When Frank van Meel first became CEO of BMW’s famous M Division, there were a lot of questions about whether or not M cars would gain xDrive all-wheel drive or even hybridization. Van Meel claims that BMW M will always stick to its heritage and produce cars that fit the M Division’s values. So we recently sat down with him to discuss the future of the M Division at the BMW M Festival.
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One of the big things surrounding BMW and its M Division is digitalization and connectivity. Typically, connectivity isn’t the main priority for most BMW M fans, as driving dynamics and performance usually trump all else. However, BMW as a whole is becoming more connected and more digital so, naturally, the M Division will follow suit. When asked about how digitalization, connectivity and autonomous driving will affect BMW M, van Meel said “Of course, if they are offered by BMW then they are offered by BMW M, so it impacts us in a positive way”
The idea of autonomous functions in a BMW M car could upset some true fans, as M is typically about the connection between the driver and the car. But van Meel doesn’t see it as a contradiction. “I think it depends on the driving situation. M cars will always be driver’s cars, but when we were at Laguna Seca we had to drive to San Francisco airport and were stuck in traffic.”
He followed by saying “For those occasions, I think autonomous driving could really be a help.” The idea is that you can drive your M car at the track and through the mountains but when traffic hits, let it drive itself. “I don’t see M cars being driven exclusively autonomously, but as a second solution.”
Frank van Meel came from Audi, so questions about all-wheel drive for performance M cars naturally come up. His answer is simple.
“If you can create an icon that stands for something, you don’t want to lose the character. You’re going to refine it but you don’t want to change it. I think we’ve done that over five generations of the M3. If we talk about next generations, I don’t want to talk about drivetrain systems, I’d rather talk about how an M3 successor should drive like an M3 and any technology should not stand in the way of the character.”
It’s refreshing to know that van Meel feels that a BMW M car’s character is more important than the technology involved, so any tech that can make a BMW M3 feel like an M3 is tech worth using and tech that doesn’t, isn’t.
Speaking of technology, of course we had to ask if the manual transmission was here to stay, especially considering it being the standard gearbox on the M2. When asked if manuals would stay, van Meel said “It’s an interesting issue because there are two viewpoints, there’s the technical standpoint from an engineer’s view that, yes, the manual is lighter but at the same time it’s less fuel efficient and it’s slower, 0-100 (km/h). But on the other hand, it’s a very emotional issue as well and we do have a strong customer demand on the M2, as well as the M3 and M4. So if that stays, we’re not going to do away with the manual.”
Although, he did say that it won’t be available in the larger M cars, like the M5 and M6, as the demand has dried up.
We also wanted to discuss the idea of BMW M creating more niches than the brand already had.
“When you look at the lineup of models from BMW and BMW M, you’ll see that there’s a big difference. So there’s certainly a possibility of more M models and evermore M Performance models.”
Again, he gave a very typical BMW answer, that the Bavarian brand will create anything that has enough of a demand. Van Meel has refrained though from commenting on a potential BMW X3 M.
But it wouldn’t be an interview with the BMW M Boss without talking about the brand-new BMW M2. We asked if the M2 was meeting BMW M’s sales expectations, as it’s become so incredibly popular since its debut.
“Yes, it is what we expected but it’s even beyond our expectations in some markets. But it’s a bit of a test balloon, as it doesn’t really have a predecessor,” van Meel said.
The US is the biggest M2 market, followed by Germany and the UK, but all markets want more models, some of them would like to double their allocations while others are looking for at least a 50 percent increase.
Van Meel couldn’t give exact numbers for the M2’s sales figures or the ratio between manuals and automatics, as the official numbers will be more relevant after a full year of production. However, the manual take rate for the BMW M3 and M4 is about 20 percent in the US, less in the global market.
BMW just debuted the “30 Years of M3” Edition of the BMW M3, much like the 30 Jahre M5 of a few years back. We asked if we could see any other special edition models like that, or like the M4 GTS, in the future.
“I think the M4 GTS is a special model that follows a long tradition, but if you look at the tradition, we didn’t make those cars every one to two years, so we want to keep them sparse.”
We also asked if BMW M would make a hardcore variant of the M3, with four doors, like the M4 GTS.
“Again,we don’t want to make too many special models in short time periods, because we want to remain focused.”
When van Meel became the boss of BMW M, we said how he seems to have a good feel for the M brand and what it means to its fans. After sitting down with him at the M Festival, we feel even better. He seems to know exactly what is best for BMW M and its fans and won’t compromise the character of the famous brand for any specific technology or idea. The BMW M brand is safe with Frank van Meel.