Lifestyle

BMW 7 Series: A Slimmer Bimmer


To boost sagging sales, BMW's new flagship loses its notorious "Bangle butt" and improves its iDrive

When BMW (BMWG) unveiled the 2002 7 Series sedan at the Frankfurt Motor Show on Sept. 11, 2001, the buzz in the hall, not yet steam-rolled by the terrorist attacks in the U.S., was all about the new Bimmer with what would become known as the "Bangle butt."

That wasn't a reference to the derrière of the bespectacled, 51-year-old Wisconsin-born, California-educated chief designer at BMW, Chris Bangle, who was responsible for the styling of BMW's flagship sedan, but rather the ungainly trunk that seemed at first glance to be so disconnected from the car as to be bolted on from another sedan. The four taillights, too, were bashed for a busy, ungainly look. One European auto industry critic memorably proclaimed that it looked like a dining room table had been dropped on the rear of the vaunted 7 Series.

Maybe Paris will be luckier for BMW than Frankfurt. In early October, BMW will unveil to the public an all-new flagship, designed under the direct supervision of BMW brand design chief Adrian Van Hooydonk, though Bangle remains chief designer over all BMW brands: BMW, MINI, and Rolls-Royce.

Plenty of Gripes

The "Bangle butt," which seems to have been emulated by Mercedes-Benz (DAI) in its S-Class (BusinessWeek.com, 5/10/06) and Toyota (TM) in its current-generation Camry (BusinessWeek.com, 8/15/08), is noticeably gone. Also substantially made over is the much criticized iDrive electronics controller in the center of the front-seat console. The initial complexity of the iDrive was lambasted by American journalists who thought it counterintuitive. Online gripers dubbed it the "Why Drive." European critics had fewer gripes with the iDrive and more with the "Bangle butt."

Despite launching the new 7 Series, which will probably be priced between $80,000 to more than $130,000, into the teeth of an economic slowdown in the U.S., BMW North America President James O'Donnell says he believes it is a very good time to launch. "We will have the newest entry in the category, and when things are tough, customers are drawn to the newest designs," says O'Donnell, who took over in April and is also now chairman of the BMW holding company that is responsible for the company's North, Central, and South American operations.

O'Donnell was in St. Louis last week, hosting the BMW Championship, an annual golf tournament that is part of the FedEx Cup competition. Inside the 16th-hole BMW Owners' Pavilion at the Bellerive Country Club, the new 7 Series was crammed into a special room barely big enough to hold the sedan and a few visitors at a time. Dealers, high-roller customers, and a few media people were the first to see the car in the sheet metal.

Two design elements hit the eye right off the bat. First, the proportions of the new Seven. The roofline and hood are both lower. This allowed BMW designers to achieve the classic "pouncing cat" profile and proportions visible from the side view—for which BMW is famous, but which was lost a bit in the 2002 7 Series. The second most obvious element is a hard crease, like the crease in a pair of expensive trousers, that begins at the headlamp, follows down the side of the car, flows perfectly through the door handles, and through the fuel cap on one side of the car, and finishes in the taillights. The rear of the car, so much a part of the Seven's discussion seven years ago, is so well integrated into the rest of the car that it is only worth talking about as a foil to the old car. The front-end sports two character lines on either side of "the power dome" over the engine, culminating in a nose that Bangle calls "sharky."

Perfect Harmony

Bangle, while making no apologies for a car that earned a spot on Time magazine's "50 Worst Cars of All Time," nevertheless told BusinessWeek.com that the company's engineering and design departments are much more integrated today than they were in the late 1990s, when the current Seven was designed. "The engineers did a super job of giving us the backbone of mechanical componentry and physical dimensions to work with so the designers could really achieve that sense of perfect harmony."

Indeed, the 2002 Seven presented several problems for designers they didn't face this time. The car housed a new engine that required a hood about 5cm higher than what designers felt was optimum. The overall car was larger, with around 30% more sheet-metal surface on the sides of the car. And the rear of the car had to be kept short, yet it was decided that the opening had to be larger and much easier for drivers to get items like golf bags in and out. Auto industry analyst James Hall of Detroit-based 2953 Analytics says the exaggerated trunk lid on the old 7 Series was necessary to stabilize the car, both in terms of keeping the rear of the car planted firmly on the pavement at high speeds, as well as laterally. "It wasn't ideal, but very necessary," says Hall. About the new Seven, Halls says, "It's a very nice piece of work in every way."

Bangle says that BMW engineers and designers worked separately on the old car. Engine designers were not oriented to think in terms of how the size or configuration of the engine would affect the designer's job. "The engineers this time really came toward us to establish much more favorable proportions.…In the 1990s they were just doing everything they could to solve the problems [of engine power, fuel economy, packaging, safety, etc]."

Bangle is emphatic in saying that he isn't passing the buck or apologizing for the old Seven. "We had a set of problems to solve, and we have seen that other companies have solved them pretty much the same way."

Shifting the Shifter

Besides the rearview, the other big criticism of the old Seven was the iDrive, a mouse-like controller in the console that controlled some 700 functions for the telephone, entertainment, climate, and navigation systems. To make room, the gearshift was moved from the center to the steering column where a fragile feeling, and much disliked, electronic shifter took driver from Park to Drive. The new Seven moves the shifter back to the console, and puts a smaller, redesigned iDrive controller to the right of the shifter and provides shortcut buttons to frequently used functions. The system resembles the Audi system, which came after iDrive, but has been reviewed much more favorably. Indeed, the new iDrive 2.0 works far more intuitively. I found all the relevant controls almost instantly, and I hadn't used an iDrive in more than a year.

When BMW launched the iDrive, it was lambasted online just when blogs and Internet forums were cracking up and gathering steam as a force in the media (some 14,000 signed an online petition to have Bangle fired). The company was seeking to streamline the packaging of increasingly complex electronic controls. "We were out front and so we took more than our share of criticism from people who were unfamiliar and uncomfortable with something so new," says BMW North America marketing chief Jack Pitney.

The launch of the new Seven is a critical step for BMW as it seeks to boost sagging profit margins. Such cars attract well-heeled buyers who do not skimp on high-profit extras, quickly turning a car with a base price of around $80,000 to a living room and office on wheels for over $100,000.

O'Donnell and Bangle are quick to point out that the current Seven is the most successful Seven ever in terms of unit sales. Still, it has not kept pace with principal competitors. Sales of the current model, despite a 2005 "refresh" that tweaked the iDrive, dash controls, and taillights, never managed to overtake those of the market-leading Mercedes-Benz S-Class. In 2007, Mercedes-Benz sold 85,500 S-Class cars, compared with fewer than 50,000 Sevens.

It's hard to believe that this new Seven will receive anything like the volume of brickbats its predecessor took in 2001. In fact, the car's design seems to fit so well in a string of well-received vehicles like the latest 3 Series, 5 Series, and utility vehicles like the X5 (BusinessWeek.com, 4/27/07) and X6 that Bangle may risk some saying he is playing it too safe, compared with the edgy, avant-garde reputation he and the company have built up since the 2002 Seven appeared.

Business Exchange related topics:

Global Auto Industry

Product Design

European Business

Luxury Retailing


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