When it was unveiled at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show, the new BMW Concept 4 Series has taken the automotive world by surprise. The precursor to the production 4 Series Coupe was shown in a daring and polarizing design, which, of course, has sparked a lot of conversations.

Certainly the most intriguing design feature on the BMW Concept 4 Series was the oversized kidney grille, a new interpretation of the iconic element. The new kidney also gives us a preview at the things to come from the BMW Design Studio, starting with the next year’s BMW M3 and M4 which will feature a similar grille.

While passing through Munich, I decided to stop by BMW Group Forschungs- und Innovationszentrum (BMW FIZ), the main engineering and development campus of the BMW.

My host for the day was Domagoj Dukec, the new Head of Design at BMW.

Domagoj Dukec, 46, was born in Frankfurt and has worked in the Design BMW Automobiles team since 2010. He was most recently responsible for the design team at BMW i and BMW M, so he certainly had some first-hand input into the next generation M3 and M4 design.

Naturally, I had to ask Herr Dukec about the new concept car and the idea behind the new design direction.

“The new kidney hasn’t arrived as a strategic decision. We didn’t sit down and say let’s make the kidneys bigger,” said Dukec. “But it’s a rather a conversation about how to give the cars a self-confident presence. Look for example at the new 1 Series, when I saw the design sketches, I said ‘Yes, that’s something we should do’,” added the Head of BMW Design.

“That’s how we work, I don’t tell designers what to draw. We have a clear task and we see what fits, and we wanted something fresh.”

Dukec also says that customers’ preferences are taken into account and markets like China are often studied to see what customers might like. But that doesn’t mean that cars are designed for a specific market.

He also acknowledges and understands the BMW collectors who might own an E30 or E46, and might not always happy with the changes.

So that brings us our chat to the large kidney grille.

“It’s not about the size [of the kidney grille], it’s actually about the size in proportion to the dimension of the car. And if you go to auto shows, let’s say in Frankfurt, the [BMW] kidney is still the smallest grille of all,” Dukec  says.

“Of course, if you just look at the grille, you might say ‘Okay, it’s getting bigger’, but you have to look at our [iconic] mask and kidney grille – which is very unique – then I think we should be much more self-confident and proud of this.”

Furthermore, Dukec says that the large kidney grille doesn’t apply to all BMWs, like for example the new Z4, 8 Series and G20 3 Series.

“Our goal was to differentiate the models, like the G20 3 Series and G32 4 Series now. In the past, models like the E90 and E92 were very close in design, with small differences, but today, we have two different type of customers. One will say ‘It’s not sport enough, I want expression and extroversion’, so you really have to split [these customers].”

Herr Dukec also talks about customers being less inclined to buy two-door cars these days, so in order to attract the clientele, a more daring design has to be implemented on these models. He also mentions that the ideas of the Concept 4 Series was not to make it a small 8 Series. So the team played with a smaller kidney grille on the 4 Series also, but they felt it was too close to the larger and more expensive 8 Series.

Rendering by Mike Maravilla

“We want to give every car its own character. This is like the times when there was a 2002 and then there was a 3.0 CSI. Two different characters, and that was the point with the 4 and 8 Series,” Dukec tells me.

And since the 4 Series is the base for the DTM car, in terms of weight and size, BMW wanted to make the 4 Series the sportier and product than the 3 Series, with its own character.

“The vertical kidney is actually based on our first iterations of the kidney grille when all of them were vertical. Like the E28, for example. Yet it doesn’t mean this kidney will be on some other products. We want to have it exclusively for our core product.”

Next, the million dollar question came: where will the license plate be situated on this new kidneys?

“Of course, there’s always a problem with number plate. Other automakers have the same issue. But imagine designing a car just to fit the license plate? We’ve tried to position it on the left side, right side, like others do. The problem is that we sell [cars] in a lot of markets, and to us they’re just legal restrictions on what is allowed what is not allowed.”

He has a point though, especially since not all countries require a front plate, same as not all US states mandate one.

Rendering by Andrei Avarvarii

The future M3/M4 topic came up again, but the conversation stayed hypothetical. So I asked Dukec whether a large kidney grille on the new M3 would make sense and whether the customers would appreciate the big gap in between the M car and the regular production series.

“The M version is always about exaggeration. It’s the best version of each product. Actually, the designers are always designing to the end, meaning to the top product. Then the sketches get toned down for the standard production series cars”, Dukec tells me.

“This is something we started three years ago and it will be very special, but you have to wait a bit longer.”

Today, we’re a society driven by looks and design, so naturally, I had to ask Dukec how that translates into the automotive world.

“Design is and will be the only justification, or the reason, to buy a premium product. Let’s say a luxury product, There’s no logic decision for it. So design will always be the key for BMW to selling more expensive products. Of course, there’s certain functionality, but at first you need to experience everything. Design is smell, look, color materials, and also the shape.”

To end the conversation, we talked next about the autonomous world and whether the exterior design will still be relevant. The BMW Head of Design believes that even for on-demand mobility (car sharing, Uber etc…), design will still be important since customers prefer premium products. And if you travel autonomously, a premium product will also be the top choice.

Our interview came to an end, but not before we planned our next encounter – at the unveil of the new BMW M3 in 2020.