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BMW M CEO Franciscus van Meel on AWD, Turbos, and the M2

M division is looking to expand into new segments going forward.

Franciscus van Meel joined BMW from Audi in October of 2014, and became chairman of the board of management of BMW M GmbH on January 1, 2015. We sat down with van Meel at the 2015 Detroit auto show to talk about key aspects of the M division's future, including the possibility of all-wheel drive and the rumored BMW M2.

AUTOMOBILE: Where does BMW M go from here? Where do you see BMW M in 10 years? What do you really want to see at BMW M?

Franciscus van Meel: Potential for growth is already there. If you look at the segment and sales numbers from last year compared to two-years ago, we had an increase of 44%. We're currently at 45,000 for sales of BMW M and M Performance automobiles, which is a huge number. And it will increase in the future. We will have, in 2015, the new M3 and M4 for a full year [of sales]. We will have the X5 M and X6 M at the international press launch at the end of this month and then bring the cars to market. We also see cars like the M235i doing very well in the market, being very well accepted. I think, for the future, and what we are currently already doing, is taking a look into other segments. Is there a possibility for more BMW M automobiles? As always, if we bring such a car to the market it must be the best in the segment. And also, for M Performance, we see more possibilities and more segments where we can go.

AUTOMOBILE: Audi has the R8 "halo" car. Does BMW need a halo car?

FM: I think BMW already has a halo car, with the i8. It's a car that has been envied from a lot of competitors because it's more or less a completely new segment regarding design, regarding vehicle dynamics, and regarding technologies. But that makes it difficult for us as BMW M. A lot of [our] people are racing guys and say that we'd also like to do a halo car. But having two halo cars is a little bit crowded, so we are more focused on the M models and M Performance models. There is a lot of work to do there and a lot of potential. But we still have, in the back of our heads always, ideas about high-performance race cars [an M halo car].

AUTOMOBILE: BMW M has really been the more driver-focused brand compared to Audi Quattro GmbH. Rear-wheel drive, etc. What does or did Audi Quattro GmbH do well in your opinion and what does your experience at Audi bring to BMW?

FM: From the policy side of things, I don't want to comment on Audi because that wouldn't be fair right now. I can say what I've found at BMW M and what I think BMW M stands for and will be in the future. BMW M stands for, like you said, rear-wheel drive, which is a technology. I think we should rather talk about philosophy, which is having performance cars that are very agile, that can perform very well on race tracks, and have a high degree of precision. Precision not only regarding design but [also] regarding the way you can drive those cars, steer those cars, brake those cars, and handle those cars. For that, rear-wheel drive is one of the main things. That is also what made BMW M, over the past 40 years, so successful and brought the M image. That is something we will continue into the future and even enhance those properties that we have in the cars. I think that is the main differentiator from other high-performance cars we see in the segment, especially German ones. It's the driving feel.

AUTOMOBILE: Obviously, Audi is all about all-wheel drive (Quattro). Outside of the M SUVs, BMW hasn't built a proper M automobile with all-wheel drive. The RS 6 (in Europe) and E63 AMG both offer four-wheel drive. Where does all-wheel drive fit into BMW M?

FM: [Thinking about] the philosophy I mentioned earlier, if we were to do a four-wheel drive [car], it should be rear-wheel drive with traction, as I like to say. It needs to drive like an M should drive. If that were possible with four-wheel drive, to get those vehicle dynamics, then it would be suitable for us.

AUTOMOBILE: How about BMW M and their upcoming front-wheel drive models? Can an M car be front-wheel drive?

FM: If we say we want to keep up with the competition and if you want me to be straight, I think a pure M with front-wheel drive is impossible to make. We cannot put so much torque and horsepower on the front axle.

AUTOMOBILE: What are your thoughts on the future of the manual gearbox at BMW M? Is it only the Americans that care about that?

FM: It's very easy. There is a technical answer and there is a business answer. The technical answer is that you're slower with a manual gearbox than with a fast automatic or DCT [dual-clutch], and you have higher fuel consumption. The emotional part, I'm also very emotional about that, [is that] if there is a market for it, we will stick with the manual gearbox. Currently, we see a decreasing market for manuals. It's already quite small and it's decreasing. But if your readers would start buying loads of manual transmissions, of course we will stick to a manual!

AUTOMOBILE: So, what is M3/M4 take rate on the manual gearbox?

