Editorial: The Perceptual Confusion of BMW’s Platform Philosophy and FWD

Interesting | July 7th, 2011 by 26
BMW platform matrix 750x500

We’ve been down this road before, but as we near the approach of the first production FWD BMW, there appears to be a bit of …

We’ve been down this road before, but as we near the approach of the first production FWD BMW, there appears to be a bit of misunderstanding of how BMW achieves a FWD platform. It is not named UKL (Untere Klasse) – that is a German acronym that roughly translates to ‘sub-compact’ class. Rather it utilizes the same BMW platform matrix that the F20/F30 1er and 3er will use. How can they do that? Well when they planned for common architectural features – they also planned for architectural flexibility.

First, here’s what I believe BMW is up to. I have no confirmation of this. And no one in BMW, that I’ve had conversations with, likes to talk about the ‘platform matrix’. That’s understood, because most people immediately think of the old GM A-body cars when you mention ‘platforms’ (talk about the same sausage!).

BMW platform matrix 655x762

A good way of explaining the ‘platform matrix’, I believe, involves not thinking about the body of the car, but rather suspension components, engines, electronics, and other items that can be shared (many the customer can’t see). I believe that BMW has economic reasons to use the ‘platform matrix’ philosophy.

BMW doesn’t build a million of any given vehicle (like Toyota does the Corolla) and they’re constrained in getting the economies of scale to play out in their favor. So they have to be very smart about how they utilize the resources they have. And also, BMW is forced to play in the premium segment because they don’t have the same economies of scale that a Toyota, Ford, or GM have.

So how do the cars that BMW offers fit into a ‘platform matrix’ philosophy? The picture I cobbled up shows how. BMW, I believe, has inherently two ‘Platform Matrices'(there are more, but it gets pretty complicated with new and old ‘platform matrices’ in production at the same time).

One is for large cars and the other for everything else. I tried to show how the various models are arrayed. But, what is important is the ‘everything else’ platform matrix (I think it’s known internally as L7, but that’s based on one hit from an old web search).

Also of note is the fact that engines and transmissions (not shown) are shared. The two platform matrices shown may also share some common components between them, think steering racks, HVAC units, etc and that’s why I’ve shown some overlap between the ‘large’ and ‘small’ platform matrices).

So how does this relate to the so-called UKL platform. Well that’s actually the beauty of what BMW has created in this go around; the L7 platform has a ‘flexible firewall’ location. So BMW can build AWD, RWD and FWD from the same ‘platform matrix’, they aren’t locked into transverse FWD only. And that’s where people are getting confused. They don’t seem to get the idea that BMW’s L7 platform matrix has this flexibility built into it.

And that’s why I get so amused when people start screaming about the Z2 being FWD. It doesn’t have to be (and BMW would be foolish to make it FWD). Here’s my argument (again) against FWD in a two seats sports car. There is no packaging requirement to use FWD, after all it’s two seats only for gawd’s sake. And you aren’t expected to use them for shopping, etc.

The only reason you make a FWD sports car is if you have no other small car platform to build a car from (and even then the smart companies build mid-engine two seaters reusing the FWD drivetrain components).

So BMW isn’t constrained to using FWD for it’s small cars, because it’s smart enough to have designed the L7 platform matrix to accommodate a flexible firewall location. They will use FWD where it makes sense in their UKL offerings (A & B class cars), and retain RWD and AWD for the other models (including the F30 3er which is based on the L7, and certain models of the F20 1er, etc).

In the grand scheme of things, BMW has hit on a solution for maximizing their return on investment in components. They also have the production capabilities to pull off building different cars from a set of components, thanks to outstanding pressing processes and clever engineering.

26 responses to “Editorial: The Perceptual Confusion of BMW’s Platform Philosophy and FWD”

  1. Manny Antunes says:

    Great job Hugo! 

  2. Bry says:

    I think you did a nice job with that… I guess my question for BMW is, why make a FWD subcompact car with the BMW name when you already have the Mini line. In your depiction, both Mini and UKL are the same color, which seems to indicate to me that they would be the same brand. Unfortunately, I believe BMW will be building the UKL vehicles under the BMW brand. What we know and love about BMW is its dedication to motorsport, not its dedication to small, fuel efficient city vehicles. If they learn anything from the overwhelming success of the 1 series M Coupe, it should be that consumers love small and powerful, not small and whiney. 

    I’d be interested to know whether the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) mandate is having any effect on BMW’s decision to incorporate small, yet highly fuel-efficient vehicles into the BMW lineup. If so, then that would mean BMW will produce extremely fuel-efficient vehicles so as to offset the lesser fuel-efficient vehicles of the Motorsport division. I also wonder if the same thing is happening at Aston Martin, considering they’re known for producing massive engines and are now producing a ridiculously small, yet highly fuel-efficient urban vehicle.

    • Hugo Becker says:

      Same color because both of them will be FWD – don’t know for all variants of the upcoming 1 (we do know some are RWD) so it’s color is different.

      I think BMW thinks there’s a way to squeeze some additional profit out of city cars and that’s why I think  they’re dipping their toes into the water (I don’t think they’re ready for full immersion yet, if I may continue the aquatic analogy ;-).

      And yes CAFE (US) and CO2 constraints (Europe) have an impact.

  3. Bigk says:

    Wonderful article.. thanks!

  4. Julian says:

    Hi Hugo, I realize that I have two years of additional knowledge in reference to your post date, but your idea that the L7 platform is the ‘go-to’ architecture at BMW doesn’t work. I think that instead the company will use the L7 for predominantly rear-wheel and some related four-wheel drive models, leaving the UKL1 to be adopted as the platform with the ‘flexible’ firewall that will allow the platform to suppport a front-wheel drive model (such as the Mini and its derivatives, other than the Countryman and Paceman).

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