"If you do not have controversy, that's the mistake you make."
BMW was once a byword for restrained and elegant styling. The company's design peak, many argue, was in the '90s, when the E39 5 Series and E38 7 Series ruled the roost. All that seems to have been forgotten in modern times, where the pig-nosed M3 and the ostentatious XM SUV wear the blue-and-white roundel.
And yet, BMW's sales remain strong. Could this bizarre, controversial design language actually be paying off?
"Of course it's [the] plan, otherwise we wouldn't do it," said company CEO Oliver Zipse to Forbes. "If you want to change design, any step into the future that is perceived as new will be controversial automatically. There's no such thing as a future-oriented design without controversy."
Zipse explained that controversy is the key to success. He says the outcome is that people end up appreciating the polarizing designs. "That's the trick. To have controversy and the outcome is 'I want to have it' and 'I like it,'" added the company chairman.
Looking back, several of BMW's latest designs have split opinions. The electric iX, for example, was derided for the large kidney grille treatment. Instead of retreating, the automaker set about introducing the enlarged design to the aforementioned M3, and a host of products, including the 4 Series and the new 7 Series/i7.
People laugh and take to the internet to express their frustration at BMW's drastic departure. But it's all part of the plan.
According to the report, Zipse suggested that BMW makes use of calculated strategies that deliver both a wow factor and attract media attention. This implied plan stems from an analysis BMW conducted after the launch of the derided E65/66 7 Series, designed by Chris Bangle.
It's interesting to note that, when Bangle's designs debuted in the early 2000s, onlookers were in disbelief. People called the range ugly and bizarre. Now, however, the E60 5 Series and E63 6 Series look contemporary and have aged extremely well when compared to rivals. Could the same thing happen with the current batch of Bimmers? Only time will tell.
"In the early design, if you do not have controversy, that's the mistake you make. Out of the controversy you get engagement. You get people thinking about it and thinking about alternatives," added Zipse.
Zipse clearly wants to challenge the design norm and seems to despise boring cars more than ugly ones. "We drove this morning through Palm Springs and if you looked at all the other cars, they all look alike...they're not great, but they're not ugly cars. They look very much alike."
Of course, the aim isn't to build purposefully ugly vehicles, but rather to start a discussion around the design. The polarizing XM is a perfect example of this, with Zipse saying nearly everyone loves the excessive M car. That's clearly not true; BMW fans haven't minced their words when it comes to the range-topping SUV.
The latest 7 Series and the i7 have received their fair share of criticism. But Zipse insists a radical change was required.
He notes that, for six generations, the 7 Series was always praised by the driver. "You ask the customer and they say it's a great car, but only for the driver." This has long been a criticism of the 7er, which has always fallen short of the S-Class Mercedes in terms of refinement and comfort.
Zipse added, "after six generations, is that what you still want to hear? You want to be in that luxury segment and you always make the same mistake again?" As such, the latest generation is a decadent luxury sedan with zero sporting pretensions.
But how will BMW ever know if it's right or wrong? Sales tell the brand everything it needs to know and, on that front, this left-field design approach seems to be working for them.
Interestingly, Zipse noted that the company's bread and butter models - 3 Series, X3, X5, etc - will always err on the conservative side. However, niche products will continue to push the boundaries of design.
"The i7 is very unusual for BMW. You could say it's much too big: it's 5 cm wider, 6 cm higher, and only as a long version, with a big kidney grille. It will never be a mass-market car. It will only be a super minority of people who will sit in that car. The majority of people will never sit in that car. It only must be appealing to the customers who are in that segment, not anybody else," remarked the CEO.
So it seems controversial that BMW designs are here to stay. And the more you complain about it, the more BMW wins.