Where Did the Road Go?

BMWs since the mid-seventies have been referred to as the “Ultimate Driving Machine “. What began as a passionate tag line from the folks in marketing (penned by Martin Puris, co-founder of Ammirati and Puris) was merely stating the views of enthusiasts and automotive journalist in something the masses could relate to. BMWs at launch of the slogan simply drove the way a small sporty car should, they were the epitome of what people desired; a small economical car that was a blast to drive and gave a thrill in every corner.

It was not the norm for manufacturers to give the driver such a connection to the road, to not dumb out the feeling of the tires or to make the rear end compliant rather than just comfortable. Those same characteristics were taken a whole new level when M GMBH started to improve cars for racing homologation. M cars had increased performance in every way, from increased steering feel to finite throttle response and increased power. To drive an M product such as the E30 ///M3 was to drive a car that felt more like a go kart than luxury car, they turned when and where they were pointed, braked like nothing else outside a super car and were still quite economical and gave the driver tons of input (not a bad little package).

These M cars were great for driving enthusiasts but were difficult to sell to the general public as there was too much feel and not enough padding or room for wide bottoms. Stories have circled for years that some of the E30s sat at the port so long that they were sold as the current production model year even though they were part of the previous years run; something that has never been confirmed but would not be surprising considering that a similar situation occurred with the E86 Z4 ///M(but in the form of huge cash incentives).

As time has moved on government regulations and general consumer demand have made all mass produced cars heavier, more luxurious but most of all they have become increasingly numb and less engaging. The one plus is that the vast majority of cars are now more powerful while still being more efficient. BMWs for the most part have followed the same general course, the biggest difference today compared to years gone by is that the competition is more fierce and they have made huge gains into areas BMW was the leader.

BMW is no longer a smaller boutique brand pushing a product to a small audience. It has grown into a brand with a huge presence as one of the largest luxury brands if not the largest (each brand has an argument on that). BMWs are now morefor the mainstream customer looking for a well built luxurious car that is reportedly fun to drive. That is what BMW has become and really, who can blame them? They still drive better than basically every car on the road, are available with the latest technology, and have great safety features in addition to the luxury. The real issue is that rivals such as Audi and now even Infinity are producing vehicles that are very comparable in drive and only the most discerning driver is going to note the superiority of the BMW and even fewer of these drivers can justify the cost difference. It is fair enough to say that the current models are not solely bought on driving feel- it is the complete package that sells and that is what BMW is banking on so they must cater to the larger audience.

When the beginning product is designed for the masses generally subsequent performance models from M are destined to the same fate. What once was a sub-brand that peddled its wares to the track rat promising performance must now also answer to the luxury customer. Modern day M cars are for the most part more opulent than their mainstream counterparts to go along with all the performance improvements. They offer finer leathers and additional features such as power seats and HUDs; things most enthusiasts do not want or need. With each subsequent offering the performance has also increased, never being sacrificed for luxury. Here, once again the main client base is never going to track the car or even put premium gas in the tank; the car will be valeted at the country club and talked about in the salon and that is pretty much it.

Building cars is a business and a finicky one at that, a company must balance overall market demand with pricing while at the same time retain previous customers that have long time loyalty. BMW recently may have mortgaged some enthusiasts for more of the mainstream (if certain opinions are to be believed); this has become more apparent with the overwhelming internet wide lambasting of the 535. Whether or not it was warranted or if it will eventually hurt BMWs reputation is not the point here (we ‘ll delve into that once the dust has settled a bit), the point is that BMW is catering directly to the enthusiast in other ways and has not forgotten us. BMW offers a significantly more performance oriented 550 and will be releasing its flagship performance sedan the ///M5 in the not so distant future; so does the the 535, or even the 528 really need to cater to the enthusiast market? Like picking a paint color all of these things are personal preferences and as a company trying to turn profits they are shooting for a happy medium, which they have definitely done.

Dr. Kay Segler, the current head of M has stated that he wants to return to the roots of the M Division. He wants to make cars more accessible to enthusiasts, and to bring back the feel. The first few product of his efforts will be the ///M5 and the 1///M. The 1///M is a product that was created directly in response to his challenge to find what differs in today ‘s M cars compared to that nimble E30 M, the simple answer is feel and it is rumored to be making a welcomed appearance once again.

Since BMW ‘s newer ads focus on bringing Joy to the masses, then maybe ///M should be focussing on bringing us the “Ultimate Driving Machine “. Just a thought. The age of 0-60 and ‘Ring laps being the end all be all should soon come to a close, and the era of road feel and driver engagement is about to begin. And like you, we are anxiously awaiting it.

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  • JonPD

    Best article I’ve read in a long time Michael. Keep up the great work.

