By on November 26, 2015


Editor’s note: BMW losing its way has been a hot topic ever since the E30 went out of production. This QOTD from Doug is probably one of the most commented articles in TTAC history. It originally ran January 23rd, 2015.

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?

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37 Comments on “Giving Thanks: QOTD: When Did BMW Lose Its Edge?...”

  • avatar

    During the Bangle data for sure, and maybe they began slidingnjust prior.

    They’re an abomination and afront to purchasing rationality and design decency, now, sliding by on the greased skids of their past goodwill and Yuppie cred.

    Their vehicles are still far more refined, better built, and generally much better than any Cadillac, however (sadly for Cadillac), especially given that Cadillac has saddled so many of their ticking time bombs with the ubiquitous, across-the-GM-badge-range 2.0T motor (including, laughably, the upcoming “flagship” base price 55k CT6).

  • avatar

    During the Bangle era for sure, and maybe they began slidingnjust prior.

    They’re an abomination and afront to purchasing rationality and design decency, now, sliding by on the greased skids of their past goodwill and Yuppie cred.

    Their vehicles are still far more refined, better built, and generally much better than any Cadillac, however (sadly for Cadillac), especially given that Cadillac has saddled so many of their ticking time bombs with the ubiquitous, across-the-GM-badge-range 2.0T motor (including, laughably, the upcoming “flagship” base price 55k CT6).

    • 0 avatar

      You’re really incapable of discussing anything here without throwing a dig at Cadillac into the comment, aren’t you?

      It’s especially stupid when the subject has nothing to do with Cadillac.

  • avatar

    West Germany made the best cars. Ever since reunification, they’ve been chock full of idiotic initiatives and complacency. That they don’t self destruct on any given day is dumb luck.

    • 0 avatar

      How did the Ossies pollute a West German automaker after reunification?

      Seriously, if you know of anybody’s book detailing that, in German or English, I love to buy it.

  • avatar

    My feeling was that they lost focus when they went away from the basic 3,5, and 7 as the usual plan. We sometimes forget Maximum Bob did much of the heavy lifting that propelled them into the “it” car of the cognoscenti, then he left. Don’t discount their ability to get their mojo back, after all they have convinced everyone who views a car as a fashion statement that theirs is the car to show up driving.

  • avatar

    What say me?

    How about: this article is obnoxious because Millennials have no perspective.

    Also, maybe your dad could not or would not afford a BMW back then. Not because he wasn’t cool enough, but because back then, they didn’t offer leases to all, with relatively cheap payments. Most people financed.

    • 0 avatar

      Getting BMWs fixed back then must have been hell–there might have been import garages, but getting parts would have been hell. It’s not like today with several different online sources and just tons of information available.

  • avatar

    Chris Bangle

  • avatar

    You know how when you’re shopping for pants and you’re scanning the lengths..32L, 34L..whatever..and you glance up and see the cubbyhole with
    something like 46W 28L?

    Now I know who wears those… Muslim Beard Beemer-Boys.

  • avatar
    healthy skeptic

    “BMW M2, with a manual transmission.”

    And with those words, the comments section was closed, the article retracted, and everyone went about their day.

  • avatar
    White Shadow

    Yeah, the M2 reminds me a lot of my old 99 (E36) M3 coupe, but with a lot more power. It’s really BMW’s only salvation.

  • avatar

    Doug is kind of known to not do any research before posting the click bait.. Though I do agree with the premise of the article, I think that maybe it’s him that lost his edge – The small electric car is REAR ENGINE AND REAR WHEEL DRIVE. Something even Doug would remember if he actually ever drove one.

  • avatar
    Ol Shel

    BMW followed the desires of buyers, not journalists and enthusiasts. Enthusiasts don’t buy enough BMWs for BMW to bother with them. Enthusiasts may think that BMW drivers were enthusiasts during the glory years, but most weren’t. Yuppies bought an enthusiasts’ brand because it was trendy, not because they cared about a vehicle’s dynamics.

    Then, people wanted what they’ve always wanted: more room and more luxury and more convenience, so BMW, like all mass brands, provided it.

    See, there was a time when a well-suspended, manual transmission, rwd enthusiast car was pretty similar to a run-of-the-mill car. It was just better executed. Nowadays, to make a lightweight, rwd car that isn’t bogged down with luxury features, the factories have to build it from scratch, basically, and those cars don’t sell in big numbers, do they FR-S?

    Yes, a few of us want enthusiast cars, but we don’t buy the ones they do produce. We won’t even buy manual transmissions, for chrissakes. Complain all you want, but they only listen to sales.

