I am one of the last bloggers to write about this. But BMW either is or just was a a mess. The world's 11th largest automobile brand is moving forward with its winning strategy of a diverse model lineup and distinct sport and luxury characteristics. This comes after a very rough patch in which the company's turbocharged, direct injection motors (as well as some of their most expensive, coveted M motors) were harboring awful secrets that both the company and even owners didn't want to talk about.
Today's BMW has too many models in too many variations, with names that are sometimes annoying. But this is what BMW wants. And it is making a lot of money on three continents (North America, Europe, and Asia/Pacific).
The company's model naming system is broken and will likely remain broken for the foreseeable future. Unlike Jeep or Subaru, which have 5 or 6 different models, BMW has at least 25. BMW has done something I've never seen an automobile manufacturer do outside of Japan. It has committed to serious market differentiation, and it has not lost any money doing so. As far as I know, BMW was the first car company to stretch a grand touring coupe into a 4-door sedan, added a rear liftback and call it a Gran Coupe. Who asked for the Gran Coupe? BMW is like Mexican cuisine (or perhaps Taco Bell), with combinations of the same basic ingredients, presented and meant to be eaten differently in each iteration. But one thing remains constant, and that's the fact that in the US, BMW has been a premium, luxury brand since the E30 won our hearts in the mid 1980s. At least Toyota and Honda offer cars for all types of people in their domestic market. But in the US, BMW is premium only (except that one time with 319ti). BMW wasn't a luxury brand when it was allowed to make cars following the American occupation. However by 1985, the E30 coupe, convertible, sedan and wagon were all icons of the young professional Baby Boomer "Yuppie" era.
I'll state one of my arguments early: With few exceptions, owning a BMW is not a great value. That's just because they are priced at least $10,000 higher than non-premium cars in the same class. But I am not here to shit on the brand. I respect it. I have driven two BMWs in my lifetime, and I understand the history and appeal of the brand. They stuck to generally more fun and track-ready rear-wheel drive platforms when the world was running to front-wheel drive as a means to reduce manufacturing costs, increase traction in winter, and bump up fuel economy. Advances in rear differentials and computer controlled driver aids like traction and stability control supported their derision to stick to making enthusiast cars. There are some models from the past and present that have a special place in my heart. And I am sure, from time to time, I will treat myself to a BMW rental through the German company, Sixt.
Loyalists to the brand would argue that BMWs age better than most other cars. In fact, German cars tend to age better thanks to classy designs. They don't necessarily last a long time. There have been some dogs. But the models that have been successful have endured decades. And if you think about it, we auto enthusiasts know the really good German cars by their chassis codes, much like Jeep models. The last air-cooled Porsche 911 was the 964. Coco Chanel, John Lennon and Jack Nicholson all owned the legendary Mercedes 600 sedan. But we call it the W100. The first BMW I ever drove was a 2003 328i, but I'll always call it the E46. The BMW 5 series of the same era is the other BMW I've driven. It's the greatest car I've ever driven, a beautiful sedan known simply as the E60. I'll still take an E60 wagon, please
But the 2000s are over. Many changes have come to BMW. It took a while, but we auto enthusiasts had to accept that the numbers on the backs of BMWs no longer disclose the engine displacement. Also, we've had to accept that most BMWs don't come standard with straight six motors and rear-wheel drive. Some BMWs are electric. And increasingly, BMWs are built on a front-wheel drive architecture. If we can accept and move past that, the elements of BMW remain largely unchanged. No BMW is ever under-powered. Most BMW models use some version of the ZF 8-speed transmission, which is smooth, reliable and downright dreamy. And BMW interiors have been on a roll since the turn of the century. I find the materials, layout, buttons and typefaces epitomize what we think of German design. It's logical, clear and made to last through coffee spills and kicking children.
So of the more than 20 BMW models for sale today, what's good? Quite a lot, it seems, so long as you're prepared to fork over a small mountain of cash.
The 5 Series wagon is great. Even with 'just' a 2-liter turbo. It is awesome. Really.
BMW still makes a convertible with a manual transmission and a simple soft top. The 2 series. No one is honestly saying that this is better than the V6 Camaro convertible (the Camero can smoke it, I think). But this BMW is for those who just can't be seen in an American muscle car. That's the point. BMW and Mercedes make muscle cars that don't look like them nor carry the muscle car label. They are marketed as cosmopolitan, European luxury coupes. Exactly 30 years ago, "the ultimate tanning machine" E30 convertible was about $21,000 if you stuck to the manual gearbox and negotiated well. That's $42,500 today. And that's very close to the starting price of the 2018 230i convertible. Inflation, kids. They teach that at Harvard Business School, right?
Right now, the ultimate enthusiast BMW is the M2. Stick shift. Over 350 horsepower. Yeah, now that keeps up with the Camaro SS and Mustang GT. This is the best of what BMW has for those who want performance and something close to the M cars of the past.
The 4 Series convertible is a cruiser with a retractable hard top, room in the back for 2 adults, and some awesome wind dampening for a quieter ride with the top down. About $620-$730 / month for a lease, or about $56,000 to buy one. That is a fine grand tourer for those who have the means. But the M4 convertible is mad. It's rare and like the M2 it's a future collectible.
Wanna be different? Well, BMW still sells the 3 Series wagon. Why not be different? What was great 30 years ago is still great today. It can do grocery shopping, soccer practice, beach days, and the autocross. And these days, they come with all wheel drive (X Drive).
Want a value BMW? Do they exist? The second generation X1 is the closest thing. It's the least expensive BMW for sale in the US, along with the 2 Series coupe and 3 Series sedan. It has style, practicality and grunt. It's narrow for city streets and has a surprising amount of storage space and headroom. Still, it can do a lap of the Nürburgring in under 11 minutes with little sweat.
Now it's time to get weird. And BMW has several weird vehicles. I like two in particular. The 3 Series Gran Turismo is basically a 3 Series sedan with a big fat hatch in the the back.
And the X4 is an egg of a crossover that seats just four adults. It's unusual and relatively rare. Now in its second generation, I'm sure it will soon be available in a ridiculous M edition.
And then there are the electrics. The i3 might be discontinued in a couple of years. But it is the most successful EV behind the Tesla S in these early years of the switch to electrification. Its carbon fiber frame is a milestone in production vehicles, and it just surpassed 10,000 units sold in the UK. It's wood, carbon fiber, wool and leather interior is one of the best in the automotive world today.
And the i8 is arguably the most impressive, sensible supercar in production.
Too many models. Too many variations. But BMW s doing what it wants and has the research, customer feedback, and sales figures to back up such a diverse and wacky lineup.