PUT DOWN THE PITCHFORKS #2: You’d Be an Idiot to Buy a New BMW
How the Mighty are Fallen
This is honestly pretty painful to say.
Every time a new product comes out, there is always a camp of (usually) boomers who poo poo it for being too radical of a departure from its predecessor. Most times, the products do not deserve it. However, as you will soon see, there are a few BMWs that are most certainly guilty as charged.
The first model of BMW I’d ever been in was a 5 Series not unlike this one (although it was a 528i not a 525i).
As you all pretty much know, I cut my teeth on F30 and G20 BMWs. I’ve loved the brand ever since I rode in my neighbor’s E39 528i when I was four. The first performance car I ever loved was a silver E60 M5 that still had temporary tags when I saw it. I absolutely adored those cars. The first car I ever drove for an extended trip was a F30 330i xDrive. And…that’s when I started to feel the disappointment. Now, overall, that F30 was just fine. It did every commuter thing you could ever ask it to do. The steering was precise, the engine and transmission were in perfect harmony, the suspension was pretty plush, and the fuel economy hit mid-40s on long trips.
However, there’s a massive problem with that: you get all of that in a Honda Civic (no disrespect to the Civic…I bloody love that thing). When it comes to luxury cars, the experience of the drive is a big factor. In sports cars and sporty cars, that obviously becomes an even bigger deal. Which is where, starting with the F30, BMW has fallen apart.
Back in the day, say around two decades ago, BMWs of all kind were the Ultimate Driving Machines. The recipe for a BMW of this vintage was simple: front engined, RWD (later also RWD biased AWD), engaging steering and chassis feel, and a brilliant synergy between engine and transmission (in both automatic and manual forms). The cars were sporty out of the box, or at least dynamically engaging. It used to be that you bought a Benz for luxury, a BMW for sporty stuff, or an Audi if you couldn’t afford the other two (back in the early 2000s, a lot of Audis were just Volkswagens with the VW badges crossed out and Audi scrawled over them in crayon…obviously that’s changed now). Nowadays, Mercedes and Audi have very clear visions for themselves: Mercedes make the most sophisticated luxury cars (and the best interiors) in their class and Audis make the most technologically oriented cars of their respective classes. But BMW? Well, that’s a sad story. The newest 3 Series misses many of the classic BMW traits. Sure, its eight speed ZF gets along famously with its four and six cylinder turbo engines. Sure, it has decent fuel economy. But that’s about it. A modern 3 Series has a good interior, lots of tech, a decent sized cabin, and a decently comfortable ride. But it’s hard to find any particular advantage that the new 3 Series has over its competitors, much like the new Ferrari models (which I covered in the last installment of Put Down The Pitchforks). You want driving dynamics? Get an XE or a Giulia? You want luxury? There’s a C Class, A4, G70, IS, or S60 for that. You want tech? Bugger off and get a Model 3. The point is that this latest generation of 3 Series continues the decline of BMW itself. And it’s not just that the 3 Series has been around for over four decades. Because there are other iconic cars that have been around for similar amounts of time, and they’re much better.
Unlike the 3 Series, the Porsche 911 and the VW Golf lineups still manage to improve upon themselves. Sure, they may lose some of their charm with each consecutive generation as the works of Greta Thunberg and Al Gore shove more environmental restrictions down automaker’s throats, but the Golf and the 911 always find something to improve…and then actually improve it. The newest 911s have anti-lag systems that virtually eliminate turbo lag throughout the powerband. The newest Golfs have autonomous features and better ride quality than their predecessors. And, as of now, you can still get your three pedal fix in either of them. The problem with the new 3 Series is that the car has lost some of its charm due to the new regulations, but not managed to compensate for it. The digital dash is a joke, CarPlay integration is a cry for help, the design of the M-variants must have Chris Bangle feeling very smug.
Honestly, what were they thinking?
Perhaps more than anything else, the new Golf and 911 serve as proof of BMW’s biggest failure: it’s lost its identity. The 911 is still a car that punches far above its weight and the Golf is still the best hatchback overall. But the 3 Series is no longer the Ultimate Driving Machine.
While I opted to focus on the newest 3 Series, the problem is much deeper than that. Look at the M240i Coupe vs the M235i Gran Coupe. One is a two door sedan with a RWD drivetrain and the option of a manual transmission. The other one is a MINI Clubman with BMW badges on it. And that’s kind of unfair to the Clubman, since the MINI is a lot more fun. If you want the closest thing to a pure BMW, I’m afraid it’s just gone out of production. It was called the M2 CS.
The only big innovation that a G20 3 Series has over its predecessor is fuel economy and 0-60 times. But if you want a car with excellent fuel economy, good tech, and pretty solid acceleration, why not get a Golf GTI?