Ludwig Willisch, CEO of BMW of North America, says the sporty 2002 two-door introduced in 1968 sparked BMW's image in the U.S. Since then, the U.S. has been a strong force in BMW's financial success and in its product strategy. Willisch, 59, talked to Staff Reporter Diana T. Kurylko in February.
Q: What has made BMW so successful in the U.S. market?
A: It all started with the 2002. I still bump into a lot of people who say, "I had a lot of fond memories [of] when I was a college kid and bought that BMW." It was a one-of-a-kind car. That was when BMW came onto the map in the United States, and people realized that it was a sports sedan that no one knew about or that it existed. It defined a new niche.
Later on, the 3 series came along as its successor in the '70s. People liked that very much, and that was our foundation in the United States. BMW of North America came along at the same time. It defined our company and made the first footprint.
"The Ultimate Driving Machine" tag line started then as well?
It was always in relation to the 3 series.
And most recently?
Over the whole life cycle since 1975, it has always been our model lineup -- the 3, 5, 7 and 6 series. In the United States, two vehicles [that] especially described BMW were the Z3 [roadster] that came out in , ... and [a few] years later, the X5 [crossover] defined a new segment and we found another niche.
How have you expanded on your philosophy, and how has it applied to dealers?
It was always that we would stay true to our brand and offer stronger engines than we have in the lineup in Europe. We would have two different engines. They would be on the upper scale of the output that our engines would produce. We have driving programs, and people love to come to Spartanburg [S.C.], and we now have a track where they can have fun with our cars in Palm Springs [Calif.].
On the dealer side, we have a test-driving program at least once a year with our cars and with some of the competition so people can actually experience us and the competition and find out what we are all about.
How loyal are BMW buyers? How many move up the range?
You could say short of 60 percent are loyal -- almost two-thirds -- and it depends where they enter. The majority really stay with the 3 series, and they love it. Others buy the 5 series or 6 series or 7 series and stay loyal. The 3 series always fascinates most people -- that you could have that nimble, agile car that is so much fun to drive.
What are the key innovations that have given BMW such credibility as a high-technology and performance company?
I would say recently all the driver-assistance systems that we gradually have put into cars that helped the road-holding and drive dynamics. One thing that everyone now has that we introduced is the iDrive or the center knob that you move. ... It was one of the breakthrough innovations.
The other is the head-up display. And also, we always work in features that are somehow connected to the suspension. The most recent in the 7 series is the gesture control.
What makes the U.S. market unique? Give examples of tailoring features to this market.
The U.S. is unique, as is the desire to have a performance car that accelerates well and gives you the fun of accelerating onto a freeway or from a tollbooth. Our strategy is to offer two engines with each model, both of which are upscale. No one has asked for engines with less horsepower. People have always appreciated the stronger engines.
What is the bond with BMW loyalists?
Our customers love the fascination of the product -- they talk about it. The common denominator is they belong to the same club. If you go to a Bimmerfest, it is motivating for me to see how enthusiastic people are about BMW. It is a common theme for everybody to talk about their car, its features, how they love it and what they experience with it. It is about driving a BMW. They try to get customers into the owners' club. Our BMW owners are the best brand ambassadors.
What key traits in BMW cars do owners love?
The steering, the road-holding, the sound, the way you can feel even in your driveway that you are driving a BMW. It is the touch of the steering wheel, the way you release the clutch and the way the car steers. There are typical design features starting with the kidney and ending with the Hofmeister kink. It is things people are familiar with.
How important has the Spartanburg plant been?
It is now our biggest plant in the world. It has supported worldwide corporate growth. If you think of the growth rate of trucks, we are very lucky we have trucks made in the U.S. for the U.S.
We are very fortunate that ... years ago the company decided to go to the United States and build a plant at a time when everyone was withdrawing. It was not only a brave move, but it shows how right the move was. It is a big, important footprint for us.
How much can BMW grow in the U.S. market?
I think with the future X7 [large crossover], we could get toward 400,000 units.
Can you put a timetable on that growth?
The X7 is one of the prerequisites, and it will not hit the market before 2019.
How has BMW changed because of the U.S.?
The enthusiasm about the BMW brand is really impressive in the U.S. We are always reminded how well the Ultimate Driving Machine sits here. We are the biggest BMW M and i market.
The U.S. has always been important in shaping the brand. It is a big influence on our decision-making process -- it is the second biggest single market now. When it comes to driving dynamics, it is the market for brand-shaping and decision-making.
How has BMW changed the luxury market in the United States?
It has made a statement that luxury and dynamics go well together.