Automobiles

[OPINION] Are BMWs still the Ultimate Driving Machines?

BMW would like its customers and prospects to believe that its “Ultimate Driving Machine” tagline is still true, whether it’s the latest 3, the 5 or even the 7-passenger all-new BMW X7 SUV.

In order to evaluate the truth to this statement, a small group of Canadian journalists were recently invited to Vancouver Island to evaluate the company’s latest product offensives that have been mounted in order to succeed again its competitors.

Do people still care about the Ultimate Driving Experience?

I’ve often thought about why I find driving to be as enjoyable as I do. To literally be in control of a machine under one’s foot, going from 0-100 km/hr in 2nd gear, and literally feeling thrust behind one’s back. There’s nothing quite like it. The more twisty the road the better.

It’s almost the same feeling, the same rush that I can remember after learning to ride a bike for the first time.

For many, the thought of dealing with other motorists, pedestrians, construction crews, is enough to literally turn their stomachs.

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal recently noted that the percentage of American teens with a driver’s license has tumbled in the last few decades. About a quarter of 16-year-olds had a driver’s license in 2017, representing a sharp decline from nearly half in 1983, according to an analysis of licensing data by transportation researchers.

So what’s the deal here? Clearly, many young people are happy to live their lives without a car, especially in big cities where public transportation is good.

At the last NADA (National Automobile Dealers’ Association) conference, industry experts felt that there would be much change by 2024, but it would be evolutionary and not revolutionary.

By consolidating their data from studies, they found that while millennials did show lower rates of car ownership between 2007-15, so far there was no decrease in a desire to drive. Instead, what they were doing was delaying ownership of cars instead of abandoning it. Indeed, millennials now make up the largest market segment of customers.

In order to combat the changing tastes of the consumers, including these millennials, auto manufacturers have had to diversify their product lines tremendously in the last couple of decades in order to try to find micro-niches.

No longer is it as simple as a sports car, sedan, a coupe, a wagon, a pick-up truck, or an SUV. Today, we have “shooting brakes”, four door coupes, Sport Activity Vehicles, and hot-road German station wagons which outperform what would traditionally be considered “sports cars”.

BMW is an example of just such a company who has had to diversify perhaps more than others.

Bavarian Motor Works

If you aren’t familiar with BMW’s storied history, the B.M.W stands for Bavarian Motor Works. Founded in 1916 and originally started as an airplane engine manufacturer, after World War 1, the company focused on building motorcycles and then later on automobiles. It also survived the post-war period by making pots, pans, and bicycles until 1948, when it restarted motorcycle production.

Today, as we all know, the BMW Group produces motorcycles, plug-in electric cars and luxury automobiles and includes auto brands: BMW, MINIs, and Rolls-Royce.

BMW’s branding tagline of “The Ultimate Driving Machine”, introduced in the 1970s, is probably one of the most remembered and successful marketing campaigns. Even today, ardent BMW fans can appreciate how well the tagline still resonates with their aspirations.

The Ultimate marketing campaign

The tagline, now over 35 years old, was originally created by a relatively unknown ad agency, Ammirati & Puris. Ammirati & Puris caught the attention of Bob Lutz (yes, that Bob Lutz of Ford, Chrysler, and GM fame) by their impressive Fiat ads. At the time, Lutz was the executive vice president of BMW’s global sales and marketing and had worked with Ammirati & Puris while he was at Fiat before joining BMW.

Although it was considered a gamble to go with such an underdog agency, The “Ultimate Driving Machine” tagline became part of BMW’s marketing campaign in 1973 and the rest, as they say, is history.

The slogan became an integral part of BMW’s marketing campaigns and became ubiquitous in magazine advertisements. It drove the marketing campaigns and helped to increase sales and create a distinctive positioning for the BMW brand. The slogan adorned the best car ad campaigns from the BMW marketing works for decades.

Part of the secret of the tagline’s success was its directness. It hit consumers right between the eyes without being vague. They explicitly knew what BMW was aiming for; creating the best automobiles that would delight performance enthusiasts while still maintaining a high level of functionality, design excellence, and luxury.

