BMW Is Losing The Name Game

The slinky BMW passed me on the left. It was late at night, and my vision was a little bleary after staring at page proofs all day. The overhead lights on Interstate 696 cast a pale glow. In spite of this, the Bimmer caught my attention. “What is that?” I wondered as I maneuvered behind the driver and mentally scrolled through the possibilities. Was it one of the Gran Coupe models? A 4-series? A 2-series? Maybe it was even a slightly older 3-series coupe.

Then it hit me. This was a 6-series, one of my favorite BMWs. I like big cars with commanding presence, and I’ve always thought of the 6 as an elegant muscle car. Let everyone else at Automobile Magazine drive Miatas; I’ve long preferred grand tourers and beefy sedans.

But this isn’t about personal driving tastes, or even the 6-series. It’s about BMW’s increasingly ill-conceived naming structure. It took me a few seconds to identify a car I like not because I didn’t recognize it, but because I couldn’t think of what it is called. BMW simply has too many monikers, and they’re increasingly confusing.

BMW’s car lineup in North America runs numerically from the 2-series up to the 7-series. In theory, the 2-, 4-, and 6-series are two-door models. The 3-, 5-, and 7-series are sedans. But BMW added a 6-series Gran Coupe for the 2013 model year. The name is a misnomer, as the Gran “Coupe” is actually a sedan. So that doesn’t make sense. There is no question that the 6-series Gran Coupe a good-looking car, and there are surely some 6-series buyers who might want four doors and a decent-sized back seat. Then again, why wouldn’t they just buy the 5- or 7-series—with a huge back seat—on which the 6-series is based? (The 6-series uses a mixture of components from the two big sedans.)

One argument is that some buyers don’t want full-on family cars, and the 6-series Gran Coupe is curvier and sportier than a 5-series. Even if we agreed with that rationale, BMW now is taking things a step further, adding a 4-series Gran Coupe. The 4-series was supposed to be the new name for the 3-series coupe, leaving the 3-series name for the sedan. This would give the two-door its own identity and connect it more closely with enthusiasts who fondly remember BMW performance coupes of old. That makes sense. Only, now we’re getting a four-door version of the 4-series. Uh, isn’t that the 3-series?

BMW will tell you the 4-series Gran Coupe has a hatchback trunk, so it is different. Of course, a 3-series with a hatch is also known as the 3-series GT. These Bimmers are tripping all over each other! Don’t get me started on why a hatch is referred to as a “Grand Turismo,” either. Essentially, BMW is delineating many of its cars based on sheetmetal tweaks, cargo space, and rear legroom.

To be fair, BMW isn’t the only one playing the name game. Audis and Mercedes generate some—though not as much—confusion. Other consumer brands are just as guilty. Should I be drinking Diet Coke or Coke Zero? Neither has a single calorie. Or are they both worse than regular Coke? The same company owns Banana Republic, the Gap, and Old Navy. I just want a blue button-down Oxford for spring. I don’t care what store I buy it in.

Sure, variety in branding is one way to sell consumer goods. I get that. If you like BMWs (or soft drinks, or really anything) you want to have choices when you’re contemplating your next purchase. But BMW takes it to the extreme. There is too much nuance and too much overlap, and all of this subtle variation blurs the identity of the most significant Bimmers. There has to be a better way.

AhRetirement
This article was a waste of 2 minutes of my life that I will never get back. 
John Shea
"Coupe'" simply means "cut", as in cut down or short. The number of doors is irrelevant, particularly now four door coupe's are back in fashion.
XLover
They may be losing the name game (in your opinion), but they're winning the numbers game and for any company, that's all that matters.
billytbones
Coke Zero tastes just about exactly like regular Coke. Most people I've given it to would swear it was regular Coke.Diet Coke has it's own distinct flavor that some people seem to prefer regardless of calories.
BMW guy from SMF
I agree in principle with this article - as mentioned in an earlier comment, BMW used to be more honest with their numbering system and outside of the US they generally are ... for example, my '12 535i is a 530i in UK/Europe (5 series, 3.0 litre 6 cyl turbo) - a US 528 is actually a UK/EU 520, 2.0 litre 4 cylinder turbo, etc., etc.  They used to be very honest, but I think in the American market they assume (maybe rightly so) that we are too dumb to buy a 548i one year only to have the option of a 544i the next and we would think that is a down grade and not understand that a smaller more powerful and more capable ENGINE is the difference!!  That does bother me ...
The monikers should be accurate and shortened  - say a 644i GT or a 330i GC, etc.
BUT I think this confusion lives with the American's too - for the life of me I cannot get my arms around the Cadillacs and have no reason yet to attempt Lincoln.
Mercedes and Lexus seem to be best at being honest and simple in their model naming conventions ...
Wolf47
I for one thing there is more at stake than confusion.  I believe BMW is loosing prestige because you can't easily distinguish between a 3, 5 or 6 series grand coupe.  Their cost differences are considerable, so when you steep up to $70-80,000 car you don't people to think its a $45,000 3 series.  VW's Audi line has the same problem.  Coming down the road an A8 looks like an A4.
Limey
Personally, BMW just seem lost. It's similar to many of the smartphone companies. True innovation is hard, so instead you get feature and model spam. Just spin off as many variations as you can conceive and hope that some of them stick.
asu87
oh and what about BMW's numbers? The simple identifiers of the past is no more---used to me that a 325i was (3-series body, that's where the 3 came from) and (a 2.5 liter engine---that's where the 25 came from) and (fuel injected---that's the i, for injected) So, what is a 328i? Yes it is a 3-series body, and no it is not a 2.8 liter engine---it is a 2.0 liter turbocharged engine....BMW believes it has the equivalent power of a 2.8 liter engine.
Then onto the 335i (3-series body with a 3.0 liter turbocharged engine) evidently BMW would believe it has the equivalent power of a 3.5 liter engine..(makes sense)
Then why is it that the 740i (7-series body with the same 3.0 liter engine) isn't called the 735i? 
scratching my head....
gerardthai
BMW is NOT ok with names.  The name game they play is only to show that they have a massive line-up of cars when, like what Greg is saying, isn't accurate at all.  They make a 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, X, Z, and M variants of all of them.  That's 8 models.  Chopping a door off doesn't make a new model. It make a coupe of an existing sedan model. Adding a hatch doesn't make a GT..it adds a liftback to an existing model.  Honda seems to agree. They have an Accord, and an Accord Coupe.  A Civic Coupe.  Saying to your friends, "I have a 3 series coupe" is a lot easier to say and more understandable than saying, "I have a 4 series coupe which is nothing but a 3 series with 2 doors". 
Greg..I totally agree with you. 
Sergey Popov
BMW is ok with names. don't punish your brains, you're failed.
NE Guy
@gerardthai You're absolutely right, what a convoluted system... They need to reel themselves in!

New Car Research

Find vehicle reviews, photos & pricing

our instagram

get Automobile Magazine

Subscribe to the magazine and save up to 84% off the newsstand price

subscribe

new cars

Read Related Articles

TO TOP