BMW and front-wheel drive in the same sentence?

Rick Kranz is product editor for Automotive News
PARIS -- Blasphemy!

This week BMW said that a family of small, front-wheel-drive cars will be sold in the United States. The timing wasn't announced, but it sounds as if we'll see the family in two or three years.

The car will be smaller than the 1 series, the smallest car the German automaker sells here.

It will be marketed as a premium small car -- this is no econobox. Although not announced, you can likely expect pricing around $30,000.

BMW is using the acronym UKL -- lower compact class -- to refer to the fwd family. Maybe ULK should mean “unlike cars elsewhere” in the family.

For how many decades has BMW been calling itself “the ultimate driving machine”? Outstanding handling, steering dynamics based on a rear-drive configuration. Driving enthusiasts -- especially here -- know the pluses and minuses of rwd vs. fwd configurations. So does BMW. And in the United States, enthusiasts embrace rwd.

Among BMW enthusiasts, the fwd strategy potentially creates some confusion. It raises questions. What will the brand stand for in the future? Ultimate driving machines with fwd?

My point: Why risk lessening the brand's stellar reputation among enthusiasts by adding fwd cars, a configuration BMW aficionados despise?

Sure, the BMW-owned Mini is fwd and it's fun to drive. Of course, Mini's entire history has been fwd. No flip-flops here.

Mercedes-Benz will be able to pull off the fwd small-car strategy. Those cars arrive here in the next several years. With the exception of AMG models, M-B's mainstream vehicles have never been known as a driver's car.

Sure, BMW will continue to produce rwd models. But BMW built its reputation on being a driver's car, every model from top to bottom.

Frankly, I believe it will be very difficult to tout with a straight face “the ultimate driving machine” (if that slogan remains) when the fwd family drives up. You'll need an asterisk excluding certain members of the family.

Why mess with success? BMW might be better off creating a separate fwd brand.