  • Mark

    I think BMW has become very American with big torquey engines and soft suspensions. My 135i is supposed to be a sports coupe, but it came with by far the softest suspension of any car I’ve owned (I’m 53). Even with the expensive aftermarket BMW Performance Suspension, it was still the bounciest car I’d ever owned. Several thousand dollars in M3 parts later, it finally feels like a sports coupe. I know, I should have waited for the 1M. Next time I will not consider a non-M BMW.

  • goat

    “The age of 0-60 and ‘Ring laps being the end all be all should soon come to a close, and the era of road feel and driver engagement is about to begin.”

    For many of us this brave new era of road feel and driver engagement is long-awaited… and will hopefully be long-lived! Good article!

    Agreed that even Sport Suspension specs are getting overly soft and the non-M turbo motors are emphasizing low-end torque above revving and sound. Perhaps, a fine strategy for Audi, but a tragic one for BMW, as far as I’m concerned. (I have always associated BMW motors with a “cammy” feel… a vociferous snarl and notable quickening of the rev needle as it spins towards redline, all the while being silky smooth.)

  • bmw

    As a long time BMW enthusiast…I hate to say that we might one day have to move the Porsche to keep the ultimate driving machine experience…It’s a shame…But BMWs nowadays are just plain too fat.

  • Evan

    Great article. I can’t agree any more.

    The problem with eliminating or decreasing driver feel and engagement in the entry level cars is that those who want the Ultimate Driving Machine can’t easily afford one. The point of BMW is that no matter if you buy a base 3er or a loaded 7er, the initial drive and involvement should be there, no questions, no dials, no iDrive menu later.

    I pray BMW doesn’t lose its way. The 535i was a supreme disappointment for me and makes me fear the results of the F30.

    Are you listening? Remember who you are while you are becoming who you will be BMW.

  • Evan- I agree that feel should be there in every BMW but I also think that a 1 Series buyer or 3 Series buyer is usually different than a 5 Series buyer. I hate to stereo type or explain target demographics (as I usually never fit in them) but the 5 Series buyer is usually management level, late-40’s with a great deal of responsibility and tend to be a bit less of an enthusiast than the 30 year old in the 1er.

    I think that for the segment the 5er is still sporty but compared to the 3 it is softer and less of a driver’s car.

    If BMW plans on moving away from the pack they need to build cars that are outside the box, lighter and more responsive but not all models need to meet this requirement. From a marketing perspective if BMW builds the F30 3 series as the BEST driving car in the class with unilateral praise from auto journalists there will be a trickle down effect with the masses to all the other models.

    The hardest part is going to be building cars that are not more powerful, or even quicker- how does one sell feel since there is no statistical reference for driver feedback- that is where the difficulty lies.


  • Evan

    I completely agree that the demographic for the 5er is different from the 3er, and that’s how it should be. The 5er is a much larger feeling car. What I do remember though, was getting out of an E46 325i after flogging it on a road course and into an E39 540i and thinking that while it did drive larger and was obviously a step-up luxury-wise, it still drove impressively and like a BMW. That’s what they have to keep on. The F10 was remote and barge-like compared to my E90, night and day versus variations on how sunny it is.

    A 5er is too big for me, but I expect the right amount of BMW left in it. Let’s just hope the F30 is good. I might be putting in an order for an end-build E90 to replace my current one…

  • chas58

    Numb is the right word. When I wanted driving feel, I found myself driving a pedestrian Mazda 3, when my BMW (328) was new. Some simple changes (exhaust (which improved throttle too), tires, and ///M3 suspension bits) brought the car alive, but out of the box the car was numb. Cars with the automatic transmission, standard suspension, and/or AWD are even more numb. It is easy to make the car alive, but you have to know how – and BMW isn’t going to do it for you.

    At a couple hundred pounds more than a GTI, it isn’t too fat, but checking the right option boxes can make it nose heavy and add almost 1000 lbs. A lightly modded 128/328 may be one of the best driver’s car BMW has, but it isn’t going to win bragging rights.

    I’m sorry, but if I have to buy an ///M car to get driving feel I am going to go somewhere else.

  • Que

    Great article!

    I am not sure if BMW is addressing the feel with the M-pkg? Not a M car but lets say a 328i RWD, with M sport suspension, steering wheel, tires, and better looking front and rear bumper?

    I know when I bought my E39, I bought the 530i that came with the M pkg, which came nothing more than just a tighter shocks, lower springs, staggered wheel setup, and a few M badges. It works for me. Comparing it to a regular 5 series, I noticed a difference in ride, and that was within the first gear shift, there was way more feed back.

    I hope they are still doing this.