At the 2014 Paris Motor Show, we sat down for an interview with Karim Habib, BMW Chief Designer.

Among many design topics, we touched on the new BMW X6, design trends in the industry, Tesla’s idea to remove side mirrors and rear-wheel drive vs front-wheel drive design. Take a look at the Q&A below for some insight into BMW’s current design.

  1. When the X6 was introduced, it was a ground breaking design. How do you follow this design and keep it edgy?


It’s tricky, because the X6, as you said, was groundbreaking – not only the design but the whole concept, the shape, the proportions were groundbreaking – there was nothing like that. Also, when it came out, people loved it, people hate it, and it’s more amazing than anybody else would have thought. And not only let’s say the markets you would expect like the U.S., maybe Russia – it actually sells pretty well in Germany, Italy, so even in markets you wouldn’t think of. S

There is something about its character, this strength of character that made it an icon. So we tried to make sure that the icon is recognizable. The silhouette of the car was improved a bit, a little longer hood, a more prominent nose – but you quickly recognize the silhouette as an X6. On the other hand, what we wanted to do is to make the car a little bit leaner that what it is today – not so much mass, but a little lighter looking. That’s why if you look at both cars, the volume, the main volume is quite a bit lighter in the new generation.

There’s a low belt at the bottom of the doors and we have risen that a bit. The other thing that was very important to us was to make the car look like it has more focus around the wheels, so we added more light, more positive surfaces around the wheels, so that’s why we have the shoulder line going around the wheel arches, building this hips wing around the rear wheel, making it look full of volume.

  1. What were some of the lessons learned from the first X6 and applied on this new X6?

I think that one of the biggest lessons learned was the silhouette, the side view. It’s actually quite unique, because the roof is very round and then the rear comes very straight, very tight. And that’s a little bit odd, but that’s what creates the character of the car. We tried to keep that actually, adding just a little bit elegance by adding a few millimeters on the same shape, witch is a little bit stretched on today’s car. So we wanted to keep that identity.

Another thing that we learned was the height of the rear. It’s a very strong element, giving a lot of character, a lot of presence in today’s car, but we felt that it should look a little bit lighter when we recreated it on the new X6.

  1. What advice would you give to someone looking to buy a new car? What design elements should they be aware of?

For the brand BMW, the number one reason why people buy these cars is because the way they look. We found out in an official research that our customers if they don’t like the design, the simply don’t buy it. But if they like it, that’s the primary reason – there’s also the price and the performance that are also very important, but the design is the No. 1 reason.

I think the advice I would give to someone is simply “buy what you like”. As I designer, I will always buy something that I like, because I don’t want to make a compromise. For me a good design is an authentic design. It’s not just some ornaments on something, what we try to do at BMW is to really illustrate the inner values of the product and BMWs look the way they do because the proportions: we have the long hood and the short overhang because usually we have the six cylinders inline engine behind the front wheel. We don’t do the long hood to be fake, we do it that way because there’s where the engine needs to be. And it actually looks really good. That’s authentic, and it’s a really good example for what I said earlier.

We try to have very sharp lines because is a symbol for a precise driving machine. We talk a lot as well in design about the surfaces, the light and shadow, even the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer. Looking at the way the surfaces flow above the rear wheel, we tried to just make surfaces that almost have that sensual human feelings to them. It’s like there a bit of warmth to them, because they’re emotional. You buy a BMW because you want a certain experience and you have an emotional connection to it. You don’t buy a BMW because you just need something to go from A to B, you want it to provide a certain experience. And from the design point of view, we want to express that.

  1. Tesla says side mirrors are unnecessary with the current tech in the car. How does a designer view this and would it help design in any way?

It’s an interesting thing. For me, what’s kinda cool in this idea is that you don’t simply get rid of the mirror, but you replace it with something that’s like better technology. It would look different, of course, but I wouldn’t really want to get rid of it, but I would replace it with a little wing with a camera, something that has finesse that brings a certain attraction – I think that this is more interesting that getting rid of it. But I’ll tell you one thing that you can address it in different ways. For example, if you look at the M3 and the M4, we have a mirror that we designed differently, and actually we did like that piece – it’s got a foot and then there’s another foot – and I think that we made out of a restriction something really interesting to look at. Sometimes as a designer, an extra challenge gives you an opportunity. Yes, the mirrors looks like to be more aerodynamic, but also to look different.

  1. What it the future of BMW design when customer demands are different from 10 years ago?

The customer demands change often and change quickly. And they keep changing ever so faster and faster. But that’s what we try to do, we try to design for years in the future. And we work with that in mind – you know we have a context design department were what they do is actually research, they go in trips, they work with trend research experts, architects, designers and people who research human behavior and development, and we try to formulate a context that we’re trying to design in the future.

So it’s not very precise and it’s done by designers and not anthropology experts. We’re trying to think how the future will be like. It’s always helpful for us to have this goal about what we want to do, and it’s often a pretty amazing direction, because you can take a trend and you can evolve. If you can remember the X Coupé concept, presented in 1999, that car actually previewed everything in terms of X-Coupés and Sport Activity Coupés. That actually started from a research project. I wasn’t at BMW yet, but when I arrived, I heard about this story. There was a team of designers who went to California where they stayed a few months in a house somewhere on the beach and they researched and talked to different people and then they came up with that concept. That’s at least 15 years ago.

  1. Are the customer demands real or from time to time BMW actually sets new trends, like it did with the X6?

At BMW, we think we have a role to innovate in terms of mobility, but we don’t do thinks just for ourselves, obviously. We do believe in, but we do it for our customers. Yes, we also set a trend with the 5 Series GT and the 3 Series GT, and we do this things because we want to just offer something more than we think the customer had before. So, it’s a little bit of both and it’s driven from the inside, and also from all that we know or we try to know and understand from our customers.

  1. Are there any challenges designing for both front wheel drive and rear wheel drive customers?

Basically, I don’t think it’s all about the customers – and this is known from a research – where up to that point, about 50 percent of the 1 Series customers didn’t really know that their cars were front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive. Specialists and passionate drivers know it, but in this case, the challenge wasn’t necessarily by that, but it was more about about proportions. We don’t have the six cylinder inline engine behind the front wheel, here we have a transversal engine above the axle. But it was important to us was to keep the shot overhang, which was an engineering challenge.

A very important achievement is that although the 2 Series Active Tourer is a monovolume (MPV), we do have a transition between the hood and the windshield. Another important aspect was to have big wheels at the corners, and big wheels in a transversal engine car brings the turning radius also a challenge. So, it’s more the architecture that presents challenges and I think that in the end we still managed to create something typically BMW for that chapter.

  1. What’s the one BMW car you would love to own today? Both new and used.

Well, new is the M3. I love that car. I think it’s incredible. Four doors because I have a family and I like the idea of superfast four doors. I think it’s the coolest thing, to be honest. The M5 it’s a little big to me, and I live in a crowded city like Munich, so I don’t need such a large car. It’s perfect if you have all in back, so you don’t have the chance to see it too much.

Car from the past? Tons. I’d like an E30 M3, I’d like a CSL, I’d like a 503. Hmm, what else? I actually wouldn’t mind an Isetta. And I can go towards motorcycles, like the original R90, I’ll take the K100 and modify it.

And I could take an old Alpina? A 6 Series Alpina? I think it would suit me well.