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.