By on August 30, 2011

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.

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38 Comments on “BMW: Don’t Fear The Four...”

  • avatar

    A naturally aspirated engine is a luxury. Why would I want to drive a car powered by a compromised piece of junk with the subjective characteristics of an industrial unit to make life easier for BMW’s bean counters? I’d rather pay an $1,100 penalty, particularly when I’m already paying about $10K for a badge.

    • 0 avatar

      If it were as simple as paying a 2-3% price premium to make CAFE go away then this problem wouldn’t be a problem.

      That 2-3% penalty is one Envycrat away from becoming a 10% penalty. Or a 25% penalty. Or a stop sales penalty. Overnight.

      BMW can’t bet a 7-10 year product cycle on their loophole going unnoticed.

  • avatar

    Funny, I thought this story was about cars. What’s the point of a motorcycle video? Am I supposed to want a car that sounds like that?

  • avatar

    FYI, Audi has already begun selling 2.0T A6 here in USA which is unimaginable just a few years back.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s got to feel slow… The A4 2.0T Quattro with an automatic already feels a little down on power, I can’t imagine what putting the same powertrain in a larger/heavier car would do. I will give them credit for making the options list on the A6 very short. Basically, a sport package, and a technology package, and that’s it.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    I suppose it’s worth remembering that BMW’s original claim to fame in the U.S. — the 1600/2002 and its descendant, the original yuppiemobile of the 1980s — the 3-series — were all powered by 4 cylinders. That said, for many, part of the “BMWness” of today’s cars is the smoothness of BWM’s in-line 6 cylinder engines, which, I suppose is why BMW alone has kept them even as their German rivals have gone to V-6s. With the addition of turbocharging to get more output, the high-revving characteristic of the BMW 6s is gone; but the changeover to 4 cylinders is, I think, going to be tough, even if the application of a sufficient amount of electronics, forced induction and valve timing tricks gives the 4 the power delivery characteristics of a 6. Even a 2 liter 4 doesn’t spin like a 3-liter BMW 6.

    So,your $45,000 BMW sportscar is going to have an engine with approximately the same characteristics as a Ford Focus or a VW GTI. Ummm, well . . .

    Also, since I followed the link and read Motor Trend’s trashing of the Ecoboost Explorer, it’s notable that both that car and the turbo’ed Honda 4 in the Acura RDX turned out to be thirsty little buggers, despite having only 4 cylinders. If the public gets the idea that the only purpose for these engines is to beat the EPA mileage test, with results not obtainable in the real world . . . they’re not going to be thrilled. A $1,000 premium for an engine in the Explorer that gets 1 mpg observed than the observed mpg of the V-6 is not going to win many friends, even if it drives just as well (which, apparently, it doesn’t).

    • 0 avatar

      BMW plans to offer 4 banger alongside I-6 & V-8. There are choices for potential F10 5 series buyer here in USA. Most badge whores will scoop up 4 banger 528i whereas an enthusiast will have a choice of I-6 powered 535i or V-8 550i.

      • 0 avatar

        A driving enthusiast won’t have a choice of a naturally aspirated engine any longer, although those aren’t the enthusiasts BMW has cared about in a decade.

      • 0 avatar

        The E30 M3 was a non-turbo 4. And more fun than a barrel of monkeys, as was it’s “little brother” the ’91 E30 318is with the twin-cam M42 engine. I had two of them and loved them.

    • 0 avatar

      The problem with the current BMW line is that the naturally aspirated inline six is the last link to their past. Otherwise they just sell tacky luxury cars with lots of gadgets and instantly dating styling. The 2002 had brilliant handling, packaging, timeless styling, and offered a combination of performance and utility nobody else had thought of. When the Genesis sedan came out, Car and Driver assembled a few potential competitors for comparison. The Avalon already dominated the 528i in performance. At least the BMW offered the perfectly balanced inline-6 with its characterful sounds, responsiveness, and torque curve. Now? I do not like V6s, consider them a crime against truth and beauty, but I’d take one over a turbo.

