BMW’s Design Chief on Grilles, Electrified Luxury, Big SUVs and a Future Sports Car

BMW’s Design Chief on Grilles, Electrified Luxury, Big SUVs and a Future Sports Car

BMW had plenty to show off at Villa d’Este as part of the M division’s

BMW had plenty to show off at Villa d’Este as part of the M division’s 50th anniversary celebrations, starting with the limited edition, 543-horsepower M4 CSL. Parked nearby, the new electric flagship i7 also had its public debut, alongside a prototype of the upcoming XM, an already controversial SUV that’s set to become the first pure M car since the unmistakable M1.

Rolls-Royce showed its second Boat Tail at Lake Como, and with the Goodwood-based brand already working on its third and possibly fourth Coachbuilt project, Adrian van Hooydonk explained to us how the entire Concorso serves as an inspiration, a reminder that he and his team should keep the interest and passion for personal mobility going.

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While creating a coachbuilt trilogy of special cars at $28-million a pop under the Rolls-Royce umbrella is a viable adventure, van Hooydonk detailed why pushing for limited production BMWs is harder now than it would have been some five years ago:

We are aware that most of their products are not future-candidates for Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, yet for BMW, the 1000-unit run of M4 CSLs is already low volume, and the door is open for even lower production special editions in the future. The difficulty with low-volume in an organization that produces let’s say two million vehicles a year is always to find the time. The resources to get it done. 1000 units is already a very low volume for us.

That’s where the premium market math enters the chat, because looking at the performance figures alone, it’s hard to see why the M4 CSL costs $60,990 more than a current range-topping M4 Competition xDrive. Yet the costs remain high at both ends, as pointed out by the BMW Group’s Design Director:

The problem is that if you design a car, and decide you’ll only make one, the effort, the research, the testing, the legal requirements are just the same as when you make one million. So the cost is almost the same. I think that explains why it’s so hard. However, I do believe that nowadays, there are more and more flexible production technologies, digital printing and so on, and I do see some technological changes that are in our favor. Yet it’s never easy, and then you also have to realize that the whole industry is in a transformation. If you are a startup, it’s almost easier nowadays, because you have one car to do after the other. But for us, the transformation is much-much harder, because you have to do both things (ICE and EV) exceptionally well, managing the transformation that we’re in the middle of right now.

Like I said, a one-off will be a question of finding the time and the resources, and doing it in a clever way. BMW is now a fairly large organization. We are already doing so much, we are already very busy. Managing the transformation is the sole priority at the moment. Yet there could be some windows that could open up.

There’s also the problem that following a global pandemic, the world finds itself looking at a major war in Europe. van Hooydonk explained how the cruel reality of all that affects their work, which is partly about figuring out how BMW products should feel into the 2030s:

We are not just managing a huge transformation towards more digital, more intelligent and more electric vehicles. We’re managing a transformation in the midst of a world that seems to have gone crazy. As a designer, you need to have a fine antenna for what is going on in the world, and at the moment, there’s a lot of noise. But out of that noise, you need to be able to filter the things that are going to remain. My team and I are now working on vehicles for the year 2025-26, and the vehicles we launch then will still be on the market in the 2030s. So let’s hope that the crisis, the war that we are experiencing now is over soon.

adrian van hooydonk

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In the middle of this, we have to make design decisions for the future. At the moment, any business is challenging. Just keeping production running day by day is a huge challenge. We have a lot of clever people looking into this 24 hours a day, just to keep the factories running. With that comes a lot of nervousness in the whole system. When you need to make those design decisions for the future, you need to be calm and just for a moment, forget all that noise. Let’s say that became part of the things we need to do. Make sure that when we discuss this with the top management, everybody is in sync, thinking about the future for a moment instead of being too caught up in what’s going on right now, which of course is terrible and crazy.

