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Selling Out: BMW to Introduce FWD Cars?

July 11, 2011 by Matt


In all fairness, I don’t know if I can blame this entirely on BMW.

It’s been rumored for years now, but it would appear that BMW is finally going to make the switch to front wheel drive. Mind you, they own Mini, and developed their cars, all of which are FWD, so some have argued that there already are FWD “BMWs” out there. To most enthusiasts, though, it’s more a matter of brand perception than cold, objective vehicle dynamics, so to us, it’s not actually a FWD BMW until the roundel is on the hood.

I’ve heard all the arguments. I’ve been told time and again that BMW buffs whined and moaned and complained when the much-beloved, modern E30 came out in the mid-’80s, saying BMW was going to pot. Then their storied M30 was replaced in the early ’90s with, of all things, a modern, all-aluminum, 32-valve V8 (the M60), and the purists were again up in arms, saying BMW had sold its soul by axing its big six. Then, in the mid-’00s, for the first time, they introduced a turbocharged gasoline engine (the N54) in a worldwide production car, and we all said they were hopelessly compromised as a brand. None of it was true. Even with the added layers of electronics introduced in the ’90s and ’00s, BMWs still remained peerless drivers’ cars.

Guess why? Mechanical balance. You can smooth out the power delivery of a turbo’d engine with proper tuning; the low-down torque of a good V8 is a proper substitute for that of their old M30; you can still maintain a connection between man and machine in spite of electronic gadgetry, but you can’t fake mechanical balance. There is simply no way to make a FWD car feel as balanced as a RWD car. No possible way. Among others, Honda and Lotus have made particularly valiant efforts in the past with their last-generation Prelude and ’90s Elan, respectively, but even they had dynamic limitations that could be felt by any driver.

It’s a fundamentally qualitative difference. I don’t care how good your FWD car is, or if it can run circles around my RWD clunker—it doesn’t feel the same to drive when all the weight is over the front axle, and the two front wheels are doing all the work. Period. And therein lies BMW’s problem, and why this sea change is different from all the previous upheavals.

Finally, in BMW’s defense, I realize it’s their brand. They have final say over its defining characteristics; they can do whatever they want with it. If they want to slap a BMW emblem on the hood of a Smart Fortwo, it will be a BMW (lest we forget, the Isetta was). I won’t say otherwise. And also, as alluded to at the beginning of the post, as with the regulatory-driven styling problems with the nose of their latest 6-series, it could be a situation they’re forced into, and are trying to make the best of. I know the latest EU fuel economy standards are pushing a lot of companies that wouldn’t otherwise contemplate small cars to do so (see: Aston Martin). With that, I wish them good luck. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go cry in my German beer. At least that’s still pure and uncompromised, right?

Filed under: BMW, Car Industry, News


  1. John D says:

    Agreed. While some aspects of a car might be adored for their particular characteristics and/or uniqueness (like a straight six engine), this is a fundamental change whose dynamic shift cannot be ‘tuned out’ of a car. If one of the major identifiers for BMW is that it’s a ‘driver’s car’, I don’t know why they would incorporate a FWD layout. Like you mentioned, even though they do produce FWD cars, none of them wear a BMW badge. Why not keep it that way and let the BMW retain it’s appeal? They can go after those other markets using their affiliated/subservient brands…why sully the BMW reputation?

    • Matt says:

      “I don’t know why they would incorporate a FWD layout.”

      EU regulations combined with the natural desire of a company to expand into new markets, I gather. Kind of makes me wish they could spin off a brand, like Scion or Lexus for Toyota, where they would confine all their FWD cars. But that’s not the German automaker M.O., unfortunately.

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