Like many European brands, BMW started out as a quirky, small player in the U.S. Making performance its forte, it left Mercedes-Benz to personify luxury for the older buyer and Volvo with its plain, boxy design to zero in on safety.
"They have had a performance element throughout their history," said Karl Brauer, senior director of automotive industry insights at Kelley Blue Book. But he says that BMW has built on that image.
"They have very successfully converted their image from a performance to slightly elevated premium to a luxury brand that has a performance-oriented subtext and appeal," Brauer said.
It didn't happen overnight. In fact, BMW had to create a new type of car for a new type of buyer.
The 2002 small sports car -- a vehicle that continues to personify BMW's appeal -- debuted in 1968. The car still is heralded by enthusiasts as the perfect BMW.
David E. Davis, former editor of Car and Driver, lauded the car in an April 1968 review: "The BMW 2002 may be the first car in history to successfully bridge the gap between the diametrically-opposed automotive requirements of the wildly romantic car nut, on one hand, and the hyper-pragmatic people at Consumer Reports, on the other."
David lauded the 2002 for its "great gas mileage" and performance, writing that "it goes like bloody hell."
The 2002 set the path for much of what followed as BMW expanded its lineup. (See related story, Page 36.) A few highlights:
In 1976, the 530i debuted. It was the grandfather of what's now the 5-series range.
That same year, the 3 series replaced the 2002. Last year, the 3-series sedan and the 4-series coupe/ convertible -- BMW later renamed the two-door models -- accounted for 41 percent of BMW's U.S. sales with 140,609 sold.
The first 7-series sedan followed in 1978, flaunting BMW technology. It was the first production car with antilock brakes and digital motor electronics with fuel injection.
BMW upped the performance ante with the M-series variants. The first-generation M3 and M5 came to the United States in 1987. The high-performance models were unusual in their segment and competitors to the AMG models sold by Mercedes-Benz. Buyers flocked to them.
"Those M products and The Ultimate Driving Machine helped to support each other on the impact of the brand's image in the U.S. and globally," said Brauer. Among U.S. buyers, he added, "The M products in the '90s elevated BMW's image as a performance brand."
The Z3 Roadster debuted in 1996 -- it was BMW's premium answer to the Mazda MX-5 Miata. It lasted until 2002 and was replaced by the more sophisticated Z4.
The Z4 raised eyebrows because of its sharp angles and crispy indented sides -- foreign at the time in automotive design but later copied by others including the Saturn Sky.
The X5 midsize crossover went on sale in 1999 into a luxury SUV-crossover space where just Lexus and Mercedes-Benz had vehicles. Unlike the Mercedes-Benz ML, with its body-on-frame construction, the X5 was carlike with its unibody platform and sophisticated suspension.
When consumers responded enthusiastically, it was a turning point for the segment. Analysts and industry insiders had questioned whether a luxury crossover would be accepted in the market.
BMW also relaunched two brands that it had acquired. Mini brought out the Cooper Hardtop in the United States in 2002. Rolls-Royce debuted under BMW ownership with the Phantom in the United States in the spring of 2003.
In 2008, BMW brought out the X6 coupelike crossover that got a lukewarm reception in the buff book press but was copied by other luxury brands years later.
The 5-series GT, regarded as one of BMW's few product hiccups, debuted in 2009. The car rides on the 5-series platform but is as big as the 7 series. BMW argued the GT has four "first class seats and versatile trunk space," but buyers weren't convinced. Even Jackson admits "no one would miss," the GTs -- including the 3-series GT that debuted in 2013.
In 2014, BMW debuted its green subbrand, the i series. Dedicated to sustainable transportation, its first car was the i3 electric vehicle that features a carbon-fiber passenger cell. The carbon fiber is made at a factory that uses hydroelectric power. The i3 is assembled at a plant in Leipzig, Germany, that relies heavily on wind power for electricity. The five-door, rear-wheel-drive car weighs just 2,860 pounds.
True to its performance heritage, BMW followed the i3 with the racer-styled i8 plug-in hybrid sports car. It went on sale in 2014, and demand for BMW's racy take on electric drive far outstripped supply.