      • 0 avatar

        The Avalon dominated the 528? Maybe in performance but outright 0-60 speed is not the most important characteristic (in my opinion). The BMW has a better driving dynamic and it a superior car to the Avalon, as it should be since it costs more.

      • 0 avatar

        yes mike, it should. For me that means an engine that is a work of art instead of a set of numbers and compromises. It isn’t like BMW will figure out how to make cars as space efficient, fuel efficient, or as durable as Toyotas, so they should have better dynamic and subjective traits.

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah, when has a turbocharged inline four been BMW’s flagship engine or anything like that?

        Oh, wait, the E30 M3, the only M3 that’s actually collectible, that shared an engine with a goddamn Formula One car. Yeah, BMW and turbo-fours. We’re all doooooooomed!

    • 0 avatar

      I know a guy in my area who drives a 1982 2-door 320i. It has a 4-banger 1.8 and a 5-speed manual. Next year it will be 30 years old and it is still in excellent condition. He drives it at least 40 miles a day round-trip to and from his work.

      Who says that BMW 4-bangers don’t last? I think a current 3-series sedan with a modern 4-banger would do just fine in the US. If Ford can make a splash with their EB V6, why not BMW with an I-4T?

      • 0 avatar

        Ford has always been, will always be the lowest common denominator of cars. BMWs, even home market BMWs, are not. Even when they had twin cylinder air cooled engines, BMWs carried a premium over VWs in Germany. Ford has decades of serving up unpleasant compromises. Remember the 2.3 turbo Mustang Cobra? The XR4Ti? The Escort turbos of 1983-1985? The Ford Ranger diesels of the same era? The way pretty much every medium duty truck diesel from Ford is revealed to have serious service issues over time? Maybe you don’t remember most of them. That’s why Ford keeps serving them up. BMW didn’t used to offer compromised engines, here or at home. They had engines that weren’t powerful, but they were always smooth, durable, and had power that built towards redline rather than peaking early and then going breathless like the new 1M, or whatever they’re calling it. BMW will do fine selling undistinguished engines in their ever less distinguished cars, but it is nothing to celebrate.

      • 0 avatar

        I never owned a BMW myself for any length of time or use. While overseas I did buy and sell all sorts of cars and motorcycles from departing GIs only to turn them and sell them to incoming GIs. Since I worked part-time as the manager of the Auto Hobby Shop at night after completing my daily military duties, this was easy to do for me, and maintain credibility.

        So, honestly, I don’t remember any of the ones you mentioned. Some purists may object to a 3-series sedan with a 4-cylinder powering it, but it has been done before. Many of those classics are still running around the countryside here, with some of them actually belonging to retired military people. Maybe they just like to hold on to a good thing.

        Regrettably, it is true that there has been a cheapening of all cars over time and it is a disappointment to see high quality vehicles like BMW and Mercedes fall into the same trap as the lowest common denominator vehicles.

        While in Europe I did buy a new Euro-spec Mercedes 220D and it was built like a tank, and could run wide-open all day long on the autobahn at 110mph. In looking at my neighbor’s 2011 E350 I cannot find ANY ruggedness that Mercedes was once renown for. Maybe a 4-cylinder BMW isn’t so far fetched in view of what is happening throughout the auto industry, worldwide.

  • avatar
    George B

    I predict E-85 compatible “flex-fuel” loophole vehicles in BMWs future.

  • avatar

    You can’t compare BMW’s I4 motorcycle engines to those used in their automobiles:

    – Recommended service interval on BMW motorcycles is every 6,000 mi.
    – It only needs to move around 600+ lbs. vs. 3600+ lbs.
    – BMW S1000-RR (bike in video) has max torque of 82 lb-ft.
    – Good chance that engine will have to be torn down/rebuilt by 100K miles.

