BMW: Don't Fear The Four

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

It’s been 12 years since BMW offered a four-cylinder engine on a US-market offering, but starting this October, US dealers will begin offering new “TwinPower”four-pot versions of the Z4 roadster and 5-series sedan. And, as BMW’s US-market boss Jim O’Donnell explains to Automotive News [sub], there’s no reason to fear the four… anymore.

It wasn’t in line with our image, because it didn’t have the performance of the six cylinder. We were selling ourselves as the ultimate driving machine and really it wasn’t. Now that the engines have developed so far, it’s not an issue at all.

But now BMW is offering four-bangers because they offer an even better driving experience, right? Less weight, better turn-in, that kind of thing… right?

Uh, not so much, no. O’Donnell continues

CAFE is definitely driving this. This is huge for us. If we get this wrong, it screws up all of our plans in the U.S.

And O’Donnell is right to reference the risks involved. After all, Ford is already learning the hard way that charging high prices for downsized, fuel-efficient engines doesn’t always pan out, as its Explorer Ecoboost was mauled for lackluster performance by even the traditionally toothless Motor Trend. On the other hand, the CAFE-related problems with not offering smaller engines are even worse:

Failure to meet U. S. requirements produces fines of $55 per mile below the requirement multiplied by the total number of vehicles sold, Greg Schroeder, a research analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said in a telephone interview.

Selling 200,000 vehicles with a CAFE 20 mpg below the target, for example, would lead to an annual fine of $220 million. “As the fuel economy doubles they have to change their plan,” Schroeder, the industry analyst, said. “They’re going to have to improve fuel economy, they can’t just sit and pay fines forever.”

But don’t start bemoaning a new CAFE-induced Malaise era just yet: the new four-pot base engine may be down 6 percent compared to the previous entry-level six in the Z4, but it boasts an 18 percent improvement in torque. The new Z4 is .1 seconds faster to 60 MPH than its six-equipped predecessor, while the new four-cylinder 528i should shave .4 seconds off its predecessor’s 0-60 time. But for image-conscious luxury brands, the challenge isn’t simply proving that the performance numbers show progress… after all, they’ve spent decades leading consumers to believe that the number of cylinders was a key to premium-ness.

“The challenge really is for us as a company and you as media to look at how we describe performance, which tradition would tell is the number of cylinders and how big they are, and that determines a premium car or a high-performance car versus another car,” Ian Robertson, head of BMW sales, said in Carmel, California. “That is not the relevant measure anymore.”

That sell would be a lot easier to make if the new four-bangers sounded as good as we know BMW can make them. Check out the following video (starting at around :47) to see what we’re talking about.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Bunkie Bunkie on Aug 31, 2011

    "Remember the 2.3 turbo Mustang Cobra?" I think you're referring to the SVO Mustang from 1985. It cost $3000 (or 25%) more than the '85 5.0 GT that I bought instead. Compared to the GT, it barely sold.

  • Dingram01 Dingram01 on Aug 31, 2011

    Evidently few of you cynics have actually lived with a well-engineered turbo 4? Saab anyone? Audi? I can attest to the superior real-world usefulness of the Saab engine over the M30 I6 I had in my 535i 5 speed. Loved that car, but boy was it a slug. Unless you wound it to the redline. A tap of the toe in my 9000 CSE would produce MUCH more thrust, RIGHT NOW. Turbo lag is nothing compared to waiting for the I6 to deliver. Similar fuel economy numbers between them if you were into the gas pedal on both -- definitely NOT similar if you weren't. The 540 finally beat the 9000 powerwise, but not my a mile as you might suppose. In any case, it's not the glorious BMW engine noises that mattered, it's the utterly unflappable chassis that does. That, my friends, isn't going to go away. And the Saab 4 wasn't exactly grating on the ears. This might finally put to rest my bitter annoyance with the "BMW solution." To wit: any idiot can add cylinders and get more power; it takes actual prowess to find a better way. Like a turbo 4. I think they're going to nail it.

  • EBFlex At the summer property putting boats in the water, leveling boat lifts, cleaning the lots for summer, etc. Typical cabin stuff in the most beautiful place on the planet
  • Lou_BC I've I spent the past few days in what we refer to as "the lower mainland". I see Tesla's everywhere and virtually every other brand of EV. I was in downtown Vancouver along side a Rivian R1T. A Rivian R1S came off as side street and was following it. I saw one other R1S. 18% of new vehicles in BC are EV'S. It tends to match what I saw out my windshield. I only saw 2 fullsized pickups. One was a cool '91 3/4 ton regular cab. I ran across 2 Tacoma's. Not many Jeeps. There were plenty of Porches, Mercedes, and BMW's. I saw 2 Aston Martin DBX707's. It's been fun car watching other than the stress of driving in big city urban traffic. I'd rather dodge 146,000 pound 9 axle logging trucks on one lane roads.
  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
  • CAMeyer Considering how many voters will be voting for Trump because they remember that gas prices were low in 2020–never mind the pandemic—this seems like a wise move.
  • The Oracle Been out on the boat on Lake James (NC) and cooking up some hella good food here with friends at the lake place.