    • 0 avatar

      Harsh but true. I know about a guy who was proud of his MB Class A “because the feeling of the RWD” *facepalm*. It’s plenty of rich ignorants out there, and the speed limits are lower and more enforced every day, so why not? Marchionnize everything, the quarter report is the only important thing.

      Just let people know that with a 2 series active tourer they won’t appear as gearheads. Even if they put snowchains on rear wheels.

    • 0 avatar

      They will eventually realize that their cred with enthusiasts is exhausted and that it mirrors down their line. A 3 series is just someone with more money to spend than a Camry at this point.

      You call out the FR-S, but Toyota’s real mistake was branding the Altezza as the IS300 and not bringing it over as a cheaper Toyota RWD sedan. That thing would have killed… But as a Lexus, it didn’t fit with their portfolio and was priced out of what enthusiasts were willing to pay for an unknown quantity.

      But I generally agree with the consensus – the Bangle era was the beginning of the end. I would buy a C class which is just way nicer than anything else in the class. If I wanted something sporty in that price range, an off-lease Cayman would fit the bill. To me BMWs are neither fish nor fowl in their current luxo-sport state.

      Porsche, current diesel problems aside, is clearly slotting into the enthusiast niche that BMW used to own. If they released a 3-series competitor, it would probably be game over for BMW’s good times.

      • 0 avatar
        Kyree S. Williams

        “If they released a 3-series competitor, it would probably be game over for BMW’s good times.”

        Probably not, considering that a Porsche competitor to the 3-Series would probably cost over $10K more than said 3-Series.

        Meanwhile, I don’t have a problem with BMW’s newer vehicles. The latest 3-Series and 4-Series drive wonderfully for modern sports cars. What irritates me is BMW’s consistent campaign to cost-cut, especially in the lower-end models. I had a 320i loaner while my X5 was at the dealer (failing cabin blower motor). This particular 320i had iDrive w/navigation, the nicer instrument cluster and…little else. Notably, the car did not have an alarm. And apparently, when BMW removes the alarm, it also removes the panic function and the chimes to indicate a successful lock/unlock. Moreover, unlike the E90, F30 3-Series’ aren’t even pre-wired for the alarm if they don’t already have it, so there’s no practical way to retrofit it. I thought that was particularly cheap, and it seems most of the dealer-inventory 3 and 4-Series are equipped thusly. The loaner also had a steering wheel that felt like it belonged in a Fisher-Price toy. And a backup camera should be standard, as should Bluetooth on a luxury car. So should powered seats.

        • 0 avatar

          Sorry, Kyree, but your post makes it clear that you’re the type of buyer that BMW is attracting today: someone who doesn’t know the difference between a “smooth” driving car and a driver’s car, or someone who cares more about the look and feel of the steering wheel, rather than the steering feel itself.

          I sold my 2002 BMW after 7 years to special order a 2012. I dumped that 2012 special order BMW after just 6 mos. because it was completely devoid of steering feel, the auto tranny upshifted too early and hunted for gears and it otherwise was no more fun to drive than a Lexus. Powertrain was great (other than the tranny), fit and finish were nice and it looked great, but that’s all that it had going for it.

          Drove a friend’s 2014 BMW 228i the other day and was appalled–it was completely disconnected from the road. Steering feel was terrible. My mother’s Lexus RX350 has more road feel. It did have a nice powertrain, nice interior, …

          BMW got to where it is today by building cars that experts appreciated, which influenced and attracted a (much) larger audience of people who wanted to be associated with the Ultimate Driving Machine. By walking away from their core brand values and driving away experts, they will eventually pay the price as the masses catch on and don’t want to be associated with what will be a hollow brand.

      • 0 avatar

        I once owned a Camry and now own a 328i F30. I can tell you that the amount of refinement in the BMW is still much higher than any Toyota. I also own an E30, and that is my “don’t care where I park” car.

        It’s hard to disagree with what you mean, though–the typical 3-series buyer is not an enthusiast, but is rather a status seeking ‘aspirant’ or whatever the marketing people refer to that as and they don’t know anything much about cars, which is why BMW has ended up with front wheel drive (argggh).

        If I had had just a bit more truly disposable income and slightly less sense, I would have a Carrera 4S. I don’t see my wife driving the Porsche the way she will the BMW, though. In essence, I needed a sporty sedan that wasn’t too much of a handful for my wife to drive, and that’s what I got. In sport mode it is plenty of fun, and only sometimes do I wish I had gone with a 335 instead of the 328.

        If Porsche ever did get a 4-seater right in RWD or AWD, I’d certainly take a look.