FM: (U.S. PR chimes in) It's still too early to tell with the new M3/M4 but on the previous generation car (E90 family), it was 25 percent manual. That's because the DCT is so good. The M3 before that, the E46, it was about 50/50, but that car had the optional (single-clutch) SMG gearbox versus the DCT dual-clutch.

AUTOMOBILE: BMW M has been taking heat in the press since the introduction of the present M5 for a loss a focus, a dilution of the brand. There is even talk of that with the new M3/M4. What is the future of "purist" BMW M cars?

FM: You don't think the M3/M4 is a purist car? Last year, I was standing looking at the BMW stand with another focus (working at Audi) and I saw the M3/M4 and I was really impressed. I think it's the lightest car in the segment, so the power-to-weight [ratio] is way above anything on the market. The M3 and M4 are very special cars. There is a lot of high tech in the cars, with the carbon fiber technology. The chassis has been completely revised for the M3/M4; it's completely new from the series production car (the standard 3-series). For me, both looking over from Audi last year and still looking at it today, the M3/M4 is a very pure car, a very precise car, and is very edgy. For me, it's a very emotional one. If you look at M5/M6, you have to take into account that car is at a much higher level, a higher price level. We have to take into account that there are some more—some different—expectations from the [M5/M6] customers.

AUTOMOBILE: Related, will BMW M build models to compete with the Black Series models at Mercedes?

FM: I think it is a good idea to do something like that, to do limited editions like Black Series in a BMW M way. We are actively looking into that.

AUTOMOBILE: I attended BMW round table, here at Detroit, in January of 2013 and there was talk of a "BMW Black Series" then. We haven't heard or seen anything. Is this moving ahead? Will we see something soon?

FM: Let's say you won't have to wait another two years to see something.

AUTOMOBILE: Are turbocharged engines the only way forward given the performance and emissions requirements? It seems BMW M is married to the turbo.

FM: Regarding emissions and performance, it [turbocharging] is [the way forward], especially if you look towards downsizing. Getting lighter engines with more performance, that's what we want. We want to have the best power to weight ratio, so there is no way around turbocharged engines. But, in addition to that, there is something you can do more and we will show that in about 6 weeks in Geneva. It will be more ideas about the future and innovative technology, which we will show there.

AUTOMOBILE: Where could a BMW M2 fit in to BMW M? Is that a product we'll see and how does it fit?

FM: It surely would be one that would fit the M logo and M philosophy. If we will see such a car, that's yet to be seen.

AUTOMOBILE: What about an electric BMW M car (like a Porsche 918 or NSX)? How do BMW M and BMW i relate and can they work together?

FM: What we do is that we always look into each other's technology magic boxes. The BMW i team uses the carbon fiber technology from BMW M, to move that forward and make the BMW i3 and i8. And of course, we are looking into what BMW i does regarding drivetrain technology, vehicle dynamics control systems, and the enhanced lightweight technology that they now use. Without trying to make an "M i," maybe there could be a BMW M inspired by BMW i, or a BMW i inspired by BMW M. This is happening all the time already, but the path for BMW M is coming from the race track, staying on the track, and being the more purist racing brand. [Meanwhile,] BMW i is conquering new boundaries in technology and mobility. I think it's two boundaries you need to have and the good thing is we are one company so we can use each others technologies across boundaries. To combine two of those (BMW M and BMW i) into one car, I don't think would work. It's more [about] using the right things from each other.

AUTOMOBILE: Where does diesel fit into BMW M?

FM: Proper M diesel? It works for the M Performance, with the M550 diesel [in Europe]. Of course, we always need to look at the market. The diesel market is still Europe, not the U.S. and not China. That doesn't matter if it's M Performance or M. If we look at the BMW M market, the biggest market is the U.S. So, we always have to take into account if we look into technologies or new ideas, is that something that has a huge market in the U.S. (U.S. PR chimes in: "Currently, a diesel M vehicle would be a tough sell. ") Last year, 40% of BMW M cars were sold in the USA.

AUTOMOBILE: What about the M Performance vehicles? Audi's models like the S4 and S6 are impressive and Audi "S" lineup is strong in the U.S. Should BMW develop a stronger model lineup of M Performance vehicles?

FM: Yes, I think so. If you look into the product lineup, the gap in the engines and performance between the series production models and the BMW M models is increasing. BMW is really moving ahead with the horsepower and torque. So, there is a place for something to fill the gap. We see that as a growth possibility.