  • avatar
    cRacK hEaD aLLeY

    List of fears after, say, half a dozen winters on a first gen small cc DI turbo gasser doing city traffic duty:

    1) Carbon build-up on intake valves/runners
    2) Stuck variable vanes (carbon build-up)
    3) Turbo seals longevity
    4) Oil gelling.

    You gotta be nuts to be an early adopter on this one.

  • avatar

    BMW 4 banger has been around for awhile & it is available worldwide except for Americans. It is BMW NA’s strategy to not bring 316d, 318i, 318d, 320i & 320d across the pond for fear of brand dilution.

    My preference is always RWD /w I-6 .

  • avatar

    The only good sounding 4 cylinder engines are 90 degree V4’s and they have certain issues that keep them out of cars and in motorcycles/boats.

    Unless it sounds good by virtue of flunking every emissions test it possibly can, dumping unburned fuel into the muffler at every opportunity and ensuring that no nitrogen is allowed to escape the engine without first being combined with oxygen. Like an old Alfa or Coventry Climax or something.

  • avatar

    Having just gone from a Saab 9-3Sport Combi to a BMW 328i Touring, in some ways the Saab/GM 2.0 Turbo is superior to the BMW six. Noticably better fuel economy, HUGELY superior low-end and mid-range torque, and it is smaller and lighter. The BMW engine is a little smoother and sounds a little better, but both engines are so quiet you can’t really hear them anyway. There is not that much in it.

    So I think this is all much ado about not a lot, and the N20 will be perfectly fine as the entry-level engine in the US.

  • avatar

    I’m surprised it has not been mentioned yet – so where’s the North American 320d and 520d?

  • avatar

    The 320d and 520d are great cars. Thanks to the new aluminum block engines, the noses are appreciably light and the off-the-line punch of the diesels is about the same as the bigger naturally aspirated six cylinder gassers.

    BMW’s four cylinders sound decent… and as they’ve shown with the Cooper S, they can make a turbocharged four sound okay, too.

    On the smaller BMWs, you appreciate the difference in front-end weight a lot more. On bigger ones like the 5 and the 6, it’s there, but not as big a deal.

    • 0 avatar

      the petrol engines in the Mini Cooper are not BMW engines. They are engineered and built by Peugeot-Citroen.

      • 0 avatar

        > the petrol engines in the Mini Cooper are not BMW engines.
        > They are engineered and built by Peugeot-Citroen.

        This is not quite true. Built at Peugeot-Citroen facility — yes. Engineered — no. It is a BMW design.

      • 0 avatar

        According to this BMW/PSA-Peugeot-Citroën press release:

        the engine was jointly *engineered* by BMW and Peugeot.

        Those destined for French cars are built in France and those destined for MINIs are built in the UK.

  • avatar

    A black box turbo 4 powerplant is fine for an automatic non-sport 5 series that will prob be driven by a yuppie mom or midlevel financier…

    But there’s no way they can make that thing sound and run as nice and smooth as their glorious NA sixes. The whole thing is goofy. If Hyundai can make sports and luxury cars with big N/A engines there’s no reason BMW can’t. They’ve lost a future customer until they get their act together.

    • 0 avatar

      the stupid, it burns.

      this is Corporate Average Fuel Economy.

      Hyundai can do it because it sells plenty of high mpg Accents and Elantras to offset the much fewer, lower mpg Genesis variants.

      BMW does not have that luxury.

      basicially what you are saying is that you would ditch BMW for NOT making crappy entry level econoboxes that sell in high volumes.

  • avatar

    Frankly, N-20 doesn’t sound that bad. You can be the judge:

  • avatar

    If we`re going to be downsizing cylinder count, one would hope that the engine bay would decrease accordingly and would free up some interior cabin room.

    • 0 avatar

      They’d have to move the firewall which would take significant re-engineering. The only benefit chassis wise would be less weight on the nose, which is debatable going from an N/A 6 to a high tech turbo 4

  • avatar

    “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.

  • avatar

    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.

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