MUNICH -- Now we will find out whether customers like BMW's iDrive.
The complicated device, which is standard on the 7, 6 and 5 series, will be optional on the redesigned 3 series, due in spring 2005.
Critics panned iDrive as nonintuitive when BMW first installed the control device in the 7 series in 2001.
Drivers move the iDrive knob in eight directions and scroll through menus to control the radio, heating and various electronic features.
BMW simplified the system when it was introduced in the 5 and 6 series. Those models have an iDrive with a four-way knob while the 7 series kept the eight-way knob.
The new 3 series will be available with two different instrument panels, one with iDrive and one without.
The 1 series, introduced last month, also has iDrive as an option. The iDrive in the next 3 series and the 1 series has a four-way knob.
Models with the iDrive have sophisticated navigation and telematics functions. Those without iDrive will have no navigation systems.
"It is a question of the price," says BMW spokesman Friedbert Holz. "Not everyone wants iDrive."
The system remains standard on the 5, 6 and 7 series. These cars have a higher level of equipment, which makes iDrive indispensable, BMW says.
BMW launched iDrive to solve the dilemma of how to make electronic functions accessible to a driver without loading a car's instrument panel with buttons.
BMW will not reduce the number electronic functions in its vehicles.
"Our customers like to be able to individualize their cars," Holz says.
BMW's reply to media criticism of the iDrive is that journalists spend only a small amount of time with iDrive, while customers become comfortable with the system after a few weeks of driving.
"We took a lot of criticism because we were the first on the market," says BMW spokesman Wieland Bruch. "It would be wrong to develop cars for people who only spend a few hours or a day in a car."
BMW is further developing iDrive to include voice control.
It may also offer a system similar to the M5's mDrive in future models. The mDrive allows the driver to choose engine, chassis and transmission settings by pressing a button on the steering wheel.
Some of BMW's competitors have introduced systems like iDrive. Audi's MMI system is also operated with a controller knob, but it also has buttons to select the menus.
Mercedes-Benz will offer a system similar to BMW's iDrive in the next-generation S class due next year.
Jaguar and Lexus offer touchscreen displays with changing menus.
BMW executives say they are committed to iDrive. In fact, they think they got it right the first time. Says BMW CEO Helmut Panke: "Personally, I still think the eight-way controller is the better system."