BMW 4-Series

"Longer, lower, wider!"

That was the American industry's design mantra for a very long time, and now, sadly, it's being adopted by the European marques that have overtaken Cadillac, Chrysler, and Lincoln as the most popular prestige cars in the U.S. market. Like many enthusiasts, I've been partial to BMW coupes for decades, in particular small, light, agile, and sporty models such as the 2002tii and the E30-chassis M3. But just as American cars grew and gained weight inexorably in the 1950s, so have BMW coupes acquired both accoutrements and mass with succeeding generations. They have all been wonderful cars, vastly more powerful and capable (and vastly more expensive) than their forebears, but a lot of their charm disappeared as the pounds piled on. I know, we're supposed to accept the 1-series as the logical replacement for the coupes we loved, but I find that very hard to do. The 3-series coupes may not have had limousine-quality rear seating, but the person at the wheel and the front passenger were not cramped or squeezed at all, and they had a sense of being in a substantial vehicle. To me, BMW 1-series interiors seem just a little shoddy and far too cheap for "real" BMWs.

There's no questioning the substance of this new 4-series coupe, but it does come across as being heavy -- massive, even -- in sharp contrast to earlier models. One cause is the "chopped top" look. The height of the side windows in earlier cars was a greater percentage of the overall height, giving an airy, pleasant look. On this car, the dimension from sill bottom to rooftop is broken up differently, so the body side, however cleverly sculpted in bas-relief, seems excessively tall and correspondingly heavy. The undercut that starts behind the bulged surface around the front wheel opening and proceeds into the taillight lens is particularly nice, at once providing thrust to the sides and emphasizing the length of the convex surface above, itself established at the outer headlamp.

There's a lot of past BMW design in this car. One can see traces of previous BMW designers Hofmeister, Goertz, Michelotti, Bracq, Giugiaro, Luthe, and Bangle, as well as the strong influence of current design chief Adrian van Hooydonk, whose Z9 concept introduced the characteristic separation of hood and fender back in 1999 that is carried out so well here. That continuity has been a powerful advantage to BMW, establishing a look much desired by an entire generation of customers.

But that desire can be a two-edged sword. Cadillac was once an aspirational marque to a generation of Americans who have aged and died off, taking Cadillac's aura of superiority with them to the grave. Years of effort and billions of dollars have not sufficed to restore Cadillac's position at the pinnacle of desirability. The same thing could happen to BMW as it spreads its product line into small cars, SUVs, electric cars, hybrids, et al., increasing sales and diluting its clarity of purpose.

FRONT 3/4 VIEW

1 This undercut in the sides adds a lot of dynamism. Your eye is inclined to make the physically nonexistent link to the point of the headlamp cover.

2 BMW claims that this vent reduces aerodynamic drag, so it probably does. It's still a visual cliché, though.

3 The side surface has two inflection points, one derived from the side-scoop peak, the other from its lower corner.

4 Hot-rodding in Munich? This twisted mouth recalls the Clay Smith Cams "Mr. Horsepower" cartoon, with the foglamp substituting for the cigar.

5 This plastic "chrome" grille/headlamp connection seems forced. It contrives to increase the impression of visual width.

6 At last, a styling department that really takes into account that there must be front license plates in many jurisdictions around the world. Bravo.

7 Creases in the hood stiffen the surface and add visual interest.

8 The windshield glass is inset to the A-pillar, channeling airflow over the roof, not around the sides.

9 Pedestrian safety rules in Europe dictate a higher front skin, but this sharp crease from the A-pillar base nicely disguises that and fades to nothing before the hood cutline.

10 Another sharp crease from just below the bottom of the door glass serves as a visible fender line, helping integrate vertical and horizontal elements of the transverse cross section.

REAR 3/4 VIEW

11 It seems a shame that the door handle interrupts the critical undercut line along the flank.

12 An elegantly simple sill panel without conflicting shapes is a very nice touch indeed. Less is more, perceptibly.

13 A virtual rear-fender profile results from the bulge over the rear wheelhouse opening.

14 This hard edge gives the taillight assembly some visual support, then drops below the trunk-lid sill in a graceful arc.

15 The trunk-lid spoiler flows smoothly and subtly from the upper taillight perimeter.

16 This hard edge fades away totally within the plastic skin of the bumper cover.

17 The bright trim strip above the twin exhausts punctuates the rear fascia for added visual width.

18 As does this little surface change related to the embedded reflectors above the ends of the bright strip below it.

19 From the rear it is clear that the entire roof panel and the backlight glass are inboard of the A- and C-pillar outer surfaces. Subtle, elegant, and efficient.

INTERIOR VIEW

20 Marc Girard's interior team gives us some visual excitement through color, a welcome relief from the perpetual black of German cars.

21 A very serious steering wheel, perfectly round and nicely laced with contrasting thread.

22 There are pleasing curves instead of brutal geometry. The overall effect is welcoming as well as serious.

23 This elegant curve honors the passenger with something more to see than just flat panels.

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