Since “The Ultimate Driving Machine” also emphasised the driving experience, car owners did not need to feel that driving pleasure needed to be sacrificed at the expense of fuel economy. An important point in the 1970’s during the fuel crisis. While this is still important today – just look at electrification of vehicles – the slogan resonated with an entire generation of post-World War 2 Americans who were graduating and entering the workforce.

They wanted a symbol of their mobility that was different than that of the Fords, Chryslers, and Buicks that their parents drove, and the fuel crisis in the 1970s pushed these younger people into a preference for fuel-efficient cars.

“The Ultimate Driving Machine” is so synonymous with the BMW brand that there was significant apprehensiveness from BMW fans when the company introduced the new slogans of “Sheer Driving Pleasure” and “Joy is BMW” in the USA and European countries and China respectively.

Luckily, BMW insisted that those campaigns were there to warm up the brand and make it more approachable, but they never ever moved away from the Ultimate Driving Machine.

Do modern day BMWs still live up to their name?

So, why the history lesson you might ask?

It’s because a good slogan / tagline ultimately does one thing and that is explain a promise. However, the ability to keep that promise across and throughout all the products a company offers, is often a feat that is overlooked.

BMW spent years, decades even, proclaiming itself as the Ultimate Driving Machine. It wasn’t all just talk because the company delivered again and again with vehicles that were the benchmark of luxury and performance. Others tried, but no one could arguably approach BMW’s combined level of superiority and consistency across their entire line-up.

However, the competition hasn’t been resting on their laurels either. Something happened in the last five years or so and the rest of the industry is catching up. BMW leaders have launched an onslaught of new and updated models like never before in order to keep up with the likes of Tesla, Jaguar, Porsche, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz.

The situation is so immediately dangerous that BMW recently set up an internal conference geared toward waking up remaining employees and showing them the truth about what it’ll take to succeed against this new breed of competition.

The future is still friendly

The market is shifting in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago and BMW has been trying to adapt but yet remain relevant in the minds of driving enthusiasts.

Gone is the popularity of the traditional BMW layout of a 4 passenger, 2 door, rear-wheel-drive front engined sedan. The diversity of new BMW vehicles that were presented on our press junket alone goes to show you just how the company has had to micro-niche its line-up to adapt to changing consumer tastes.

Thanks to BMW’s devotion to its dual-kidney grille design theme, there is still a common thread that links all of its products together, big or small.

While I won’t go into details of each vehicle in this opinion piece, you can read my in-depth thoughts in my existing or upcoming BMW reviews..

2019 330i xDrive and M340i xDrive

Let’s start with the bread and butter vehicle, BMW’s latest 3-Series sedan, launched just this model year and longest running model nameplate of the bunch.

When you look at the history of the 3-Series as a whole, it’s easy to see how the model got to where it is today. 40 years on, this all new 3-Series doesn’t offer up any surprises. It’s comfortable yet sporty, respectable and yet smart. This all despite the fact that almost all of its components are entirely different from the last.

Switching back to back from other BMW models to the 3-Series, it’s easy to see why the model has been long regarded as the benchmark of the compact sport sedan class. The 3-Series is central to what BMW is all about. Through decades of careful evolution, it has become a standard to which everything else similar is inevitably measured again.

On the twisty backroads of Vancouver Island, the M340i felt relatively plush on some stretches where the pavement was rough, and the road contour was full of undulations. It’s easy to see why this car is a daily driver for tens of thousands of people.

BMW has impressively developed its 3.0-litre turbocharged six-cylinder engine a great amount of flexibility. Fitted to the M340i, it feels significantly less hard charging compared to the Z4 M40i roadster, but yet still eagerly revs to redline. The amount of low end torque is highly usable and the 3-Series continues to improve upon a nice balance of luxury, comfort, and performance. I wished that the M340i’s exhaust note was louder, considering that the car does wear the official “M Performance” badge.

On the Vancouver Island Motorsports track, the lower-spec 330i xDrive felt more balanced than the M340i xDrive due to its lighter engine. While it ran out of steam much quicker on the front straightaway, even the track instructors were impressed by its surefootedness.

