Column: Where Has The Car Gone?

Interesting | October 2nd, 2009 by 7
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Where has the Car gone? Designing a modern car is a demanding task these days – it must be safe yet made of lightweight materials, …

Where has the Car gone?

Designing a modern car is a demanding task these days – it must be safe yet made of lightweight materials, it has too look good but still be practical and spacious, the interior must ooze with quality, but the costs of the production must still be reasonable. Even more, the engine has to be more powerful but still consume less than before and the car must ride with comfort, yet the handling has to be entertaining.

A typical consumer always conducts a small research before buying anything, and most of us don’t buy cars on a daily basis, so choosing the right one can be pretty much stressful. Just remember the last time you were buying a car (presuming that you’ve had several options in mind), you were probably asking your friends, family and co-workers about their experience, reading reviews and comparing the stats. This last thing is crucial for the majority of consumers – the final choice is up to you, but you would probably write off a certain product if it got bad reviews, right?

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The motoring press has a great influence on most buyers and opinions are often formed based on what is written in the magazine. BMW receives a fair amount of good reviews, but that’s not the only thing that helps them being one of the world’s best selling premium brands. The perception also plays a major role in making choices, and again BMW drivers are the most satisfied with their cars (BMW Named Which? Best Car Manufacturer Awards in 2009).

Take my cousin, for example. She’s a young business woman in her early thirties, living in a prestige suburb with her husband and two small children. Having a big Swedish saloon, they need a smaller car for her to go to work, drive around downtown and take the kids to day care. And despite this, she had bought a BMW 1 Series. Now, it’s a great car, but I’m not sure why someone with similar needs as hers would buy an uncomfortable, impractical and cramped car? The 1 Series may be the best hatchback to go and thrash on a twisty road, but to pick up groceries and place child seats, there are better solutions.

I seriously doubt that my cousin knows (and cares) about 50:50 weight distribution, rear-wheel drive and award winning engines, but the quality, the reputation and the badge are her concern. And I cannot blame her.

This brings us back to reviews and perception. My cousin is hardly the only one with a taste for premium. In fact, BMW takes that kind of consumers as seriously as the rest of us who are just seeking pure driving pleasure. The 1 Series might not be the best example for that matter, but one model in BMW’s lineup has transformed from a small niche product into a sales phenomenon, accounting for nearly 40% of the company’s sales.

But is the 3 Series such a good car in the real world?

All serious car journalists are motoring enthusiasts and general bias towards BMW is not surprising; after all, BMW has built its reputation on making cars that are purely driver oriented. All BMWs have the traditional front-engine, rear drive layout (many journalist say: “As God intended”) and are praised for genuine communication with the driver. Of course, logical and intuitive cockpit design and perfect driving position only contribute to this.

But if this makes a good driver’s car, it seems that anyone can do it. Is that right?

Basically, yes, but just imagine having a Lotus Elise, for example. Anyone who has ever tried it agrees that it’s an amazing automobile, but at what cost? It only seats two, safety features and optional equipment are at bare minimum, it is as comfortable as a skateboard…

Would you really want one for everyday driving?

As said in the beginning, modern cars are difficult to produce, but imagine how difficult it is to make a car that has all these features, yet has to be fun, inspiring and communicative. It seems contradictory, because the more kits and equipment you put in the car to make it more safe, comfortable and easy to use, the more it distances itself from the driver.

This is where the 3 Series really makes sense. For years, it has been the benchmark for small luxury sedans and its competitors are judged based on how close they come to it. The more time you spend with it, the more you understand why it’s so loved and why (as Jeremy Clarkson once said) everyone in the world has one.

To explain this, you need to think as an engineer and designer: It has to be fun and instinctive enough for traditional BMW drivers, yet not tiring and compromising for relaxed ones. It has to be large enough for an average family, yet compact to still feel agile and sporty.

To tell you the truth, I was never a fan of the 3 Series; we’ve always had one and I thought it was too plain and common for my taste. But again, the more time you spend with the 3er, the more you love it because it suits so many drivers like no other car I can currently think of.

The most impressive thing is how diversified it is, cars that are direct and involving can get you tired because you’re constantly aware of what is going around you, but the 3 Series simply communicates with the driver in a subtle way, giving you the right information at the right time. It is nimble and racy when you want it to be, yet it copes well with relaxed cruising.

BMW is trying hard to make every car in its line-up so beautifully balanced, but sometimes they end up being too harsh (like the old Z4) and are soften up for more comfort (like the new Z4.)
Which brings us back to the main question; with all these compromises and attracting new customers, Where Has The Car Gone?

Let’s focus on the Z4 for a little bit; it was a rival for the Porsche Boxster and at some point, it even had the edge over the Porsche, but BMW realized that the Mercedes SLK was outselling both by a wide margin. It wasn’t a significantly better car, but it was more tame and much easier to drive.

So the new Z4 got a tin roof and has gained a few more pounds, but so far, it is one of the best-selling sports cars in the world.

Okay, you might not keep up with a Boxster on track, but it’s not like you should fear to be overtaken by an SLK or a TT. The new Z4 looks like a million dollars, and while it has sacrificed its hard core nature for a bit more broad appeal, it certainly won’t leave the Boxster as the only performance roadster.The rumored back-to-basics Z2 might out in a year or two and could fill this gap.

And what about the X6 and 5 Series Gran Turismo? While the X6 isn’t exactly svelte beauty, it still is the best handling SUV (pardon, Sports Activity Coupe) and the sales rose 50% this year.

