Can Rolls Royce’s Bold New SUV Conquer The Peaks Of Luxury?

BMW’s Design for the Future

It’s just around midnight, and Bangle is lingering over a Weiss beer in a trendy Munich restaurant. He is thinking about Stephen Jay Gould, the renowned author and paleontologist who died this past May. Or rather, he is thinking about Gould’s controversial theory known as punctuated equilibrium, which argues that evolution proceeds slowly, but not always steadily; it is sometimes interrupted by sudden, rapid change. Bangle believes that cars evolve in a similar fashion. And he is convinced that BMWs are entering a period of abrupt, accelerated change in their own evolution.

“When you spend an enormous amount of money developing a new model, you don’t just throw all that money out the window seven years later and do something completely different,” he says. “Instead, you refine the car, you improve it, and you get your money out of it. Ultimately, you develop two generations of cars that are very close in their evolutionary nature. But then, 14 years later, the conditions have changed so radically — competitive pressures, technological advances, safety and environmental regulations, consumer preferences — that it’s time to make the big jump.”

For BMW, it’s time to make that jump. The company is resisting the lemming-like move of so many carmakers to target every sector of the industry and pump out high volumes of product. BMW has mapped out a different route, attacking one end of the industry: the high end. The company’s new chairman and CEO, Helmut Panke, explains BMW’s decision to stick with what it knows best: “I cannot recall having ever seen a clear and convincing correlation between size and success. At the moment, it seems as though the greater the size, the greater the number of problems. Our own goal is clear: to be the leader in every premium segment of the international automotive industry.”

BMW’s executives are gambling that a profound shift among consumer preferences will mean that in the next decade, the worldwide market for luxury cars could grow by as much as 50%. (BMW expects that the demand for mass-market cars will grow by just 25%.) “The car market seems to be bifurcating between more expensive, prestige products and very inexpensive, high-volume products,” says Tom Purves, chairman and CEO of BMW North America. “The middle ground is the killing fields — the worst business to be in. You have to achieve enormous numbers to make any money at all.”

With a global recession under way and many carmakers awash in red ink, BMW has decided that now is the time to unleash an extraordinary product offensive on the luxury and near-luxury end. In the early 1980s, it produced four lines of cars: the 3, 5, 6, and 7 Series. Within the next six years, it will break out 20 new models and 3 new engine series, including the 1 Series, which will target young buyers; a new 6 Series, which will be aimed squarely at high-end Mercedes models; an X3, which will take on premium SUVs; variants of the Mini; and a new generation of super-luxury Rolls-Royces.

The redesigned 7 Series is leading the charge, and it has met with plenty of return fire. Bangle’s design team reshaped the 7’s back end by raising the trunk lid and widening the opening. It also introduced a digitized system, dubbed iDrive, which enables drivers to control 270 features — from the navigation system to the built-in phone to the surround-sound stereo — by using a mouse-like device to scroll through menus on a screen situated atop the dashboard. The radical look and the attempt to reimagine the human-computer interface in a car have shocked some critics and buyers. More than 2,000 people have signed a “Stop Chris Bangle” petition on, calling on BMW to fire its design chief. (Presumably, the entry “I hate myself for that design!” signed by one “Chris Bangle” is a fake.)

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