Rich Brand, Poor Brand

Tim Marrs

Off to Santa Barbara, where BMW has summoned us to sample the new M6 convertible and the 640i Gran Coupe, equally ample and freshly misnamed -- being a four-door and not a coupe, which by popular perception, if not strict definition, has only two doors. A polite guest first and foremost, I won't point out this linguistic foul ball to the hosts. Santa Barbara is many things, but above all it's pleasant. So why be otherwise?

More than once it has occurred to me that if I were rich and making my money in L.A., I'd keep a luxe spread up this way, piling every so often into my bone-stock Porsche 911 (sorry BMW, too late to rewrite this dream) for the brisk 100-mile trip to the City of Angels, where I'd collect my mad cash and then hightail it back to Santa Barbara, where the people are nicer and ten million dollars seems to go so much further.

The popularity of the small city by the Pacific is easy to understand -- it enjoys an agreeable climate and, by the low standard of seaside towns today, it's tasteful as hell. Recently I read that the oldest human skeleton ever discovered in North America, Arlington Springs Man, was dug up about thirty miles from downtown Santa Barbara. I swear I saw the guy drinking at the hotel bar with his wife -- who didn't look much younger -- the night we arrived, but perhaps I was mistaken.

What I am sure of is that every week seems to bring a new BMW. In my May column, I explored how the Mini brand has been poked and prodded into a more expansive shape. Similarly, Mini's parent company has fixated on volume, inflating BMW's lineup with vigor as the carmaker strives to be more things to more people. With so many variations on a once logical and easy to understand model range, it's getting hard to follow.

Where in the past there were only 3-, 5-, 6-, and 7-series cars, now there's a 1-, a Z, and several Xs, plus a 2- and a 4-series on the way, which means six different SUVs, and even more if an X7 is made. But the real bonus comes with the M cars. BMW's boutique performance division began humbly enough but now offers an M-everything, including, horror of horrors, a set of fraternal twin crossovers for vulgarinos on the go, the two-and-a-half-ton X5 M and X6 M. Lately, while embracing excess enthusiastically, German manufacturers have exhibited a shameful lack of regard for the plain meaning of numbers and words in naming their cars, with time-honored numeric designations no longer remotely reflecting engine displacement. Meanwhile, the misleading use of terms like "coupe" and "sport" flourishes, suggesting that German regard for truth in naming sits up there with German regard for the profligate ways of Mediterranean debtor nations.

Clouding matters further, there are M cars and there are lesser cars that get M enhancements but not the full M-car treatment, like the M Sport 640 we tried. Shall we call it the Gran Moupe? Truth be told, this four-door is more of a moupe than a coupe. They call it a four- plus-one, but owing to an extraordinarily intrusive center console, that plus-one has to sit with his or her legs completely splayed. Don't let grandpa wear his kilt. If there is a new M6 convertible because there can be, there's the Gran Coupe because there has to be. The first of this wave of so-called four-door coupes, the Mercedes-Benz CLS -- which might stand for function-Compromised Low Sedan -- had already entered its second generation before the Bavarians mustered a response.

You might have complimented BMW for principled resistance to a dumb idea -- but being Germans, they must compete with other Germans, so it was only a question of when. Take a moment to reflect on Volkswagen's CLS-inspired, Passat-based CC, which was going to sell some 180,000 units in America over its life span but hasn't come close. If they were Olympic shot-putters, BMW, Mercedes, and VW/Audi would be the teammates who stop on their way to the main competition to arm wrestle, play tiddlywinks, and see who can hurl a loogie the farthest.

The net effect is distraction; focus is lost and so is crispness. While not without their charms -- under hard acceleration, an M6 convertible snapped my head back like a child's Pez dispenser -- BMWs often don't stand out anymore as beacons of desire. Plenty fast and broadly handsome, they are neither truly iconic nor very necessary. Mainly, for all their muscle, they're not as much fun to drive as they used to be.

BMW will never admit the problem -- the company is selling more cars than ever, and those cars are quicker than ever. The new 3-series is hugely competent, but it feels large, inert, and not fully resolved. Ditto the 5-series. I'll reserve judgment on the refreshed 7 due later this year, but all Xs make me weary, as does the never-ending procession of Ms. BMW is rich, but it's brand poor. It can't sell more BMWs, Minis, and Ms without diluting quality, distinctiveness, and cachet. Rather than squeeze every possible speck of life and variation out of extant brands (with hats off for not yet making a Rolls-Royce crossover to sell by the thousands), what it really needs to do is come up with something different. Conveniently, it has several old new brands in its portfolio.

Yet when I asked the company's new North American chief, Ludwig Willisch, whether BMW might bring back Triumph from the noble corpses left over from the Rover debacle, he told me categorically nein, despite the fact that the British press recently reported the trademark's renewal by BMW. He explained that Triumph, which closed its American doors in 1981, was too old to resonate with anyone but those forty or older (as if somehow BMW M6 convertible buyers weren't primarily senior statesmen). He insisted that a Triumph roadster based on BMW's existing Z4 would cannibalize sales of the latter (not much to cannibalize, I'd have thought) and that a Triumph Spitfire based on a Mini platform, but completely restyled, wouldn't make sense. Another prospective failure would be my idea of offering BMW's upcoming 1-series front-drivers in Triumph guise.

It was then that I offered to take Triumph off of BMW's hands. Willisch politely declined, but if you care to join me, perhaps we could go halfsies.

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