It's a sore subject, but BMW M has lost its way.
Before I start hurting any fragile fanboy feelings, let me preface this opinion piece by saying that I, too, am a BMW fanatic. My father bought an E30 BMW 3 Series out of the box when it was launched in the 1980s and bought another after I was born, so that famous Bavarian badge provided my first taste of performance. I have had a couple of Bimmers of my own, the current being equipped with the hard-to-love N54 engine that has ended marriages, depleted college funds, and broken homes. I stubbornly stand by my German 2JZ, and this won't be my last BMW.
Furthermore, while my father was cheering for Michael Schumacher when we watched F1 together at the start of the millennium, I was rooting for the less successful Schumi, and the only reason I did so was that Ralf was sat inside a Williams BMW. Why am I telling you all this? Because I think that BMW has lost the plot, and I'm not talking about design language. BMW has lost its way.
These are feelings that I have harbored for some time but was unwilling to release into the world through words. I didn't want to give voice to the idea that the object of my adoration had failed itself, and I certainly didn't want to admit that BMW M's biggest rival is doing a better job of creating outstanding driving machines. I'm talking, of course, about Mercedes-AMG. BMW is no longer involved in F1 and refuses to fix that, while Mercedes has bagged eight constructors' championships in a row.
That's something I could happily overlook if Munich was using its resources to create better cars than Affalterbach, but it isn't. Last year, I drove the BMW M235i Gran Coupe and walked away from the experience with absolutely nothing inside me feeling warm or fuzzy. It's an expensive and strangely proportioned appliance. Conversely, I later drove the attractive Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 and blistering CLA 45 S, and both made me want to start buying Lewis Hamilton merchandise immediately. Merc is, on average, making better driver's cars. Period.
Sure, we do still get rays of sunshine in the form of the M5 CS and M4 CSL, and the X3 M Competition proves that BMW still knows how to engineer fun from something that should be crap. The issue here is company philosophy.
Mercedes operates by the slogan "The Best or Nothing" and, bar the latest iteration of the S-Class that is totally outshone by the new 7 Series (since when is BMW more interested in innovative tech and world-class luxury than Mercedes?!), it has generally lived up to that ambition. In fact, it has proved that it will persevere until it achieves excellence with the only true F1-inspired car ever to be made, the Mercedes-AMG ONE. What has BMW done? It has trolled its own fans for criticizing design choices. It has ignored cries for a Munich-made supercar. It has flipped the bird to enthusiasts everywhere by making its only standalone M car in decades a bloated, unimaginative-in-principle, and puzzling-to-perceive SUV called the XM.
And the reason given is that it will sell. Not that it's a good idea, but that it will sell. If you're a Bimmer enthusiast, let that sink in for a second. Money matters more than magnificence. XM? More like S&M.
Here's the thing. The Mercedes-AMG ONE was never going to be easy to create. It was never going to be anything but ludicrously expensive to design, develop, and homologate. And it will probably never turn a profit, even at a reported price on the dark side of $2.7 million. Yet AMG forged ahead, doing what everyone in F1 said would be nearly impossible to achieve. It made an F1 engine suitable for road use, miraculously lowering the idle speed from 5,000 rpm to 1,250 without making that idle lumpy. Without turning the gas pedal into a hyper-sensitive warp speed trigger. Without making so much noise that the car becomes the in-vogue topic of your local community's fiercest Karens and their conversations with the cops.
And in the process, it proved that a car company in the 21st century can still be more than just a moneymaking corporate entity. AMG is still made up of real, car-loving people who will challenge themselves, their superiors, and their beancounters. And all of that has had a profound effect on the image of the brand.
A 10-year-old kid can look at the Mercedes-branded hypercar poster stuck on his wall and feel pride when his dad drops him off at school in a base-spec CLA. An ambitious engineering graduate can dream of working for AMG, where gearheads will find a way to make the impossible a reality. The 80-year-old next door can smile knowing that the spirit of the SLRs of the '50s has lived on in the decision to produce a motorsport-derived road car that stays true to the ethos of the racer it is based upon. Rather than skimping, Mercedes has ticked every fun box you could expect from the ONE and more: an F1-derived engine, a real Drag Reduction System, a push-to-pass feature, a pit lane limiter, a squared F1-style steering wheel... The list goes on.
