BMW is getting slaughtered in the marketplace by Tesla. The Model S has been outselling the BMW 7 Series luxoliner sedan for some time. Now, the Model 3 is eating BMW 3 Series sales for breakfast. The 3 Series is the Bavarian company’s bread and butter product — a near luxury offering that has been the aspirational choice of millions over the past 30 years.
It is no coincidence the Model 3 and the 3 Series are roughly the same size and sell for about the same money. But where once a Beemer (or Bimmer, if you prefer) in the driveway was a talisman for successful Americans, now the Model 3 has become the most desired 4-door sedan on the planet.
Fate has been unkind to BMW in the age of the electric car. In the beginning, it amazed the world with the bold and highly innovative i3. Its carbon fiber chassis was a first for a volume production automobile. But it quickly became the symbol of range anxiety — as much an argument against electric cars as an advocate for them.
Even equipped with a range extender engine, it was unable to keep up with traffic on the interstate if it was required to climb hills at the same time. Tales of i3 drivers hobbling along in the breakdown lane on roads in the Rocky Mountains were legion and i3 sales never took off.
The i8 hybrid sports car served up a healthy dollop of flash with solid performance, but was priced higher than a Corvette and attracted only token notice from American drivers. It may be destined to be one of the more collectible electric cars in future years, but in terms of sales, it was just a rounding error on BMW sales charts.
Since the i3, BMW has struggled to understand the electric car market and has sent off a welter of contradictory signals about where its i Division would go next. Tales of an i5 sedan emerged. Or maybe it would be an SUV. It was going to be all electric. It was going to be a plug-in hybrid. It was going to be powered by moonbeams and pixie dust.
Meanwhile, most of the senior members of the original i3/i8 team left the company, dismayed at its inability to figure out what it wanted to be. They decamped en masse to China to form Byton, an electric car startup that plans to offer the cars which, in their opinion, BMW should have offered but didn’t.
A few years ago, BMW unveiled its Vision Next 100 concept, a car that was supposed to be a fitting tribute to the company on its 100th anniversary. Here is the gauzy preview BMW offered at the time.
That car became the iNext sedan, which has now morphed into the iNext SUV. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows in the car business, and today the wind is blowing strongly in favor of SUVs. Originally, that term meant rugged, off-road capable vehicles, but today it pretty much stands for any sedan with a hatchback, a tall roof, and higher than normal seating position.
Jaguar already has its I-PACE electric SUV in production. Mercedes showed off its EQC electric SUV offering last week. Volkswagen is hard at work on its ID Crozz electric SUV. So once again, BMW is playing follow the leader rather than being the leader.
BMW development chief Klaus Froehlich told the press during the car’s official unveiling event last week that production is planned for 2021. The iNext will feature a range of 370 miles, although whether that is measured in NEDC miles, WLTP miles, or EPA miles was not specified.
The things that are supposed to get prospective customers to open their wallets for the iNext are its diamond shaped grille in place of the traditional BMW kidney shaped grille and an advanced suite of electronic driver assist features that allow the car to steer, brake and accelerate on its own. However, the driver must still be ready to assume control at any time. Hmmmm…..sounds a lot like Tesla Autopilot, doesn’t it?
Froehlich says the car could do more, but first those additional features have to be approved by regulators. “The regulators in the world work at different speed,” Froehlich said. “I am quite concerned Europe won’t be fast enough.”
Between now and 2021, BMW is relying heavily on plug-in hybrids. It has just announced that the range for its X5 xDrive45e iPerformance plug-in hybrid SUV has been increased from an embarrassingly low 12 miles to a more acceptable 30 miles, measured by the WLTP yardstick. Expect an EPA number closer to 24 miles. That’s rather tepid news when people are lining up to buy products from Tesla.
If the iNext, with that ridiculous “mine’s bigger than yours” grille, represents BMW’s best hope for the future, perhaps it is time to consider whether the once mighty purveyor of premium vehicles from Bavaria really has a future in the car business at all.
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