How BMW Is Fighting the Niche War

BMW Active Tourer Outdoor Concept 1 photo
Photo: BMW
The way BMW handles its business these days has simply stunned a lot of people. Even those that are usually on par with the newest additions to every possible niche in the automotive segment find it hard to keep up with the moves the Bavarians are making and that’s completely understandable as they actually invented a couple of new cars just to keep up with the trends.
2013 was a full year for the Munich-based manufacturer. They actually broke record after record of sales on a monthly basis, mostly because of their badge but also because of their involvement and expansion into new territory. Whilst for some it’s pleasing news, for die-hard fans the new models are simply sacrilegious.

So, what did BMW do this year to upset so many people? If you were to make up your mind about the newest cars the Germans released judging solely by the reviews they got, you’d think they’re  the worst vehicles ever made with no emotion whatsoever but you’d also have to consider the reference points they are being compared to.

You see, BMWs built a name for themselves over the past three or four decades. They became known for their dynamics and driver involvement as well as for the balance and excellently crafted chassis that came out of Munich.

With the new models, they went a bit astray from the ‘good old recipe for success’ people got used to, all in the hope of bringing in more cash. For now, it seems to be working. The biggest event of the year was, without a doubt, the launch of the i sub-brand.

For those of you that have been completely oblivious to BMW talk lately, you should know that the i brand was created after several years of tests and playing with the concept of a fully electric, premium car. No other company of the caliber of BMW went as far as the Germans.

Back in 2006 they introduced the VISION concept, a car that started the EV madness in Bavaria. 7 years later, the i3 and i8 showed up at the Frankfurt Motor Show and the world stopped for a second. This new niche BMW is charging into will develop over the years, returning the €2 billion invested in the whole thing a couple of times over.

The i3 is the first ever premium EV city-car, not only from BMW but also in the world. It’s actually the inventor of this niche. Sure, you can go with either the Nissan Leaf, the Renault Zoe, the VW E-Up or even the Fiat 500e but none of those will bring what the i3 is offering: a car built from the ground up as an EV, that also reflects a premium  philosophy wherever you look.

The interior is the best place to live in, apart from your bedroom. The performance is over the top for this new segment (7.2 seconds to 100 km/h is simply unbelievable a car of its caliber, comparable to much bigger, more serious hot hatches) whilst the autonomy and connectivity it offers is unprecedented.

Moving onto its brother, the i8, we should mention that this is yet another car currently all alone in another niche: hybrid plug-in sportscar. Sure, the Porsche 918 Spyder ticks some of the same boxes but when looking over the price tag you might think an extra 0 was added by mistake.

Going away from the i sub-brand, other niches are being poked by BMW these days, segments that seemed unreachable not too long ago, mostly because the cars they needed were simply not built until now.

I’m talking, of course, about the super-powerful 4-door coupe segment which the M6 Gran Coupe entered this year. Meant to be a rival for the Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG and the Audi RS7, the M6 GC proved to be even better than the 2-door version in various tests. With such encouraging reviews behind their latest product, BMW might be considering going even further.

Enter the brand new M4 Coupe, the car that made us all say goodbye to the legendary M3 Coupe. It still hurts to think about the fact that we won’t ever see the M3 badge on the boot lid of a Coupe but I’m really hoping that the guys from Munich were right when they made this decision. Recent reports and spyshots claim that there’s also a 4 Series Gran Coupe in the works, a car that is supposed to follow in the footsteps of the 6 Series.

Whether it will be successful or not only time will tell but since the M6 GC is so, brilliantly good, an M4 Gran Coupe is also expected in the near future, to justify the recent migration from 4 to 2 doors and then back to 4 once again.

The 3 Series line-up didn’t escape niche-migrating either. Following in the footsteps of the 5 Series GT (that was seldom called beautiful by anyone) the 3 Series GT was launched this year, entering another segment no-one though BMW will ever tackle.

The 3 Series Gran Turismo is hard to explain to anyone actually. Not because it’s not practical or spacious but rather because of its price. That price tag is what’s dragging it down. The GT 3er offers more space than a regular wagon, and more practicality but the extra money you have to pay makes it hard to pick it against its more ‘traditional’ brother.

Next year we’ll be feasting our eyes on another Sports Activity Coupe, a nice the Bavarians are credited with inventing. Whilst in this case no one can say the upcoming X4 is ugly, the practicality factor is almost anything but gone. Ask any BMW X6 owner about how practical his car is and you’ll notice that the subject will come to a dramatic and sudden end. That’s because the car is simply dreadful in this regard.

Sure, it’s a sporty SUV with a Coupe shape and it handles very well down the road but if you’re over 6 feet tall and you have to sit in the back of that car for more than an hour you’ll start wishing someone took your head off in the meanwhile. Hopefully, the X4 will be built taking this problem into consideration and will come out with some revised rear seats, despite being smaller than the E71 X6 that came before it.

Last but not least, we have to talk about the elephant in the room: front-wheel-drive. For most enthusiasts it’s the official death of BMW. When the first FWD model made by the Germans will leave Bavaria, it will be game over for a lot of die-hard fans. The same happened when Mercedes-Benz did it a while back but that was many years ago and the Stuttgart-based company managed to keep most of its fans close.

The first Bimmer to use such a transmission will be the 2 Series GT, anticipated by the BMW Active Tourer Outdoor Concept that was also unveiled this year. This car will appeal to customers that simply don’t care about what kind of traction the car has but only want the badge on the bonnet and premium experience only a Bavarian machine will deliver.

This one will most likely be the most disappointing model on the long run for the average enthusiast and the biggest cash cow for the Group that will be milked to death. One big problem will, of course, be the fact that other models will be endangered too.

You see, for me, if it was just the GT 2er, the FWD migration would’ve meant absolutely nothing. That model would become an attraction for a certain demographic and all the other Bimmers would’ve been perfect for those people that still wanted RWD. However, reports and hints from various insiders claim that other models will receive the same kind of traction in the future. One of them will be the X1.

The crossover was widely regarded as the ‘last’ of the old-school Bimmers still around, mostly because it used BMW E93 underpinnings combined with various new pieces of tech. Unfortunately, the big-wigs over at the Board of Management in Munich decided the crossover should go FWD to save manufacturing costs and make everything modular in the future.

No matter how much we’ll beg and cry out for BMW not to go into all these new niches, the profits are going up, proving that they are right and we are wrong. Apparently the world does need hundreds of variations of the same car, to make sure everyone is satisfied. If this is the way the game is played, the Bavarians seem determined to cover every possibility.

As usual they will be compared to their traditional rivals: Mercedes-Benz and Audi. So far, BMW is winning, with the widest selection of automobiles but it won’t last long. The Ingolstadt-based rival already announced that it will be investing $30 billion into developing new niche cars between 2014 and 2018. For the moment, the other premium German manufacturer is playing with most of its cards close to its chest, but I’m pretty sure things will heat up very fast in every possible niche in the near future, making for a pretty spectacular show of force that will definitely keep us entertained.
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