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.