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New letters, New look, New BMWs

While many view letters like E and F as only a form of communication with each other, BMW views them as vastly different and evolutionary changes in their vehicle development. Baron Selman reports from Bethesda, MD.

First, BMW choose the E product development classification decades ago because of its meaning, Entwicklung, or development in German. However, nobody knows if the F has any meaning, other than the next letter in the alphabet.

For many years, the BMW’s produced vehicles were evolutionary changes from the previous years. Some times, there were drastic changes, like the 7 series that received the Chris Bangle treatment. The trunk was lovingly called the Bangle Butt. Chris Bangle was then head of product development, and while it received terrible reviews when it was launched, it truly was a revolutionary car, both for BMW and the auto industry. Changes like BMW’s transmission shifter being moved to the steering column and the long discussed iDrive system. You may have noticed a similar system in other manufacturers, like Audi’s MMI system and Mercedes’ Command system. Even Hyundai is getting into this game. Chris Bangle design or not, it was a huge shift for BMW, and the right shift for the auto industry.

Yet, during this past decade(s) or so, while still retaining the E series denomination for the chassis’, some of the products were going in different directions. The 7 series was totally different in design from the hugely popular & and important to BMW, 3 series, and the 5 series was another completely different design from both of them, inside and out. Over the past few years entered the F series chassis, and the subsequent refreshes for each model currently produced. The F series represented the future for BMW, and even some changes were due in part to new European Pedestrian Safety laws (see design notes a bit later on.) In any case, it also represented a return to BMW’s concept of familiar design across the many series of cars/SAV’s they offer. “It feels like a return to the E46/E39 time period when BMWs shared a common design language,” explains Tim Jones, Editor of Forums and avid BMWphile.

For the first time in a while, with each new BMW they introduce, the design language from the headlights, taillights, and more importantly to the driver, the interior dahs panel is very similar and sometimes even the same between models. To some, this may not be their cup of tea, but to others, its fantastic. I like to this of it like this, if I’m a young person and getting into my first smaller BMW, and then graduating to a larger BMW, I’m at home in either model. Another reason for this common design language would be the Euro-Asian pedestrian-protection laws that have passed a few years ago. I require certain design dimensions of the hood and front bumper area. A minimum of 20 mm (0.8 inch) of clearance is required between the underside of the hood and the highest part of the engine or any other hard point such as the windshield-wiper motor or the HVAC plenum. This raises the front of the hood. At BMW’s R&D department, I’m sure someone said hey, if we create something once that passes this test, and it looks good, why reinvent this every time we create a new model or refresh it? So, with that, we have very similar looking front ends, both for aesthetics and safety. Score one for BMW. You can also see this concept of similar design language now happening with Mercedes and Audi too.

But what happens when die hard BMWphile’s with their previous models start wanting to upgrade to the newer F series? Do they come on board with the new way BMW has chosen? “New models are seldom well received by existing owners because it means they no longer have the latest and greatest,” says Jones. “Once they get past that the huge improvement in the interior and technology will impressive them.” I wish I could agree with Jones, but I’m still the guy who has an E70, and is stuck on the fence with the new F series X5. The one thing I did like was the E70 X5 was different from the other models. It was strangely familiar, but not like the others. The F series X5, to me, looks like a slightly larger X3. While the X3 looks great and is the same size as the old E53 X5, it just doesn’t look like a powerful, sleek, beast the E70 had. I do believe Tim Jones has a point here, but it will take some time for me to see it. There are others out there like me, but many more that just want the latest and greatest, and that’s what BMW is counting on – and they will take that to the bank.

The F series does represent a great outlook for BMW, but it came at a cost for BMW. While they were introducing and retiring models during ’13, it lost some sales volume to Mercedes Benz in the USA, and MBUSA reported larger sales by volume $’s than BMW. Says Jones of Forum, “BMW gave up the fight, they weren't concerned with winning this year. They wanted to win last year to prove a point but it took a lot of sales incentives and some number games. BMW was also without their 3 series coupe, now 4 series coupe, and X5 for a good chunk of 2013 which hurt their numbers.”

This can also be attributed to something else that is going on with BMW, and some other well-known motorcar manufacturers too. That is the idea of shared R&D, along with niche’ market marketing. BMW introduced a very sporty model called the X6 years ago. When I bought my first X5 in 2007, I should have waited for the ’08 X6. A little less cargo capacity? Sure. But much cooler looking? Hell yes. It did very well for them, and helped them expand the X series model lines. But it’s stopping there. Enter the X1 which was one of Europe’s best seller, which was basically a taller, cooler looking, cross between a 3 series wagon and a smaller X3. Oh yeah, then there’s the X3, which is perfect for the person who wants to sit high, but have the maneuverability of a car. But wait, THERE’s MORE! Enter the GT series of models (5 and 3 series have it.) It’s a cross between a wagon and sports grand tourer. It’s all working for BMW. They used to be small segments, very segments. But as BMW and other luxury makers come out with these cars, they are becoming more mainstream. BMW is counting on the upcoming X4 (baby of the X6,) the revamped 1 series, with the coupe/convertible becoming the 2 series, the revamped 4 series (the older 3 series coupes/convertibles,) the already introduced 4 seater 6 series, a possible M8 super sedan, and soon the X5 true Hybrid. Jones goes on to say, “BMW has figured out how to use a shared platform to build many models using shared technology. This expands the cost basis for the base R&D so it only makes sense to try and get as much money as you can from your R&D investment. BMW is adapting to a changing automotive market. In 50 years if you don't self-drive, what is the reason to buy the ultimate driving machine? They need to make sure they have loyal customers and that means reaching new owners that weren't interested in the standard 3/5/7 options.”

Because I’m such a fan, when interviewing Jones, who runs a very large and popular BMW forum, I needed to ask him how he got into BMW. “The E46 3 series. When it came out it had everything you'd want in a sports sedan. Great looks, good power, fun driving dynamics and a mix of luxury and sport. I still miss my original E46.” For me, the model that changed me from another German make to a BMW fan, BMW CCA member, and even a BMW club goer, it was the E24, 635CSI two door grand coupe. Crazy good performance, very inexpensive compared to other luxury coupes during the day, and an instant classic. One thing is for sure; BMW fans are very loyal, and not easily tempted by others. In fact, as we speak, I need an inexpensive vehicle for myself as a spare – what do I do? Get a 2006 E65 7 Series.

So, we are all fans… but does BMW listen to us? A huge company like that would listen to the little people. No way. I was wrong. Jones goes on to say that BMW does. “BMW values their enthusiast owners as a driving force for future sales. Either as repeat customers or as brand evangelists. They know that forums are where BMW enthusiasts live and is an easy place to get feedback on how they're doing. They know they need to keep the enthusiasts happy as well as the typical driver. When the E46 came out the steering feel was wrong as there was a big backlash on the forums. BMW ended up replacing steering racks in a bunch of E46s as a result. You know the lesson learned there went into the steering feel discussions on the E90.”

It’s really something to be amazed at. Not only can they interpret all the ideas and designs that people want into their cars, engineer them, produce them, test them, market them, review them again, and keep a close watch on the forum community and dealer side…but they do this all within a few years time, AT EVERY chassis change.

I’m excited for the F chassis cars, having driven the new 3 series, X1, 7 series, 5 series and the X3. They get better and better with each development change, never seemingly to go backwards either. Now, I just need to figure out how to like the F series X5 so I give back my E70 that I love so much!

I for one, think the (F) stands for Fantastisch

Written by Baron Selman