BMW doesn't always hit the styling nail on the head.
BMW ranks as one of the most influential car brands on the planet. The 3 Series and 5 Series both created then defined the segments those cars still dominate today. BMW has also consistently set the bar in design and engineering, but that doesn't mean the brand is always perfect. There have been some missteps along the way, and some perceived missteps that history has exonerated in hindsight. Either way, BMW has created plenty of headlines with controversial decisions and designs over the years, so we've compiled a list of the most polarizing, and possibly the worst designs to ever emerge from the Munich design office. To spare the debates on period-correct design, though, we've kept to the brand's modern exploits.
The basic ingredients for a classic BMW are the engine up front, drive sent to the rear, and sporty handling dynamics. There has been the occasional twist, but in 2014 BMW dropped a bombshell in Europe. Not only is the 2 Series Active Tourer a compact people carrier, but also front-wheel-drive. It's based around the same architecture used for the BMW X1 and X2 and, mostly, unrelated to other BMW 2 Series models. To make matters worse, the 2 Series nomenclature was supposed to be reserved for a sporty coupe, even if it was a four-door one. The BMW 2 Active Tourer and its longer, seven-seat Gran Tourer variant, were neither coupes nor sporty.
The sixth and current generation of the 7 Series was greeted warmly but with little excitement over its looks. As usual, the 7 Series is big, powerful, comfortable, has keen driving dynamics despite its size, and is packed with technology. Then came the facelift at the beginning of 2019. Most of the 7 Series' changes were welcomed, but onlookers recoiled in shock at the giant kidney grills from the X7 SUV being slapped on the front. They're 40 percent larger than the pre-facelift model's kidneys and disproportionate to the car. The more cynical amongst us are sure they went on to appeal the Russian and Chinese markets, and there's been little to suggest otherwise.
You can't talk about the 7 Series and controversy without discussing what has become known as the 'Bangle Butt'. The 2001 E65 generation 7 Series was a fascinating blip in a typically exemplary line of cars. There were other issues with the car, but the most significant talking point is designer Chris Bangle's design for the rear end. Bangle was BMW's chief designer from 1992 until he quit the industry altogether in 2009. The problem boiled down to the bulging and overbearing rear trunk lid. At the time, the sheer level of outrage was overwhelming from the BMW faithful. There were even petitions made to BMW to fire Bangle over it.
Now, ten years later, there are two schools of thought on the Bangle Butt. One is that it's a deformed monstrosity; the other is that Chris Bangle's genius pushed out ahead of its time. Bangle has always been controversial among car designers, but his long term influence lives on.
The BMW i3 came to market with most of its internal structure and bodywork made using carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic. It's a rear-wheel-drive tiny five-door electric car, and, amongst other accolades, won a pair of World Car of the Year Awards, a World Car Design of the Year award in 2014, and in the same year was declared World Green Car of the Year. However, it drew criticism immediately for being ugly as well as having a poor driving range from its batteries. However, for every couple of people smack-talking the i3, you'll find someone claiming it's one of the most underrated electric cars on the market. Time is running out for the i3, however, but it'll always be remembered as a controversial stepping stone to e-mobility for the German brand.
For 2015, the usually high-revving naturally aspirated straight-six engine found in M3 models was replaced with a turbocharged unit, and the BMW faithful were not impressed. To compound the perceived insult on its hardcore customers, BMW also opted to fill the cabin with fake engine noise through the speakers. To this day people complain about the engine, the steering feel, and the snappy rear end. On the other hand, people will tell you its one of the best M3 generations yet and a logical progression of the performance sedan. It may have improved in its later years, but in our minds, the F80 was not the purest expression of the M3. At least it looked good.
Like most companies renowned for performance cars, releasing an SUV drew the ire of the faithful. "An SUV is tall and heavy!" they cried."BMW's are rear-wheel-drive, not all-wheel-drive," they lamented. However, like Porsche before it, BMW promptly sold many SUVs to happy customers and made its shareholders extremely happy. People still complain, but, and again, like Porsche, the sheer amount of profit the German brand makes from its SUVs allows them to carry on making not nearly as profitable performance cars. The X5 was only the tip of the iceberg though, as it spawned something far more controversial a few years down the line...
These days, nothing triggers car enthusiasts to light up the comments section faster than using the phrase "four-door coupe." Add the word crossover on the end, and you can practically hear the wretches of disgust. To many, the four-door coupe crossover is BMW's Murano Cabriolet, and to make things worse, BMW calls it a "Sports Activity Coupé"(SAC). It's now in its second generation and offers all the performance and handling dynamics as the X5, but with little of the practicality. However, it is popular enough for BMW to justify a second generation and an M badged version, so some people clearly love them.
Putting huge kidney grills on the X7 caused controversy, then putting the same grills on the 7 Series sedan caused even more. Then, the German automaker showed off the BMW Concept 4 with an absurdly sized grille, and the automotive world collectively went nuts. Now, BMW has gone ahead and put the polarizing design into production and has defended it all the way. According to BMW, feedback from customers has been positive, and the brand is planning on sticking to its new philosophy of fewer but bolder design elements. The good news is that 4 Series is one of the few cars in existence that is improved by the addition of a license plate.
BMW's oddball Z3 M Coupe has been dividing opinion since 1998. At the time, BMW's faster cars tended to be understated, but the M Coupe showed up with a busy design and aggressively flared wheel arches. It also came with the now-legendary S54 straight-six engine. It's a great sounding recipe, but plenty of people still can't get on board with the unorthodox shooting brake design nicknamed the 'clown shoe'. On the other hand, there's also a strong cult following for the powerful little coupe, and good examples can sell anywhere between $30,000 and $50,000. Just 1,112 were built, making them rare items to boot.