Looking into the future also means looking at a whole fleet of battery-electric vehicles, and the effect of widespread electrification on BMW’s take on luxury in general. van Hooydonk says it all begins now with the iX, the i4 and the most complex of them yet, the new i7:

bmw i7 ev

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Overall, I think now it’s a super interesting time to do car design. There are big-big changes on the way, in terms of electric mobility, digitalisation, cars becoming more intelligent. And luckily for us, you now see a growing interest again in individual mobility. But what we also notice, perhaps accelerated through the pandemic, is that when people want a new car now, they make a very conscious decision. More and more towards an electric car, but not just an electric car. They then want to be part of the future. They have then flicked the switch, and that’s what we are trying to deliver. Also with cars like the iX, the i4, and now the i7. We launched it digitally, but for me, it’s nice to be able to present it in broad daylight. I think it’s still better to judge a vehicle in daylight. It’s a nice setting, and also to interact with people, see their reactions. Online, you can see the commentary, but it’s not the same. It is nice for me to get some feedback.

The Dutch designer shared some of his feedback on the outgoing 7 Series as well, plus why the new i7 was designed from inside out to give you a warm feeling amongst all the gizmos onboard:

bmw i7 ev

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What we tried to do with the i7 is a modern type of luxury that is more personal, and warmer, if you will. We observe what’s going on in other businesses, like hotels, restaurants or architecture as a whole. Then, you see that in modern architecture, certain technical things start to disappear, like heating and ventilation. Then of course in furniture, there’s the big debate: leather couch, or cloth. In furniture, many customers choose leather, because they feel it will probably stand the test of time better. In automotive, let’s say fifty years ago, we had a lot of cloth. It was quite normal. And then certain brands like Rolls-Royce even used cloth for the rear seats, for the owners, and the front seat for the driver was in leather. So cloth was perceived as having a higher value. Now in the 7 Series, we use a wool, cashmere and leather combination, which is something we did have to fight for a little bit. That’s what I mean by warm and inviting. I do believe that cloth is much warmer, more welcoming and intimate, perhaps more personal in a vehicle. Of course when people buy a car, they also go through a cycle of thought – okay, how can I clean this, and so on – but I believe now people will be ready for something like this. So I’m happy we made that part of the 7 Series.

We wanted to make sure that the time spent in the 7 Series is time that is well spent, very rewarding. I don’t drive, nor I’m being driven in a 7 Series too often, but it happens, and I realized in the outgoing model that we could do better. In terms of seating comfort, head- and legroom. The rest is all about how you do it. We wanted the interior to be much more enveloping and comfortable. Maybe that’s a change even for a brand like BMW, which was always focused on driving. Even the 7 Series, when you drive it, it will ultimately handle like a much smaller car. So our engineers can do quite a few tricks, but inside, we felt it had to be absolutely comfortable and relaxing. Many customers are super busy, and so when the door closes, that’s their private time.

With the i7’s panorama screen in the rear, we are setting a new benchmark. That could well lead into more of that happening in the rear. In the front, who knows. We still want to make sure you can drive these vehicles very well. But you are also to do all these other things that people do, like Spotify, Apple Music and all that. At the moment, you could also say there’s a fight going on between driving and not driving. And our customers are not prepared to make the compromise, one way or the other. So, how will that end? I do see a big future for head-up-display. That allows our customers to keep their focus on the road, hands on the wheel, and so that is something we are looking into. Time will tell how we can progress that.

bmw i7 ev

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To sum up the evergreen BMW grille question, it seems to be a continuing question of class. Social, financial, automotive.

BMW’s future of course is what I’m working on with my team, day and night. What I can say is that we’re going to continue on this path that is a very-very clean design language. Very few lines, but those lines are very precise. We like crisp lines, and we don’t like flat surfaces. And then what we are going to offer is more variety in character for the vehicles. So it’s not going to be one language applied to all. Our lineup is quite large at the moment, almost twenty vehicles, so we feel the need to cater the character of these vehicles to their customers, because there are also different competitors in each segment.

Then, we say we want to do design that is ‘tech magic’, so we do want people to get excited about the technology. That means you don’t get excited if it just functions well. You only get excited if it does things you don’t expect, going over and beyond function. We also say we want to do design that is more human-centric. With all the technology and power these vehicles have, it should focus on the experience you as a human being are having. The 7 Series represents that philosophy at the top end, in the luxury segment, but we’ll do that all across the board. And things like grilles and lamps will vary. The front end design you see on the i7, we’ll reserve for cars like the 7, the X7 and the XM. We’ll do different interpretations for different vehicles in the line.

bmw ix color change paint

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bmw ix color change paint

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The idea of color-shifting BMWs demonstrated by the iX Flow also remains on the table, because quite frankly, who wouldn’t like that?

