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Carmaker shies from tampering much with 3 Series
MUNICH As he prepares for the introduction of BMW's new 3 Series, Helmut Panke, the company's 58-year-old chairman, sounds almost like a dad misting up over his debutante daughter..
"Emotionally, the 3 is the heart of BMW," Panke said in an interview here, using the in-house shorthand for this perennially popular compact sedan. "Replacing it is close to everybody's heart.".
As with most fathers, there is an element of cold calculation in Panke's hopes for his baby. The 3 Series accounts for 44 percent of BMW's worldwide sales, making it the linchpin of a company that is generally regarded as Germany's most successful carmaker..
With so much riding on a single car, Panke cannot afford to make any missteps when he squires it on to a floodlit stage at the Geneva Motor Show, where it will make its formal debut next week..
"You can take risks at the margins," said George Peterson, the president of AutoPacific, a market research firm in Tustin, California. "But when you're talking about the family jewels, you better make sure they are protected.".
Few cars, or consumer products of any kind, have ridden the consumer zeitgeist with as much dexterity as the 3 Series..
In the materialistic 1980s, it was the quintessential yuppie car - the "Bimmer" that was coveted by newly minted MBAs. In the more pragmatic 1990s, it catered to varying lifestyles, with versions ranging from a utilitarian hatchback to a sporty station wagon. .
Bayerische Motoren Werke's challenge, Panke said, was how to improve something that arguably needed little improvement..
"Correcting mistakes is easier than sitting at the top of the mountain, at the top of market success," he said. "You have to push the envelope one step further. You have to set the benchmark one step higher.".
BMW has left little to chance, posting advance photos of the new 3 Series on its Web site and letting automotive journalists tool around in the car in Spanish seaside city of Valencia last month. To judge from the photos, it also tamed the swooping pencils of its car designers..
"They've taken a new approach with the design, which is more conservative," said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Gelsenkirchen. "They learned their lesson.".
The last time BMW brought out a new style under a similar glare of publicity was in 2001, when it radically redesigned its flagship 7 Series sedan. The public reaction could be summed up in one word: ugh..
With its protruding rear trunk and headlights that resemble granny glasses, the car provoked howls from BMW enthusiasts. Some even set up an online petition to push for the ouster of BMW's chief designer, Christopher Bangle, an American they accused of wrecking the company's image..
By the time BMW rolled out its new 5 Series sedan in 2003, the passions had cooled - but only a bit. "The best place to enjoy the redesigned BMW 5 Series is the driver's seat. That way, you don't have to look at it," declared the Web site of the U.S. public radio show, Car Talk..
"These are what we call bipolar cars," Peterson said. "There are camps of BMW owners who absolutely hate the new style. But the people who buy the car are completely satisfied with it.".
The impact of all this on BMW's sales is difficult to judge. Sales of the 7 Series declined 17 percent last year..
But BMW says it has outsold the previous generation of the 7 Series over the same time period..
Sales of the 5 Series rose 24 percent over all last year. But they fell 3 percent in the United States - an anomaly BMW attributes to sales incentives it offered in 2003 to clear the old versions from its dealerships..
There is little debate that the current 3 Series, the model's fourth generation, is showing its age. BMW sold 449,000 vehicles worldwide in 2004, a 15 percent drop from the previous year..
As part of BMW's effort to overhaul its lineup, it is introducing a new subcompact, the 1 Series. This has enabled BMW to make the 3 Series slightly longer and wider than its predecessor..
It also has a more powerful engine. BMW used a mixture of aluminum and magnesium to make the engine lighter, which it says has preserved the car's trademark agility. .
The 3 Series is trimmer in the rear than the 7 Series, and it does not have the Dame Edna headlights. .
It also does not force buyers to take iDrive, a unpopular feature that is standard in the 7 and 5 Series. A large video-game-like knob in the center console, iDrive controls the air-flow, navigation system, and the like. It has flummoxed many owners..
BMW has priced the new 3-Series slightly higher than the current model, selling the basic 325i for €31,900, including value added tax. .
Given its demanding customers, BMW acknowledged that it listened carefully to the complaints about the 7 Series. But it insists the less radical redesign of the 3 Series is not a reaction. .
"The 3 Series is such an icon that everybody knows it," Bangle said. "We've never redefined the mission of the 3 Series. The 7 Series was redefined.".
Similarly, BMW has stuck to a consistent marketing strategy. It will pitch the new 3 Series to people who value performance, handling, agility - the ingredients that BMW says make it "the ultimate driving machine." It has used this tag line for close to 25 years..
BMW sells half its 3 Series in the United States to women. And though it is viewed as a youthful car - the average age of its owners is 42 - it is also popular among people aged 50 to 55..
With that broad a market, BMW said it had cultivated an "inclusive" rather than an exclusive image. It traces this shift back to 1987, when the stock market crash put an end to '80s-style materialism..
"The one thing we did differently in the '90s is that we didn't sell the 3 Series as a luxury car," said James McDowell, vice president for marketing at BMW North America. "We sold it as a fun-to-drive car.".
BMW, it must be said, no longer owns the market for fun-to-drive cars. Infiniti, Acura, and Cadillac sell cars that compete directly with the 3 Series; some, like the Infiniti G35, have more powerful engines..
BMW has also faced questions about its quality and reliability, though not of the same gravity as those dogging Mercedes-Benz. Peterson of AutoPacific said that in his research, the BMW brand name was still a gold standard - tying in most categories with Lexus of Japan..
In Bangle's view, the 3 Series may soothe those who still quarrel with his other redesigns - since it will show how they fit into a spectrum, from the 1 Series to the X5, a sport utility vehicle..
"I'm glad we've been able to show all three acts of the play," Bangle said. "Now the audience and critics can do a summation of show, and not just look at the individual pieces.".



http://www.iht.com/articles/2005/02/25/business/wbbmw.html
 

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Ineresting read Gustav, thanks for posting. :thumbsup:
 
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