Like Volkswagen, BMW is developing one common architecture for its variety of small cars. Known internally as the UKL platform (or Unter Klasse, in German) it is BMW’s latest compact chassis for its smaller cars, as well as cars within the Mini brand. With up to 12 models in the next decade built on it, expect us to accept the notion of a front-wheel drive BMW.
BMW alluded to this with the Concept Active Tourer in Paris this week. It’s a wagon that breaks from BMW’s longstanding tradition in many ways. For one, it’s a plug-in hybrid. Two, it has a 3-cylinder engine, another BMW trait we had better get used to. And three, it lays down power via the front wheels. The three-cylinder engine is just 1.5 liters in capacity, but it’ll proliferate just like the UKL. Already BMW is planning to sell it here in the i8 hybrid sports car, as well as under the Mini’s clamshell hood. With its electric motor, the Active Tourer produces 190 horsepower, well above what most Americans believe a three-cylinder can do. Smaller engines are a trend that more manufacturers are leaning towards—witness Ford’s usage of a three-cylinder Ecoboost, an oft-touted example.
But, that front-drive thing.
BMW switching to front-wheel drive isn’t big news for consumers. There will be no doubt that the finished product will exhibit near-flawless handling characteristics, emminent comfort, and luxury befitting its class. It will be a practical car that will show evidence that BMW has sweated the details in meticulous fashion, and the appeal of a car with the blue-and-white roundel will be irresistible to many. But there’s the traditionalist standpoint that such a notion carries: it’d be as if Apple switched to Windows 8 for their new iMac, or if the illustrious Seal Team Six decided to adopt a wartime operations strategy that involved cute, fluffy bunnies. For BMW, front-wheel drive was the enemy, the anathema to its “Ultimate Driving Machine” motto, and it held out as long as it could, directing power to the rear wheels by default. Even its smallest car, the 1 Series, was criticized for not having as much room as its Audi A3 competition, a tragic standby of RWD. But, of course, it pays off: the driving benefits were always a cut above its competition, earning BMW its reputation not just as a driver’s car but as a fine luxury car, to which the company owes its runaway success. Now, it’s capitulated to the realm of front-wheel drive, the same drivetrain that powers Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys and cheap Audis. But in this global economy, with ever-stricter fuel regulations and increasing emphases on fuel efficiency, BMW has no choice but to–if you will–surrender. Such are the perils of global business. Such is life.
For the typical consumer, little of this will matter. And for BMW, that’s exactly what matters.
Source: Automotive News