If you’re going to buy a 330i though, opt for the optional M sport package which outfits the 330i with stickier summer rubber and M brakes. Not only do they look better, but they transform what is a nice daily driver BMW to a sporty daily driver BMW without giving up anything as far as performance.

2019 BMW Z4 M40i

The old Z4 took aim at its rival from Stuttgart, the Mercedes-Benz SLK (now known as the SLC). This new one has a fabric top, losing its hardtop and rounded looks. Not only has this lowered the car’s centre of gravity, but also reduced its weight and complexity significantly.

Apparently we have Toyota to thank for this latest iteration of the Z4. BMW saw the two seater roadster market softening and wasn’t sure if it could sell enough Z4s to justify its replacement. However, in came Toyota who wanted a new Supra but didn’t have a platform.

Since both companies were staunch proponents for straight-six engines and rear-wheel-drive, the beancounters were satisfied and an unlikely marriage was born. But make no mistake though. While the Supra gets most of the Z4’s basic engineering, it is tuned and set-up different from the Z4.

The BMW feels totally German and the only “roadster” of the pair. Despite not having a fixed roof, the chassis can easily cope with the M40i’s engine. It revs to 7,000 rpms and thanks to more power and torque than when fitted to the M340i, it has a totally different character.

The Z4’s sensations, pull, sound all combine to make it the most trackworthy non-full-M BMW I’ve driven.

And yet with its adaptive dampers, the Z4 relaxed nicely into long-haul stretches on our round-the-island media trip. In Sport mode though, it’s full-on recreation with a clearly sharper turn-in.

On the track, there is an enormous amount of grip as the suspension keeps a vigilant eye on the amount of body roll. The steering is geared to be quick, allowing for wonderful accuracy when aiming for the apex cones. As you lean into the power in the tight corners, the Z4’s e-differential goes to work to help one hang onto the edge of the immense traction that those sticky Michelin tires can generate.

Is this still an Ultimate Driving Machine? Absolutely.

2019 BMW M850i coupe

The 6 Series is gone…for now. This is BMW’s latest continent basher and backroad blaster, the M850i. In the past, the number 8 has meant a big deal for a BMW. Just think of the i8, and the cherished 850CSI and Z8.

But let’s clear up the air firstly by addressing the fact that this is not a coupe version of the 7 Series. The 8 Series is its own thing and BMW was clear from the outset of the project that this is a completely different beast. Why is it not a 6 but an 8? Arguably because the 8 is a grander car than the 6. Plus the number 6 now rests on the tailgate of a big practical BMW hatchback, the 640i Gran Turismo.

The 8 Series’ brief was to be a GT sports car that would be available in three body styles – coupe (as driven here), cabriolet, and a four door Gran Coupe. The end product is a new BMW GT sports car that is as thundering down a back road as it is crossing continents.

With its dramatic, low, broad-shouldered proportions, the M850i looks positively mean. The powerful new face of BMW is bigger-grilled and more angular than ever before. The sides are chiselled and sculpted,m hiding the 8-Series’ bulk from some angles.

The new carbon core body contains aluminum, high-strength steel, and of course, carbon fibre, similar to the multi-material 7 Series. But even so, the weight of V8 coupe is around 4,100+ pounds.

Underneath the fine leather, BMW has thrown its latest and greatest technology at the M850i. All wheels are driven and steered as standard, and the dampening is adaptive. Both test M850i coupes on our media junket were fitted with the optional anti-roll system too.

There is a more powerful, sharper edged M8 coming but for now, the “ordinary” M850i gets an extraordinary 4.4 litre twin turbo V8 making an extraordinary 523 hp and 553 ft-lbs of torque at a low 1,800 rpms.

For really long highway hauls, and especially in comfort mode, the M850i feels plush despite wearing 20-inch wheels. The low speed is settled, and wind and road noise is hushed.

While the M850i feels like a big car on the tight track, but I ran out of confidence much earlier than the car’s limits. The four wheel steering really works marvels at virtually reducing the car’s wheelbase.

