The BMW group believes it will reach its 2008 target of selling 1.4 million vehicles a year worldwide by 2007. The automaker is confident because last year it sold 1.33 million vehicles worldwide under its BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce brands, up 9.9 percent.
With the 1.4 million goal in sight, CEO Helmut Panke has set an even more ambitious target for 2010: 1.6 million global sales. That would mean a doubling in volume during this decade.
One reason for the fast growth is BMW's ability to make people instantly fall in love with its new model lines. The Mini and the BMW X5, X3 and 1 series all were hot sellers from the moment they reached showrooms.
Automotive News Europe Chief Correspondent Luca Ciferri asked BMW group design director Chris Bangle to explain how the automaker successfully overhauled and expanded its range.
How come BMW almost never gets a new model wrong?
I believe that the consistent successes of recent years are the result of our process for defining and developing new products, which we divide into three phases: understanding, believing and seeing.
Let's look at them in order. What do you mean by understanding?
It's a phase that takes one or two years. Many people call it the concept phase, but I prefer to call it the understanding phase. We try to understand what BMW should be offering. Therefore, we talk to customers, study market research and look at forecasts for demographic and consumption development.
Is designing done during this phase?
We design and build scale and full-sized models. But our attention isn't so much on form as on the architecture, proportions, space and accessibility.
Do you assess the industrial and economic feasibility of the project during this phase?
Certainly, that is very important. Many other companies start designing a new model and simultaneously have to choose the platform and possibly also convince management on the stylistic direction. At the BMW group, all these decisions are made before the actual design phase begins.
Is the project approved once the understanding phase is completed?
Usually, yes. Then in the second phase, which we call believing, we get down to the real design competition. We begin from the architecture chosen during the understanding phase and transform it into the final model that eventually goes into production.
How long does your actual design phase last?
Between one year and 18 months. But it's difficult to generalize because the design competition involves at least two different styling models. But the average is 10. For the previous 3 series, we were working with 15 different designs.
Do you bring in outside design consultants?
We almost never do it now for production cars. Nowadays design is absolutely brand-centric, and there is no one better equipped to preserve and interpret a brand's values than its in-house design center. This is the trend among all the premium automakers, not just BMW. At most, we'll ask for external contributions during the understanding phase to see if a different or more interesting interpretation of the architecture or proportions of a new model can come from outside.
The final phase is seeing. Seeing what?
Technically, it's called surface refinement. The form has been finalized. Any changes are no longer in the order of centimeters but just a few millimeters. Almost maniacally, we analyze every single joint, every line, to see if, while retaining the same general form, the refinement of that detail can provide an added value.
How long does the creative process last?
From the first sketches during the understanding phase to the beginning of production, we're looking at around seven years. But during the last 24 months, the designer can only intervene in details. Otherwise, every change would result in delaying the product launch.
They're not flops, but the two generations of the BMW 3-series hatchbacks have not really won over customers. Why?
I would say that during the understanding phase, we didn't properly grasp how to create a smaller BMW than the 3-series sedan. The solution seemed obvious: shorten the tail. But by shortening the panels at the back, we produced a compact car that is only a shorter 3 series when seen from the side. From the front, it has the same proportions.
So the 1 series was the result of a better-executed understanding phase?
Exactly. The 3-series sedan and the 1 series have technical and component commonalities but no aesthetic similarities. Not only do the sides have completely different proportions, since the 1 series is a true hatchback; but when seen from the front, the 1 series also is immediately recognizable as different from the 3 series.
What did you do to change the look of the 1 series' front?
We worked in a different way with the positioning of the A-pillars, which on the 1 series are farther back and more vertical than on the 3 series.
You may e-mail Luca Ciferri at [email protected]