fast. A BMW 1-series may feel more nimble than a Ford Focus going into a corner, thanks to its quicker steering, but coming out of it (from experience), you're more likely to get the Focus sideways than the Beemer. Which is why the 1-series is pointless. BMW could make the 1-series a lairy little car, like the 2002 or even the V6 Clio... but they won't. Killing off customers by having them go off the road backwards doesn't encourage repeat business. Thus, for all intents and purposes, a front-wheel drive BMW 1-series makes perfect sense.

  • Jeff Waingrow Jeff Waingrow on Mar 22, 2010

    Niky, why aren't you writing for TTAC? I, at least, find your opinions thoughtful and intelligent. I especially like that you seem to have some real world experience and can write about it with clarity. So do we have another Lang or Baruth in our midst? Anyone else of this opinion?

    • Stingray Stingray on Mar 22, 2010

      His explanation reminded me a lot an article written by Mr. Baruth in SSL, explaining the benefits of FWD.

  • Steven02 Steven02 on Mar 22, 2010

    FWD is lighter. It is also more efficient. So unless we are going to have more rear engine cars, RWD will be only available on dedicated sports cars, like the Corvette, Miata, etc or on very expensive cars.

    • TR4 TR4 on Mar 22, 2010

      "It is also more efficient." How so? Propeller shafts do not usually require cooling sysytems.

  • Niky Niky on Mar 23, 2010

    More efficient in the sense that front-engined front drive cars and rear-engined rear drive cars don't need propeller shafts... this eliminates extra weight and inertia from the drivetrain, leading to better power delivery and fuel economy. @Jeff: I submit articles once in a blue moon. Problem is I do car reviews in Asia... but our market usually gets cars long after everyone else does, so few of my articles will be of interest to US readers. Case in point: our benchmark for the compact class is the Ford Focus that America never got, and which a fellow contributor roundly bashed (and if he spent his time in a 1.6 rental, I can understand why). But seeing as how Soloviow has done a review of the Innova (horrible subject for review...), there might be one or two odd things that I can post up every now and then. And no, I'm no Baruth. The most powerful cars I've driven are all 275-300 horses, and I don't have nearly as much track experience (and possibly skill or chutzpah) as he does. I do have an appreciation of a good hoon on track, but it's not something I get to do more than five or six times a year. Also, the only times I actually drive over 70 mph is when my wife isn't tut-tutting me from the passenger seat... which is quite rarely.