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Car design is shifting, but BMW M’s president still believes in ‘classic values’

BMW used the 2017 Detroit Auto Show to unveil its new 5 Series sedan, including a first-ever M550i xDrive performance model that bridges the gap between the standard 5 Series and the legendary M5.

It’s the latest stage of the evolution of BMW M, the automaker’s performance division. M started out building limited numbers of performance cars, but its practices have changed as the BMW lineup has grown and diversified, and new technologies have altered car design.

Digital Trends spoke to Frank van Meel, president of BMW M, in Detroit to discuss the M550i, and how M tries to stay true to its guiding philosophy in a shifting automotive landscape.

Digital Trends: BMW is debuting the 2018 M550i xDrive here in Detroit, the first M Performance version of the 5 Series. What was the purpose of adding this model, and can we expect more M Performance models in the future?

Frank van Meel: Obviously in the past, the gap between the series-production cars and the pure M vehicles was quite big, and there was a huge demand from customers for improved vehicle dynamics, but at the same time with a very good balance toward uncompromised everyday usability. So people were looking for something more in between, say, the top-of-the-line model, with injected M DNA, but really with a different balance. Not the pure M motor sports balance, but more toward everyday usability.

Frank van Meel, president of BMW M

Of course there will also be more M Performance models in the future, and also with the M brand, you saw special models, you saw competition models with M3, M4, you saw the M4 GTS, and also the M2 as a completely new segment. So we’re also expanding there, our classic M business, of course not as strong as the M Performance, because with M we stick to our classic values, the philosophy of M. It’s all about racing, it’s all about precision, dynamics, agility, so you can’t make a pure M out of each and every vehicle.

Traditionally, BMW M hasn’t done an M version of every series BMW model. You’re saying that will continue?

That will continue. We’re not making an M for the sake of making an M out of each and every product line.

On the lower end of the lineup, BMW is starting to embrace front-wheel drive platforms. Would that be an area you would expand into, or would that continue to be off limits?

“I think with front-wheel-driven cars, a pure M is out of the question.”

We’ve got a three-step approach if we look into product lines. Of course we always look at the M Sport packages, then the next step would be to look at the M Performance models, and the final step of course would be to look at the pure M [models]. I think with front-wheel-driven cars, a pure M is out of the question.

Presumably one new M model that is coming would be a new M5. When might we see that, and is there anything you can say about it right now?

Not yet, unfortunately.

You were able to launch the M550i with the start of the new 5 Series lineup. How closely do you work with the rest of BMW in developing the new M models?

Of course we have to work very, very closely. If you are in the early stages of development, there are some, let’s say, timeframes where the plants are building pre-production cars, and we have to be included in these pre-production car slots. Also we had to work closely with [BMW] AG to make the M Performance models available at SOP [start of production].

Cars have gotten a lot more complex over the past few years. They’ve gotten bigger, and added more convenience and technology features. Do you find that it is more difficult to create M models based on these newer cars?

No, as a matter of fact for us it’s a happy coincidence that it’s all available. We offer all of the driver-assist systems that are available in the 5 Series in the M550i. There is no need to make a specific driver-assist system, because lane keeping [assist] is lane keeping. So for us, it’s very good to have these base technologies available for M as well.

So you think it’s good to keep all of these extra features on a performance-focused car?

For the 5 Series and the 7 Series definitely, because those are segments where the customers expect and want to have these [features] also in their M vehicles, so there’s no way around that. In addition to that we are working—for the pure M vehicles—on track-focused functions as well, like the M Laptimer app, the M driver’s app, and the GoPro app that we introduced with the M2 last year.

Will we see more connected features like those in the future?

We will see those features on more M cars, because they are newly introduced right now, and of course we are always working on specific race technology features that might find their way into series production as well.

More: The fastest BMW 5 Series to date isn’t a full-blown M-tuned model

Speaking of racing, how important is motor sports to what you do?

It’s our heritage, it’s where we came from, where we started. For us that is pre-requisite number one.

How do you transition motor sports activities or motor sports experiences into production cars?

Well first I think it’s the same philosophy, because motor sports is all about “precision, dynamics, agility,” and that’s the same with M. So if you translate that to vehicle dynamics, so if you want to steer somewhere, you want to be very precise, you want to have very good feedback. So everything that a race driver tells you that he wants to get out of a race car is the same that we want out of an M vehicle.

“Everything a race driver wants out of a race car is the same that we want out of an M vehicle.”

Of course there’s also a lot of cooperation with the racing teams. Like for instance with the M6 GT3. It uses of course the base cage of the M6, but also uses the base engine, even though they had to reduce [the] power of the M6 engine because it was too strong for the balance of performance [rules meant to ensure competitiveness] of racing.

In the M6, we go up to 600 horsepower. Due to balance of performance, that was too strong for competitive reasons. So [it was] pushed down to about 540 hp, but it’s the M6 engine that’s in the car. Which is also good for the race teams that buy the cars, because maintenance costs are very low, and the engine is very reliable as well.

Do you think BMW M will continue to offer cars with manual transmissions? How long term do you think that will remain an option?

Well, there are two ways of looking at manual transmissions. One is the engineering standpoint, which says it doesn’t really make sense. Even though it is lighter, it is slower, and the automated gearboxes have a better fuel consumption.

So from an engineering standpoint, it does not make real sense. On the other hand, there’s this emotional thing. We still have a relevant amount of people that are wanting to drive a manual, especially on M2, M3, M4, especially in the U.S., but also worldwide. On the M2 we have a worldwide take rate for manual transmissions of about 20 percent, which is a lot.  As long as the demand is there, we will stick to the manual gearboxes.

We see strong shifts in the demand for manual gearboxes. In the M3 and M4, it went down from generation to generation to where it is right now, between 15 and 20 percent. It used to be over 50. So it’s going down, but now it’s stable. In the M5 and M6 it went down to almost zero, so we had to take the manual out because there was no demand whatsoever. But the answer is that as long as there’s a strong demand for manual gearboxes, we will try and have them available in our cars.

What about plug-in hybrid and all-electric powertrains? Do you see those as possibilities in the future?

In the end, all cars will be electric, including the M vehicles. The question is only when that is going to happen. If you take a short glimpse into electro-mobility today, you see that you have to put a lot of weight into the car to make that happen. The battery is very heavy, the e-motors, the control units, and so on.

So coming from a motor sports perspective, where absolute weight and power-to-weight performance is key, it is still very difficult to make that happen right now. But we see that progress is being made with Project i (BMW’s electric-car division) regarding cell technology, performance, weight. So, we’re in close contact, and time will tell.

As soon as it is possible to make a real M following the M philosophy—and it’s not about technology, it’s more about philosophy—to make that possible with electrified drivetrains, of course that is an option for M.