After 15 years in PR, I still love reading press releases because it’s really quite interesting to see how brands try to rebuild their images by leading you to or away from something. Emphasis and omission are the secret weapons of the communicator. And a sharp operator wields them as finely as a neurosurgeon with a scalpel. For a long time, BMW’s propaganda machine humbled competitors with the holier-than-thou mantra of rear-wheel drive uber alles. So powerful was the dogma that to speak of front-wheel drive was akin to a Communist espousing the merits of capitalism. It would seem that the “times-are-a changin”.
The company has just revealed its new X1. One look and you know that it is front-wheel drive. Gone is the long snout and short overhang. It’s now replaced by a stubby nose to accommodate a transversely mounted engine. Most importantly it doesn’t look like a product of Dr Moreau’s imagination.
This is BMW’s big assault into the “cheap and cheerful” category – the UKL platform. UKL stands for untere klasse which means lower class in German. The ‘UKL1′ architecture underpins the new three- and five-door Minis, while the larger ‘UKL2′ version used here sits underneath the 2-series MPV, and eventually, a new 1-Series. And what do all these cars have in common? You guessed it – front-wheel drive (FWD).
There are two reasons why manufacturers go FWD. They are less costly to build and allow you more space. The X1 takes advantage of both as it is roomier and will allow the company to play in an even lower segment, that has a larger base. BMW says the new X1, which stands 53mm taller and 21mm wider than the old car, has more room for legs, knees and other extremities of the human body, despite the car being a bit shorter overall. The X1 will also be available in 4-wheel drive (so important for those late January KL snowstorms).
The X1 has taken on more styling cues from the X3 and now has a much more masculine bearing although there’s no hiding its dirty secret when you look at the bulbous conker. The new BMW has a MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension shared with the 2-Series GranTourer. It is allied to an electro-mechanical speed-sensitive ServoTronic steering system. The new X1 will be launched with a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder direct-injection petrol engine in two states of tune and a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder common rail diesel offering the choice of three differing outputs.
Of course now we come to that all important question “will it still drive like a BMW?” An objective view would say no, because it is FWD and that is not a BMW. Which is not to say that it won’t drive well as the gap between FWD and RWD has become small (exemplified by cars like the Golf). The reality is that it won’t matter. The customers who buy these cars want a BMW…period. The Ultimate Driving Machine has been replaced by the Ultimate Status Symbol.
In 2004 when I first saw BMW’s “checkerboard” strategy, I thought it was nuts. This was essentially an exercise in identifying new consumer groups on the one side and then creating products to match them on the other. I thought it was silly because this reverse engineering created products that were inauthentic and that no one would want to buy them. I was wrong. People buy them in droves but are they really BMWs? The purist answer is, no but it’s academic really because the power of the brand conquers all.
Brand extension is the ultimate measure of a brand’s strength. The ability to slap a logo onto a product and sell it for “perceived value” is the holy grail and BMW has it. It has stretched the brand so far from its core and still hasn’t seemed to run out of elasticity. Hence, the new X1 will probably do very well. If the outgoing model which looked like a cross between a tapir and a duck sold nearly three-quarters of a million units, its replacement has already got a running start as it is slightly kinder on the eyes.
From a PR perspective, BMW has accomplished the impossible. While a lot of brands would have come out looking sheepish for such an obvious about-face, the company has very adroitly skimmed the issue. Reminds me of how Deng Xiao Peng countered his blatant embrace of capitalism when he said, “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, if it catches mice, it is a good cat”. I guess the same applies to BMW.