Over at BMW, the slogan was "Sheer Driving Pleasure," which has since morphed into "The Ultimate Driving Machine." But does BMW provide sheer driving pleasure? You only have to look at award-winning journalist Jason Cammisa's thoughts on the new M240i (they're savage but fair) to know that it most certainly does not. The ultimate driving machine? In a world where Porsche exists, that kind of self-praise is utterly laughable.
While Mercedes is making fantasies reality, BMW M no longer means BMW Motorsport. It means BMW Marketing. BMW still produces fantastic cars, but are they the best in their segment? Sometimes. Are they consistently better to drive than the competition? Occasionally, but not always. Are they, at least, better to look at? That's subjective and a topic for another day, and besides, attractive styling was never the chief defining factor of a Bimmer. Still, it's hard to ignore that new BMWs are unconventional in design, to say the least.
Us BMW fanboys don't ask for much. We never wanted an F1-derived car because we didn't think it was possible and frankly couldn't really care less. That's the kind of thing McLaren and Ferrari should be taking on, we thought. All we ever wanted was an M1 successor, something that could put the Audi R8 and Mercedes-AMG GT in their place. But every time a journalist asks BMW about the possibility, a representative makes excuses. Mercedes, on the other hand, answered the greatest car guy bar debate of all time: Yes, you can put an F1 engine in a road car. It has a hunger for challenges. It has a winning mentality.
BMW seems to have adopted the attitude of complacency. "Who cares what our new car looks like? Those sheep will buy it anyway. Who cares if the 3 Series isn't segment-defining anymore? Its reputation will carry it. Who cares that our most loyal enthusiasts are appalled by the XM SUV? Instagram influencers will love it."
Don't get me wrong. I appreciate that the hallowed CSL name has returned. I celebrate that the M3 Touring is finally happening. I love every second behind the wheel of my own BMW, wearing my cheesy athleisure wear slathered with M logos. I still get a tingle down my spine when I hear the rasp of an E46 M3.
But if the poster child for the Ultimate Driving Machine is an SUV that weighs the same as the moon and will move like Noah's Ark, then I must admit that my heroes in Munich have not lived up to expectations. I must accept that my foes in Mercs drive cars built by a company that is still run by people with a passion for more than money. Worst of all, I must concede that, ignoring Porsche, Audi's decision to join F1 might push the M Division to third place on my podium of palpable performance.
The only saving grace is that BMW is entering the Hypercar series with an endurance racer that, with some luck, may someday inspire a roadgoing BMW supercar I can aspire to own. But knowing how far my favorite German brand has fallen from grace and how tough the climb back to the top will be, I have to be realistic and accept that this is likely just a pipe dream. Add in the problem that everything is going electric, and setting oneself apart from every Tesla-wannabe out there is going to be a tremendously challenging undertaking.
And you know what? I'm part of the problem, and so are all the other Bimmer fanboys who dutifully accepted what we were offered for so long, relying on a perceived sense of superiority.
Simply put, both brands had the opportunity to showcase what their finest expressions of performance would be embodied by. Mercedes chose a genuine, F1-derived hypercar that will make Ferrari and Lamborghini owners tremble. BMW chose an SUV. 'Nuff said.
The writing was on the wall when BMW began building FWD cars, and beyond a couple of forum posts, there was no real outcry. The hellfire started falling from the sky when BMW started putting M prefixes on suburban crossovers and M3 owners dutifully bought them for the school run. And now the XM heralds the apocalypse. I only pray that BMW will be able to rise from the ashes and restore its reputation as a haven for enthusiasts, but that will take a total regime change, and such a thing only happens when the money stops flowing.
So if you agree with this opinion piece in any way, stop buying BMWs. It's time to embrace the three-pointed star and teach BMW a lesson. If not, the XM will become the norm, and highlights like the M5 CS will be just that. Exceptions rather than the rule.
The king is dead. Long live the king.