I certainly hope that we will put that technology into production, because it’s something that excited people all over the world. It’s one of those things that if you talk about it, people go…ohh, that won’t happen. Then, people saw something work for the first time, and it wowed them. It is a cool concept, we are working closely with the manufacturer of that technology, we are developing it further. Who wouldn’t want a car that can change color?

Fair point, yet I also had to ask him whether it would be possible for the future 5 Series not to grow into the size of the current 7. According to him, they are aware of the bloating trend, and think our growing demand for real efficiency could be be the key:

The size increase of vehicles is something that we are aware of, and believe me, we are trying to keep under control. Of course there are some things that are pushing out, like safety regulations, and nowadays in electric vehicles, the battery, the range. At the moment, the easiest way to increase range is to increase the battery size. All of that stuff is still under development. I do believe that over time, we’ll be able to make the vehicles more compact, and certainly, that would be worthwhile, because what we are focusing more and more on now is the total energy picture. So not just emissions.

An EV of course is zero emission, but how much energy does it take to make this vehicle? We try to make electric cars that are more energy efficient. I think in five to ten years, that will be the discussion. CO2 will no longer be the focus, instead it will be the total energy needed to build and use a vehicle, over the lifetime of it. And then things like weight and size have a big influence on that. We are very aware of it already, so we do look at minimizing that.

bmw 507

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Still, as long as people buy BMW crossovers instead of BMW two-seaters, our chance for a fairly compact Bavarian sports car remains slim, even though BMW is looking at the proposition. How do we find ourselves in this situation? van Hooydonk has a theory:

It’s perhaps not so easy to understand. When you come to the Concorso, most of the cars displayed are two seaters. So way back then, I guess it was perfectly normal to create and incredibly complex product with only two seats, and that was alright. And in the not-so-distant past, that was still alright. Roadsters, two-seater cars, quite hedonistic vehicles. Perhaps if you analyze it, in each person’s life, there is this period when you want just that. Then life progresses, and you can no longer drive such a car. Or perhaps you can, but for most people, life progresses into something where you need four doors and the ability to carry a lot of stuff. The expectation in the past was like…”okay, I had that before, but I can no longer have it, and so I’m done.” But now, people want everything. They want it all. That turned into a situation where an SUV needs to have a sporty character, and then, perhaps we need an SUV coupe. Sounds strange at first, but now, that’s very normal, because people don’t want to give up on a certain lifestyle when all they need is four doors.

bmw z8

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What does this mean for the two-seater two-door vehicle? That’s quite interesting, because at the moment, that’s something we are actually looking into. For the most part, you see other companies taking these products out of the market, stopping production there. I hope that’s not a trend that will continue, yet perhaps times have changed for good. Maybe people are no longer prepared to make the type of compromise that they were prepared to make several years ago. Even when you look at the sports cars of let’s say…twenty years ago. There were some fantastic cars, you could go very fast, but to be honest, to drive them in the city, it’s not so easy. Heavy clutch, gearshift, hot inside…but people were ready to make that compromise simply because it was cool. Today, people still want to be cool, but perhaps they feel that those compromises are not cool.

“Why should I compromise on anything?”

This thinking in younger generations as well about what’s cool and what is okay to give up for it has changed. That is something we are toying with at the moment. Can’t tell you where that leads just yet.

bmw

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Finally, BMW acquired long-time partner Alpina. The brand now finds itself positioned somewhere near the most luxurious of both ICE and electric BMWs, yet below the entry-level Rolls-Royce models in the BMW universe. Mr. van Hooydonk respects that:

We want to be careful with that brand, because we bought it for a reason. Alpina is successful in its segment, and it stands for something. For high quality, handcrafted luxurious mobility. We felt that that would be good to add to our range. In fact, we were already helping Alpina produce these vehicles, so we are not looking at any radical change in the immediate future. We want to be very careful and thoughtful about how we take Alpina into the future. It’s not an area where you’d see an immediate change. We’re just happy that we can make that story continue, and we want that story to be a success story, and absolutely complementary to what we are doing. So it will take some time for us to explore those synergies and see how to move forward.

Sufficiently fast, very smooth and in perfect comfort, I presume.

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