Size matters in the auto industry. Bigger automakers can cut better deals with suppliers and can subsidize expensive technologies. Here, BMW finds itself at a distinct disadvantage. Audi can rely on the Volkswagen Group for economies of scale, and Mercedes-Benz has engineered deals with Renault and Nissan/Infiniti. BMW has looked for ways to increase volume on its own. It has entered just about every market segment and invented a few more (5-series Gran Turismo, anyone?). It is also exploiting Mini for all it's worth; as we've reported, the two brands will share a front-wheel-drive architecture and several engines going forward. However, it's unclear how much more BMW can squeeze out of luxury vehicles and a kitschy British brand. Although the carmaker keeps posting record sales, the bottom line does not shine quite so brightly anymore because fleet sales and price wars are taking their toll. The Bavarians need a bigger partner. Much bigger.
At this point we can only report possibilities, not done deals. Those who pass through the R&D center in Munich will spot a growing number of Toyota GT86 (Scion FR-S) coupes with Belgian plates, a fleet of Toyota Verso vans with BMW diesel engines, and a solitary Lexus LFA. As with any partnership, each side has something the other wants. Toyota is primarily interested in BMW's carbon-fiber innovations and its incomparable expertise in vehicle dynamics. BMW is keen to dig into Toyota's research on fuel cells and hybrid drivetrains. Both parties, meanwhile, see an urgent need to update their sports car lineups.
It may seem preposterous that BMW needs help from anyone on this front, let alone from Toyota. Look closer. BMW sold only 4500 Z4s worldwide between January and May. The 6-series is completely out of step with the times -- too big, too heavy, and too much of a boulevardier. When Audi replaces the R8 in 2015 and Mercedes launches the AMG GT in 2016, even the M6 will look fat and obsolete. But the core deficiency -- and where Toyota could greatly help -- is cash. BMW doesn't have the resources to throw at low-volume cars, however vital they may be to the brand's reputation. CEO Norbert Reithofer has shot down several projects, including the M1 and the Z2, because the numbers don't add up.
With Toyota chipping in, though, BMW could develop a new lightweight, front-engine sports car architecture. It wouldn't have anything to do with the 3-series/5-series -- that'd be too close to the inner sanctum even for an ally. It would need to be cheap enough to underpin cars in the Z2 and Celica ranges but good enough to yield a 6-series replacement along with the belated successor to the Supra.
Although this looks like a win/win scenario, it is met with considerable resistance inside BMW -- and probably at Toyota. It's not yet clear which side would be in charge of the sports car project. The not invented here syndrome looms large at the group's Munich headquarters, most fiercely within the M division. Internal critics fear customers will balk at a Camry connection, and they're not entirely wrong. The partnership rubs against BMW's reputation as a tightly knit, fiercely independent performance brand. In reality, though, that BMW disappeared long before any flirtation with Toyota. The erosion began years ago with the ill-fated Rover and Bentley adventures and has sped up during the expensive gestation of Project i, which may be visionary but still waters down the Ultimate Driving Machine ethos. BMW is changing, whether it links up with Toyota or not.