NY Times has published an interesting and informative article on the BMW Welt that is due to open its doors in October. Starting in October, customers in Germany will be able to buy their cars through a dealer and, for a fee, pick them up at BMW Welt, an ultramodern showroom in Munich that will include a gallery of BMW’s model range.
“Strolling through BMW Welt, with its cyclone-shaped entrance and billowing, cloudlike facade, it is easy to forget why the carmaker built this more than $250 million palace: to hand over cars to customers.
Starting in October, about 170 vehicles a day will be delivered to the cathedral-like showroom at BMW Welt (BMW World, in English). Rather than picking up a new car at a local dealership, drivers who pay a little extra for the privilege come here to receive delivery of their vehicles, finding them bathed in a spotlight and rotating on a turntable.
Even in a country famous for its worship of the automobile, rarely has so elegant a form been harnessed to so mundane a function. Our dealers are like local churches, while BMW Welt is St. Peter’s Cathedral, said Michael Ganal, BMW’s director of marketing.
BMW Welt is also only the latest in a string of lavish, architecturally distinct temples erected by German carmakers to showcase their wares and, more importantly, to burnish their brands. The building boom reflects the increasingly intense competition among the world’s leading luxury carmakers as well as the threat posed by younger Asian auto brands that are gaining on them.
Nowadays, that competition turns as much on heritage and image as on horsepower and handling.
These buildings are an attempt to re-create product differentiation on a different plane, said Garel Rhys, director of the Center for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff University in Wales. As the cars become almost homogeneous in technology, the battle is on the marketing side.
At a time when Detroit’s Big Three are retrenching and selling off assets, the German edifice complex also attests to the much healthier state of the auto industry here than in the United States.
Still, with Toyota’s 18-year-old Lexus line outranking BMW and Mercedes in quality and reliability surveys, analysts say the Germans have little choice but to promote their pedigrees.
BMW has not disclosed the cost of the Welt project; people close to the company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the numbers are not public, said the price tag was significantly more than 200 million euros, or about $275 million. While Mr. Ganal said it was difficult to judge what a reasonable return would be on a building like this one, he said BMW Welt would prove to be a wise and well-justified investment.
Other German carmakers apparently feel the same pressure. Last year, Mercedes opened a sparkling, futuristic Mercedes-Benz museum in its home city, Stuttgart. Across town, Porsche is constructing its own ultramodern museum, whose construction makes it appear to hover above the ground. The granddaddy of such facilities is the Autostadt, a seven-year-old complex adjacent to Volkswagen’s factory in Wolfsburg, which features a museum and visitors center where customers can choose new cars that are then fetched from the factory and parked in a pair of circular glass towers.
About two million people a year visit the 62-acre complex, which looks a bit like a World’s Fair exposition. It is one of Germany’s top tourist attractions.
BMW expects 800,000 visitors a year, many more than those taking delivery of new cars. Of the 45,000 cars expected to be picked up each year, about 80 percent will go to Germans, the rest to other Europeans and Americans.
To some extent, BMW is playing catch-up. Mercedes pioneered the delivery of cars at its factory in Sindelfingen, southwest of Stuttgart, in the 1950s. It delivers more than 80,000 vehicles a year at its customer center, where guests are offered a tour of the assembly line, a bite to eat and their new cars, with enough fuel to get them on the autobahn.
BMW’s Mr. Ganal, who grew up near Stuttgart, recalls going with his father to pick up their new Mercedes at the factory. The ritual, he said, deepens the bond between Mercedes owners and their cars.
BMW’s new service will be similar to that of Mercedes. German customers will buy their cars through a dealer and, for an extra charge of 457 euros ($630), will be able to pick them up at BMW Welt. (Americans can also pick up cars here; the price for European delivery will increase somewhat.)
The owners will get a tour of BMW’s Munich assembly plant† its oldest, which produces the 3 Series compact† as well as vouchers to eat at restaurants in the delivery center.
But BMW Welt has grander ambitions. Its architect, Wolf D. Prix of the Vienna firm Coop Himmelb(l)au, said his model was not Volkswagen’s Autostadt but the Acropolis in Athens. It’s a kind of covered plaza, where things can happen which are not necessarily connected with buying a car, Mr. Prix said.
The building includes a vast public gallery, where BMW will display its complete model range, a conference center that can rented out and a center for children, ages 7 to 13, to learn about mobility.
In Germany, Mr. Prix said, carmakers are taking over the role once played by the church or local princes: constructing landmark buildings. BMW recently hired Zaha Hadid, the British-based, Iraqi-born architect, to design the administration building for its assembly plant in Leipzig.
Few visitors to Munich are likely to miss BMW Welt. It sits on one of the main roads leading into the city, next to BMW’s headquarters, a bulbous tower known as the Four-Cylinder building, and the BMW Museum, a 1973 building that looks like an giant soup bowl.
BMW recently refurbished the Four-Cylinder building and is adding a pavilion next to the museum, which will quintuple its size. It will reopen in the spring, completing BMW’s campus.
What the museums show is that these companies have been around a long time, especially Mercedes and BMW, said Mr. Rhys, the Cardiff research center director. They press their heritage because Lexus doesn’t have any.
Lexus may be a parvenu in the eyes of BMW and Mercedes, but it has grabbed other, equally important accolades. In a 2007 survey of initial quality by J. D. Power & Associates, Lexus ranked second after Porsche, three places ahead of Mercedes and 19 ahead of BMW.
Beyond the quality of its cars, some question how long BMW can thrive in its current size. Its name has come up as a bidder for Volvo, the Swedish carmaker that Ford recently put on the block. Mr. Ganal declined to comment on the rumors, which analysts said they viewed as far-fetched, given BMW’s past woes with acquisitions. It lost billions of dollars in an ill-fated acquisition of Britain’s Rover in the 1990s.
Worldwide, BMW remains the No. 1 premium carmaker, and its sales are robust. In June, the BMW Group, which includes Mini and Rolls-Royce, delivered 150,285 vehicles, a 15.1 percent increase over June of last year, and the most it has ever delivered in a single month.
For all its civic and artistic aspirations, BMW Welt’s real job is to increase those numbers further. At the end of the day,Mr. Ganal conceded, we have to recognize that a car-delivery center is just a car-delivery center.