Isn’t that convincing enough?

The 5 GT is already proven to be this year’s biggest (positive) surprise, as all reviews praised its interior design and quality, BMW-ish handling and great comfort. The design may be a matter of taste, but if my conservative, Audi-loving SUV/crossover-hating friend said that it looked stunning, there must be something about it.

So is the Car really gone? Yes, I’m afraid it is. Clarkson said that as much as the modern 3 Series is balanced and wondrous, “the excitement, the fizz of early cars is gone”. It has to be, just compare the size of the 1982 320i and 2009 model and you’ll see what he means.

So yes, the Car is now huge, heavy, consumes less than a hybrid and has more electronics than Bill Gates’ living room. But, we drive BMWs so we can enjoy that genuine driving feel a bit longer than the rest of them.

After all, Joy is BMW.

7 responses to “Column: Where Has The Car Gone?”

  1. Gunnar says:

    Very nicely said. And beautiful shot of the old 323i. Almost makes me want one. And then I remember…

    That the early generations 3-Series (late 70s, 80s), for all their lean and sporting intentions were cars of limited scope.

    They were cramped, loud, harsh riding, high on cost, low on content, squirrely on wet pavement, and worthless in the snow. Style wise, the tall greenhouse cabin that’s part of the E21 and E30’s three box design is an acquired taste.

    To their great merit, however, these old 3er’s engaged the driver and provided magnificent feedback. Corner after corner, the act of turning the wheel and feeling the machine respond was a reward in and of itself.

    For the rest of the time – traffic, commutes, A-C-D-B around town errands, the act of driving these older, wonderfully in-tune cars was a chore that wore on the driver.

    To be sure, BMWs are a little or a lot soft these days – depending on the model and your preference. I’d argue that the M3 is spot on while the 7-Series has gone to mush.

    But the balance towards more comfort and practicality overall is right for a car company that produces luxury performance vehicles – not sports cars.

    That BMW’s able to reach this balance of comfort and performance better than anyone else where it concerns crossovers is more remarkable still.

    To wit, the car’s still here. And it’s comfier than ever.

  2. Shawn says:

    Great article, but I must agree to disagree. It’s true that modern vehicle expectations in safety/comfort/etc., have distanced the driver somewhat from the pure, lightweight and direct driving experience of years gone by. But as technology advances, so does the feel of dynamism in BMW’s cars in certain respects. For example, take throttle control. While the E30 was probably one of BMW’s purest renditions of the automobile, it lacked the crisp, immediate throttle response made possible on new BMW’s by drive-by-wire technology/improvements in injection technology, valve train tech, etc.

    So while I enjoy the 2500 lb curb weight of the E30, I’m confident in the direction that BMW has taken its design principles of making every car a sporting car, if not a sports car.

    I would also have to argue that BMW has appeased all of it’s consumer base by producing exceedingly versatile cars. Take the new Z4 for example. Yes, by default when you step inside and drive – it’s plush, a touch cushy, and ready for a trip over the roughest roads through downtown traffic.

    But ultimately, the car has been designed with performance parameters in mind, and has had this comfort added as an alternate drive experience, creating it’s duel personality. It all changes with the M button. And while it’s not faster than the Porsche, it’s not exactly far behind. BMW did not first create a cushy car based on it’s comfortable virtues, and then add in performance character as an afterthought.

    From it’s basic layout to the finer details, BMW always creates a basic sports car, then modifies it to suit it’s intended purpose. That’s why in BMW’s history, not one car departing from the factory in Munich has strayed from 50/50 weight balance or RWD. During the design process, every car they produce has circled the N’Ring. At it’s very heart, I believe every BMW is still a sports car.

    The best news is yet to come. BMW is investing heavily in resourses that will allow them to build the purest, dynamic and efficient cars to date. From the great weight savings of their metal hardening facility to the new aero lab, BMW is working harder than ever to put us behind the wheel of a more accomodating, much safer, more efficient, faster and more dynamic E30.

  3. Horatiu B. says:

    Thanks for your input guys, very elaborate. While I’m a big fan of older bimmers, I can’t say that I don’t enjoy my 335i more than any other 3er I drove. Technology is moving forward and I hate to be missing out.

    Thanks for the great column Stjepan.

  4. Joe says:

    Great article.. thank you. I do believe that the 3 is just that… a focussed car…

  5. X5SoB says:

    The Car has never really gone away, but the definition of what a Car is has gotten a good bit fuzzier, what with 4 door coupes, crossovers, lowered SUV/SAVs, hardtop convertibles, and the like. I argue that the Sports Car has gone away, with the increased weight, complexity, comfort, and safety. The Elise would have been considered porky by Colin Chapman, and the Mini is huge in comparison to it’s progenitor. No current car fits into the classic definition of a Sports Car: a minimalist light weight cloth top 2 seater with just enough power and razor sharp to the point of scary handling, not even the Miata, which far too civilized. The Sports Car may be gone, but we are all the the better for it. So too the the simple 3 series versus the current sophisticated one.

  6. Funcrew says:

    My daily driver is a 1988 325i sedan. It’s an absolute blast to drive – light, nimble, tail-happy, equipped with plain mechanical limited-slip diff, bulletproof inline-6 & drivetrain, dirt cheap to maintain and modify, and hugely satisfying. Also a pain in the butt in many ways, and my wife and daughter hate it with a passion. The new BMW’s are much nicer cars to drive around, more civilized and livable. That said, I’m putting some money into the old E30 to keep it going for another 20 years.

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