We recently received news that BMW will be building front wheel drive cars. This news stings our ears and tears at our hearts; here’s why.
When a vessel is in high seas – tossed about as a toy in the bathtub by huge waves and gale force winds – there is only one source of direction, one instrument used to maintain control. A Compass. There are times when the world is spinning around you, sky trades with water trades with sky, and the only thing you can do to maintain your course is follow your instruments closely. In the case of the automotive industry, you could say we’re in a storm. Energy demands are increasing across the globe while fossil fuel reserves are dwindling, the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel is subsequently rising. Environmental concerns are shared across everyone’s agenda, from politicians to bankers to executives to homeowners: “green is in.” Automakers are met with crippling emissions standards, and even more stringent expectations loom close on the horizon. A global economic meltdown saw profits fall to deficits for many – and some companies landed flat on their backs. Chrysler and GM to name just two.
Yes, we are in a storm, and as the funnel clouds swirl around us, stalwarts of the auto industry cling to their values, their virtues and their character. It is difficult to build a sports car these days, “fast and economical” – can you say “oxymoron?” Core principles of some brands are therefore threatened. Ferrari is known for their raw power, yet the Italian engineers must reduce emissions from their stallion’s tail pipes dramatically. Turbo chargers are rumored to join the marque, and while we admit this approach worked well on the F40, somehow we question this adjunct on modern Ferraris, just as we question the absence of a proper manual gearbox on their latest thorough bred, the 458 Italia.
Just as melodious free-revving V-12s remind us of Ferraris; kidney grills, double round headlights, Hofmeister kinks and rear wheel drive remind us of BMW. It is not an exaggeration to say that rear wheel drive architecture is a part of BMW’s character, a hallmark of their DNA. In fact, along with perfectly balanced 50:50 weight distribution, you could say that rear wheel drive is part of the company’s identity, their very heritage. And if you don’t respect your heritage, then what do you have? At best you have a confused and misguided company, at worst you have Chrysler or GM. A living, breathing legend could lose its soul.
Have you ever wondered why the aforementioned hallmarks of design are perpetuated by every existing BMW, from the dawn of the company until now? Is it because of typical German ‘stubbornness,’ a resistance to change based on pride? No, that would better describe Porsche’s rear engine layout. BMW have been consistent in maintaining the previously mentioned design highlights because they strike at mechanical perfection, the optimal way to achieve advanced goals of engineering. Take for example the kidney grills – a sound aerodynamic design that claims clean air for the radiator while allowing airflow to spill over the hood and around the car, balancing drag coefficients with cooling efficiency. Or consider the balanced chassis with equal weight sitting on the front and rear axles. Under hard braking, sufficient weight remains over the rear wheels allowing meaningful brake force to be distributed through the rear tires – the car squatting down, planted and secure.
Through corners the equal balance is manifest through neutral handling, and a playful, sporting attitude. And what about rear wheel drive? Is it a layout favored for reasons of sentimentality, or does it lend a similar functional benefit? Rear wheel drive is just as critical as it perfectly capitalizes on rearward weight transfer during acceleration. Accelerative force can be distributed optimally between all four contact patches, for example, when exiting from a corner. Longitudinal and lateral accelerative forces are divided in a balanced way that does not overwhelm either the front or rear tires – hence the ‘balanced,’ neutral handling. Separating steering function from the propulsion of the vehicle isolates the front wheel’s steering duties, allowing for razor sharp, intuitive feedback through the steering wheel. Precise steering feedback is synonymous with the brand; it’s one of the reasons BMW is revered for its driving dynamics. In short, every BMW hallmark bears its purpose and collectively these design trademarks culminate in “The Ultimate Driving Machine.”
But heresy strikes Munich; in an effort to tap into the premium small car market, we have heard that BMW will be producing sub-compact front wheel drive cars. It has been said that in the interests of vehicle packaging, front wheel drive offers its advantages, for instance, increased rear cargo room and more space for occupants. The reality is that front wheel drive does not offer any advantage – as far as space efficiency – over rear engine, rear wheel drive layouts in the context of sub-compact cars. A prime example of this packaging can be seen in Mercedes ‘Smart’ cars. The passenger compartment is quite spacious and ample cargo space could easily be allocated at the front of the vehicle. Efficient use of space is maximized in a rear engine, rear wheel drive layout, while maintaining the dynamic advantages of rear wheel drive.
At the expense of sounding cynical, we would suggest that BMW are turning to this front wheel drive layout in the interests of cost reduction. Front wheel drive layouts do not require as much torsional rigidity through the chassis, and this layout is less expensive to design and manufacture than front engine, rear wheel drive designs. Of course, we would be wrong to conclude that the decision to go with front wheel drive is based solely on cost reductions because the rear engine, rear wheel drive Tata Nano would most certainly prove us wrong in that regard – slapping us awake with its $2,200 price tag.
True, the demographic that will purchase this small front wheel drive BMW are not likely to drive quickly or search for their car’s performance limits. Performance and handling are not priorities in the concept of this new premium small car. But that is expressly why these cars must not wear blue and white – because they do not represent a brand where every other car is designed with performance in mind, dynamics in focus – with no compromise. The lightweight and compact design of this BMW could lend itself to brilliant handling and can’t-wipe-the-smile-off-your-face performance, the kind of drive that rekindles our love of the E30. That is, if not spoiled by front wheel drive’s bouncing, squealing front wheels and persistent understeer upon exiting a corner.
We do not envision front wheel drive spreading throughout the BMW lineup, but it saddens us that BMW are choosing this path of least resistance in the production of their new small cars. BMW has always been one of the few companies who refuse to compromise, putting design supremacy first while focused clearly on their compass. No longer will BMW be able to say that all of their cars are cut from the same cloth. Concise, confident salesman may have to temper their tone, “BMWs are the Ultimate Driving Machines, mostly… except for our small cars.” “BMW offers superior driving dynamics thanks to perfect balance and rear wheel drive, accept for the (fill in with illegitimate model) series, but mostly, we’re still the best… almost.” It’s just not quite as convincing, is it? “Eat one measly foot and they call you a cannibal” – if you compromise here, then you are clearly not steadfast. Where else will they compromise in the future? It’s as if they’re making the roundel less round.
What confuses us further is the readily available solution to this issue. Produce all front wheel drive cars under the existing Mini badge, or introduce another sub-brand to represent all of BMW’s front wheel drive compact cars. Isetta comes to mind, a classy badge that has a history of producing premium small cars. Alternatively, produce these sub-compact BMWs with a rear engine, rear wheel drive layout thereby maintaining the character, handling and tradition that has set BMW apart among their competition.
Producing front wheel drive BMWs is a compromise that will cause permanent damage. The bragging rights will have been lost, the romance, cachet and history thrown away – the heritage abandoned. BMW, I ask you, where is your compass?
Please keep the roundel round.