Switch to Sport Plus and the 8 Series feels so much sportier. The ride is stiffer, but not ruinously so, and the four wheel steering becomes much more aggressive. Moreover, xDrive also favours more rearward distribution in this mode. On the track, Sport Plus showcases how all four of the systems (xDrive, active anti-roll, adaptive dampers, four wheel steering) alter their thresholds in harmony to maximize the car’s driving dynamics.

At full cry and in Sport Plus mode, the M850i feels like a really well-sorted coupe a couple of hundred kilograms than it actually is. The suspension and steering chomped their way down challenging parts of the Vancouver Island Motorsport track at a crazed rate without batting an eyelid.

Until the M8 arrives, the M850i is certainly the Ultimate Driving GT car to get.

2019 BMW X7 xDrive50i

It’s finally here, BMW’s long-anticipated three-row crossover, the X7. Based on my drive, it was worth the wait.

The X7 is BMW’s biggest and most luxurious SUV and it wants to be noticed. The pair of oversized BMW kidney grills have been mocked gently by ardent BMW traditionalists, but in person, the carpets match the drapes.

The X7 is huge inside, huge outside, refined, comfortable, and easy to use.

Taking its themes from the facelifted 7 Series and the 8 Series, the X7 rounds off BMW’s three-flagship fleet. It’s not just about wedging in as many people as possible but rather BMW wanting us to see this top-end trio as a separate high-end luxury series for their brand.

On the inside, unlike a top end full-sized Range Rover, all X7s have three rows of seats. This large SUV can be fitted with either a three-seat second row bench or a pair of captain’s chairs. Moreover, the third row is comfortable for more than short trips across town.

A pair of turbocharged petrol engines are available. The ubiquitous BMW 3.0-litre single turbo straight-six producing 335hp, or a twin turbo 456 hp 4.4-litre V8 as fitted to my test vehicle in the xDrive50i. For the 2020 model year, both the X5 and X7 will receive new M50i performance variants positioned above the existing 50i models. Both of those will pack a whopping 523 hp as part of the M Performance brand umbrella, just like the existing M850i and M340i models.

Whichever engine you choose, the X7 is paired up with an eight-speed automatic transmission and xDrive all-wheel-drive. Four corner air suspension with adaptive damping and adjustable ride height is standard equipment. In Sport mode, things are tightened up significantly enough to feel a difference. Regardless of whether you’re in Sport or Comfort mode though, the interior is very placid despite the 21 inch wheels.

The 50i’s V8 sounded wonderfully burbley at start-up and its acceleration is far more urgent than that of its smaller straight-six sibling. If you intend on towing with the X7, the V8 is the one to get.

The X7 represents a different sort of Ultimate Driving Machine, disguising its 2.3 tonne mass in bends. It hung on with impressive dignity through our 400 kilometre round trip of Vancouver Island’s backroads.

Roll was shockingly well controlled and steering was conducted with measured authority. When fitted with the BMW Integral Active Steering system -BMW speak for passive rear wheel steering – the X7’s nose feels much quicker to react and dive into a corner. The rear wheel steering system also shrinks the turning circle, making the vehicle feel a lot smaller than it is in city centres and parking lots.

The X7 perfectly illustrates why BMW’s latest SUVs are now competing with their luxury sedans. A haughty driving position, quietness, huge living space for the family, a plush ride when you want it, but yet with just a push of a button, a surprisingly capable machine through the bends.

BMW’s expertise in chassis dynamics is evident here and far better than the typical American “sports” SUVs based on trucks. The ride was consistently good on coarse highways, the lumpy rural roads, or the urban streets in small town British Columbia.

Final Verdict

If you really like BMWs, there is a lot to look forward to. Despite all of the technology, all of the luxury, there is a sense that each of the aforementioned vehicles embodies the all-important BMW attributes of sportiness.

While, as journalists, we often gag over manufacturer conjured buzzwords and terms, “The Ultimate Driving Machine” indeed still seems to fit.

Andrew Ling
Andrew is a proud car and tech geek who has worked in Surrey for over the last 10 years. He comes from a communications/marketing background and has worked for automotive-related companies such as Edmunds.com, BenzWorld.org since 1999. From track driving, to rally driving to autocross, he has done it all! When he’s not reading about the latest automotive news, he can be found outdoors snapping pictures at various events around town.
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