BMW Asia’s Christopher Wehner on the German carmaker’s plans for domination in the luxury segment
When BMW unveiled its long-term vision to be the top carmaker in the premium segment during its centenary celebrations in early 2016, we thought that it was a pretty powerful statement.
It’s fairly commonplace for carmakers to project an optimistic outlook for its future, but it’s something else entirely when a manufacturer tells you straight up that it plans to supersede all of its rivals in what can best be described as a highly competitive environment.
BMW would never tell you who those rivals are exactly. But looking at the sales numbers, one particular brand does come to mind, a brand that BMW has long been second to (we’ll give you a hint – its badge takes the form of a three-pointed star). In the past few years, BMW has been steadily closing the gap, and as of last year, it sold 2.14 million cars, against the 2.34 million recorded by the brand-that-shall-not-be-named.
The competitive spirit is keenly felt in Singapore – despite the low numbers caused by the idiosyncrasies of the COE system – which means that there’s an upper limit on how many cars can be sold each year.
Last year, BMW racked up 5,346 registrations, coming in second place to the 7,840 registrations posted by its arch-rival.
The most obvious way for a carmaker to book itself a ticket to the top spot is to increase volume – mainly by expanding its line-up. To that end, the Bavarian carmaker has been on an absolute tear in 2019 (and for the first few months of 2020) launching 30 or so new models or variants.
This is something that Christopher Wehner, managing director of BMW Group Asia, described as, “one of the biggest product offensives we have seen in the history of the BMW Group,” adding that, “there’s a lot more to come [in 2020]”.
Wehner speaks with some pride (probably because he has a background in product management at BMW) at this budding lineup: “I am absolutely convinced that we have, by far, the most attractive portfolio.”
During this model onslaught, BMW will now have an offering in just about every automotive segment or bodystyle you can think of. There’s its ‘core’ range in the form of the 3, 5 and 7 Series; the value buys such as the 1 Series and 2 Series Gran Coupe; and flagship models such as the 7 and 8 Series.
Then it has a multitude of SUVs in just about every size you could imagine – ranging from the compact X1 to the leviathan that is the X7. We haven’t even gotten to its performance-oriented M-badged models, or the even-numbered ‘coupe’ variants. And yes, there’s an M derivative for just about all of the models mentioned above.
In the half-decade since its ‘Number One Next’ strategy was unveiled in early 2016 as part of the carmaker’s centenary celebrations, it’s even dipped its collective toes into segments that it wouldn’t have contemplated approaching just a decade ago.
We’re talking about the 2 Series Active Tourer and Gran Tourer. These are boxy, family-friendly MPVs that would have been anathema to a brand that once touted its products as being, “The Ultimate Driving Machine”.
But whatever you think of those two models, there’s no denying that such an expansive product portfolio gives BMW a huge amount of clout in the automotive sphere, owing to its presence, cachet and popularity, if nothing else.
“In Singapore, these are very successful models,” said Wehner. “What I’ve noticed here is that people like models with a lot of space and versatility, especially for young families who want that in a premium car.”
We concede that perhaps we’re not used to the idea of an MPV with the BMW roundel on its nose, or for that matter, a front-wheel-drive one. After all, not too long ago, there was a time when the idea of a BMW SUV would have been inconceivable. Today, it’s a bodystyle that accounts for nearly half of all BMWs sold worldwide.
For Wehner, it’s not so much a question of whether BMW should build a certain type of car, but more of what its products can offer should it decide to do so.
“Can it still deliver the BMW core values of driving pleasure and joy? This is the most important thing that defines a BMW,” he asserted. “You have to be open to new ideas”, he continued, citing the example of BMW’s decision to enter the SUV market in 1999 with the first-generation X5 – a car that has remained a consistent top-seller for the carmaker since its introduction.
And perhaps it’s this openness and willingness to try something new; not letting itself be boxed in, that is the key to its power, more than just sales volume or sprawling product offerings, which Wehner acknowledged is just one part of the equation.
On that note, perhaps we have to look to BMW M GmbH – colloquially known as M Division, the carmaker’s performance arm – and “the most powerful letter in the world”. In recent years, it’s been cranking out vehicles that brand stalwarts of a certain vintage might find… objectionable.
There’s a full-fat M version of nearly every SUV in the BMW lineup. Its entire model range is turbocharged and the latest M5 – the fact that it’s an autobahn cruise missile notwithstanding – has no option for a manual transmission, and has all-wheel-drive and an electric power steering setup.
Said Markus Flasch, CEO of M Division (you could call him the most powerful man in charge of the most ‘powerful letter in the world’), “Our driving force has always been to build the best products in the high-performance segment, and to provide our customers with that inimitable character that only our cars can deliver.”
As for what that inimitable character is, it’s more than a bodystyle or a drivetrain, and Flasch also mentioned that hybrids and fully-electric M models (“a big chance to raise the bar again”) might be on the cards, but only if “the technology supports the M philosophy”.
“It is the feeling you get when you open the doors, touch the steering wheel, rev the engine, accelerate to a high speed and take some twisty corners,” said Flasch. “That is what makes our BMW M products so special… regardless of whether you are in an M2, M5 or even in our high-performance SUVs like the X5 M or X6 M.”
On that topic, Flasch also commented, “Power is one of the most important ingredients, but this sheer power has to be controlled and aligned with other components. Every single product is also harmonised on the most demanding race tracks all over the world. BMW M is more than the sum of its technical parts.”
With all that talk of figurative and literal power, this got us thinking that true power isn’t just about being the top dog in the luxury space, or having the most powerful cars. It could be about making moves that competitors follow.
“BMW has always been very influential in the car industry and our competitors follow our lead,” concluded Wehner. “We were the first to offer an electrified vehicle with the i3 in 2014 and the first to offer a Sports Activity Coupe with the X6.”
Or maybe true power is about, to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, speaking softly but carrying a big stick – a quality embodied by the M5. This is, to most eyes, a fairly unassuming saloon and no different to a regular 5 Series, but it has the performance that could rival a supercar.
And we have to say, like BMW’s goal to be number one or the promise that its M cars are the highest-performing vehicles in their class, driving a seemingly innocuous saloon that could put supercars in the shade is, well, a pretty powerful statement.