    • 0 avatar

      That logic makes sense, at least in terms of today’s bottom line. And it’s certainly not an unpopular view. Nissan and Toyota have both taken it, and Honda to a lesser extent. But the problem with it is that you need to ask yourself why the typical BMW drivers bought those cars over others that were on the market. No, they weren’t enthusiasts, but they bought the reputation as the “ultimate driving machine” that enthusiasts largely built.

      We’re not far removed from that so BMW still has brand equity from the era when they built driver’s cars. Give this 10 years though, and that rep will be gone, and they’ll be primarily known as a luxury brand, just like several others. That edge that they used to have will be gone.

      Maybe I’ll be proven wrong but I think getting way from enthusiast vehicles will hurt several brands in the long run. BMW is kind of on the fence because they still do build some exciting cars, albeit not like the pure no-holds-barred models from their past (E30 M3, E28 M5, etc.)

  • avatar

    Chris Bangle. The 7 series with the backpack instead of a boot. The decision to throw away the distinctive, pilot-oriented, cockpit for that flat bench. The i-drive. Oh, and did I mention Chris Bangle?

    • 0 avatar

      What is wrong with iDrive? It is one of the best infotainment interfaces in the industry, IMO. It edges out MMI, and is much better than COMAND, CUE, and whatever junk is in Lexus products.

  • avatar

    When top gear on the manual transmission was no longer direct drive.
    When run-flat tires were introduced.
    When I-drive was offered.

    For most BMW models all three happened at the same time.

  • avatar

    When did BMW lose it’s edge?

    After the 2002 series. The 3-series became associated with yuppie poseurs since its inception.

  • avatar

    Ive said this for a while and it’s why I’m replacing my 5 series with an all new Jaguar XF. I just want a car that’s more exciting.

  • avatar

    I am going to say China was the cause. Chinese are just all about the status symbol, rarely ever do they actually care about the car, they all have drivers for Pete’s sake, a lot of good the Ultimate Driving Machine is doing there.

    Even in the US, the majority people I see driving the weird GranCoupeTour6X vehicles are Chinese. The more conventional models: 3, 5, 7, Z4, X5, X3, etc have mass appeal.

    Also dropping the I6 in favor of the Turbo-4 chased a lot of buyers to Mercedes where a V6 is standard on much of the lineup.

  • avatar

    BMW has certainly chased the image conscious buyer that cares about the cache of the Roundel. Visit any BMW lot and see the dozens of 3 series all optioned the same way…grey, silver or white, all wheel drive, automatic, sunroof and maybe a few other amenities. The buyer will get a nice car they will like and impress their friends.
    As an enthusiast and a BMW owner I can relish the fact that BMW is still one of the manufacturers around that when properly optioned can provide me with a great car….manual transmission, sport suspension, great choice of engines, vinyl seats as i don’t want to pay for leather, ability to delete the sunroof. So all of the BMW bashers out there remember that they STILL provide one of the best performance sedans available….You just may have to special order it.

    • 0 avatar

      Yep. I did a factory-build 335i 6MT. There were maybe three 6MT N55 cars in the entire US, none close, all loaded with every option in the book, and all white/black/silver. Bleah. I really wanted M235 but they were unobtanium at the time.

      BMW USA makes a shit-ton of money off leasing plain-jane 4-cyl automatic 3/4/5-series to people with decent credit who know nothing about cars other than BMW>CamCord. I have an acquaintance who thinks her flabby gutless leased 4-cyl 528i is better than my car because she doesn’t actually know anything about cars other than the badge on the front. Just keep leasing those 5ers every three years, gurl, subsidize my car, thanks.

  • avatar

    I was passed today by a new-looking 320i with a pretty tasteful Mary Kay sticker centered on the rear bumper. Nice silver font, stood out well against the black plastic.

  • avatar

    BMW started cost cutting with the E36 3-series back in 1991. I think it was their first “designed by computer” product. The E36 was a great car, but corners were cut in ways which would have been unheard of on previous Roundel cars.

    Things like brittle interior plastics and leathers, plastic radiators and water pump impellers that were prone to early failure, rear shock mounts that fell apart after 40,000 miles, and rear subframes that actually separated from the car at times are all common maladies that E36 owners are familiar with. And that continued from there. They still made a quality product, but it wasn’t like it was in the old days.

  • avatar

    BMW wants to fill any niche because it can. The 3 Series (originally a sedan, estate and convertible) exploded into a sedan, an estate and a five-door hatchback… plus a five-door coupe, two-door coupe and a convertible called 4 Series. Then added a 1 and 2 Series, where there were no smaller cars before, RWD and FWD. During that short period of time GM contemplated (not) to bring the Cruze estate stateside. Meet the astute marketeer from Germany, and the bean-counting bureaucrat from the U.S. You would swear that in some parallel ‘bizarro’ world it’ll be exactly the other way round…

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