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, 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.