Car writers love to talk about how automakers are losing their way. Or at least they would, if ad revenue from automakers wasn’t paying their salaries. If car writers had the choice, every single article they write would include paragraphs like:
Yes, Buick’s move to front-wheel drive will improve market share, increase sales, and cut costs through platform sharing. But they’ve really lost their way. Consider, for instance, my uncle Ned, who bought an Electra Limited new in 1979 with a Charcoal Firemist exterior and a blue dashboard. They are abandoning customers like Ned, loyal customers, who might again buy a new car sometime in the next few decades.
I first discovered this phenomenon a few years ago at the New York Auto Show. Ford chief executive and auto industry golden boy Alan Mulally was the keynote speaker at the press breakfast, and he gave a long, impassioned, well-delivered speech about how he managed to turn Ford around. (“We looked at every single strategy for the next four years, and then did the exact opposite.”)
So then it came time for questions. Here we are, a bunch of self-important automotive journalists sitting in a huge banquet hall in front of Alan Mulally, who’s waiting to answer anything we might ask. And the first question? You guessed it.
“Mr. Mulally,” says some journalist, who, let’s just say, probably wouldn’t be jogging between the day’s press conferences. “With Ford’s goal of having the best car in every segment, why would you drop the Crown Victoria? Where will that leave people like me, who want a simple, roomy full-size sedan?”
Alan Mulally responded to this question with unwavering tact. He took a long look at the man, smiled, walked into the crowd, and strangled him with the microphone cord.
No, that isn’t what really happened. Mulally gave the guy an eloquent, articulate answer filled with words like “segment” and “market share.” I probably would’ve strangled the guy with a microphone cord, but that’s why Mulally is a multi-millionaire, and I’m sitting here, writing this column, eating cookies without any pants on.
Anyway: I say all of this because, despite my contempt for the car journalists who constantly complain about how much better everything “used to be,” I’m about to become one of them.
To do that, I must take you back to 1999. We all remember this year vividly, since we spent it worrying about how the Y2K bug would crash our computers and return the United States to an barbaric society based primarily around the fur trade. (As a middle schooler, this was a pretty big worry for me; right up there with detention.) But it was also the year BMW was at its best.
Think about it: the 3-Series was gracefully transforming from the E36 to the E46. (For those of you who don’t know the chassis codes, it was going from the one your pot-smoking friend autocrosses to the one your wife’s sorority sisters drove.)
The 5-Series of the period, the E39, is edging ever upwards on the Mazda Miata Scale of Cars We’re Always Looking at on Craigslist. There was that gorgeous 7-Series, which screamed “serious German businessman,” right before the Bangle redesign, which made serious German businessmen scream.
Sure, the Z3 had its issues – but the 1999 model year heralded the arrival of the “M” model, which came in two bodystyles: a convertible, which looked like an aggressive sports car with fender flares, and a coupe, which looked like a clown shoe. Plus, the Z8 was on its way. It was a great time to be a BMW fan.
In fact, if you look at BMW’s entire lineup throughout the 1990s, things were pretty rosy. Who can forget the handsome mid-‘90s E34 5-Series? Or the beautiful 8-Series, which was one of the coolest cars ever considered a “flop?” It was the era of the Ultimate Driving Machine: a lineup that consisted entirely of cars that 9-year-old boys tried to convince their dads to buy. (Their dads, meanwhile, refused to buy anything, after Oldsmobile cancelled the Custom Cruiser and really lost its way.)
So let’s fast-forward a bit, if we may, to the present.
There’s still the 3-Series, the 5-Series, and the 7-Series. Except some of the 3-Series is called the 4-Series. And there’s a 1-Series, except now it’s called the 2-Series. There’s also a 5-Series the size of a 7-Series, but it’s a hatchback, and it’s called the GT. The lineup will soon add an electric model, which looks surprisingly similar to the master bathroom shower in a modern home. There are also four different SUVs, soon to be five, and their trim levels are almost complete sentences, such as: “ess drive thirty-five eye ess.”
If you spoke to the 1999 version of yourself, he would ask: Where the hell do they find room for all these segments? And the answer is: Where the hell DO they find room for all these segments? My belief is they simply make them up, depending on what parts their suppliers happen to have available. For instance, BMW is the only real player in the following markets:
1. Rear-wheel drive station wagon that we desperately market as an SUV. (X1)
2. Midsize performance SUV that you can’t see out of to change lanes, not that you were going to look anyway. (X6)
3. Hybrid version of our sport sedan that you’ve only seen if you live in or around Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey. (ActiveHybrid 3)
My favorite of these actually isn’t on the road yet. You know how the 6-Series Gran Coupe is just a 6-Series with four doors? Well, it turns out they’re also going to do a 4-Series Gran Coupe. In other words: a 4-Series… with four doors. Now, you might think this is a 3-Series, but you’re wrong: it will actually be a 3-Series with a 20 percent markup.
It’s not just the bizarre segmentation that has me concerned. The lust for BMWs isn’t as strong as it once was. Maybe I’m wrong, but I seem to remember a time when it was about more than the lease rate on a 328i. A time when the turn signal stalk felt like a small explosive couldn’t separate it from the steering column. A time when the doors closed with a beautiful click that said: “Welcome to German engineering.” A TIME BEFORE BMW LOST ITS WAY!
Of course, BMW’s response to all this would be: Who cares if we lost our way? We make more money now than we ever did before! It’s the kind of thing you might hear from your bleeding heart liberal college buddy, who gave up his job as a public defender to go into big law and make a fortune. It’s also the kind of thing Mulally probably said to that journalist who asked about the Crown Victoria. Now let’s hope BMW doesn’t strangle me with a microphone cord.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He operates PlaysWithCars.com. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.