Future BMW M cars could go 4wd, says boss

Published: 14 January 2015

BMW’s M division CEO Franciscus van Meel has hinted that a four-wheel drive option is likely to make an appearance on larger M cars in the near future.

Speaking to CAR at the Detroit motor show, van Meel said that four-wheel drive is becoming a necessity as the supersaloon power war continues.

‘We are looking into those things because power and torque will only increase, and we will run into the necessity of these kind of systems,’ he explained.

Were an all-wheel-drive M car to be on the cards, however, he says it would still need to feel rear-wheel drive. ‘I don’t like the phrase “four-wheel drive”. Emotionally it sounds stoic, neutral and understeery,’ he says (ironic, given van Meel was in charge of Audi’s Quattro GmbH performance division prior to joining BMW). ‘If we are talking about M I think we’re talking about rear-wheel drive with added traction.’

He also ruled out the possibility of a more hardcore M version of the BMW i8 hybrid supercar, for now at least. ‘We are not trying to make an i8M. That would be a mixing of cultures that wouldn’t work.’

Read on for CAR’s chat with van Meel in full.

Did you have any input on the imminent X5M and X6M?

‘The M6 was already completed when I started [on October 1 2014] so what you see on the stage here [the 2015 M6] was already finished. So the next interesting cars that will come, that I had a little bit of time to look at, will be the X5 and X6M, which are to be launched at Austin, Texas [on the Circuit of the Americas] at the end of this month. I think the track is the right place to try out these cars.

‘It was good to work alongside [outgoing M boss] Dr Friedrich Nitschke for three months and have the opportunity to discuss the challenges and the opportunities ahead. We of course agree on what M stands for. M has been an icon for decades, everybody knows what an M car is. It’s defined by precision and agility, the vehicle’s dynamics, especially laterally – acceleration is pretty straightforward; being fast on a track and going sideways is very important.’

Name a couple of M cars that for you define the brand.

‘For me new M3 and M4 show exactly what M stands for; they are lightweight, very agile cars that are precise, good to drive on the track and that have a strong power-to-weight ratio. Also, their use of innovative materials is absolutely M; the use of carbonfibre in the roof, in the rear lid and for the propshaft. That’s really an astonishing component; the weight if you have that in your hands compared to a solid steel driveshaft. Also the completely redesigned chassis – those cars are really on the spot. From the past I like the 1M coupe – that was a very edgy, emotional car. Emotion is important – if a car doesn’t appeal to you emotionally, whether it’s a high-performance car or a regular car, you don’t buy it.’

Are some of your cars more ‘M’ than others?

‘It is not possible to make all M cars sporty and dynamic; if we did we would miss out on some customers because in different segments there are different needs. If we were to build a hardcore M5 race machine costing over 100,000 euros we would get the hardcore racers but we would miss all the people looking for a car that combines sportiness with luxury. The M6 has both, and what I like to see is that the motorsport team, which is working on the GT3 car [BMW’s replacement for the Z4 GT car, due on track in 2015], is that they can use the sporty genetics of the M6 and leave out the comfort parts, and by doing that they can easily achieve a very, very good racing car. It’s good to see that the essential balance of the car and the drivetrain is being used in a race car, and of course we look at what they’re doing regarding aerodynamics and so on, to see if there’s anything we can transfer back to the series production cars.’

Can you see an i8M?

‘I can see a marrying of BMW’s M and i brands, but I can’t see an i8M just now. There is a very close collaboration between M and i – we have an open-book policy, and each brand can look into the other’s magic box of technologies and ideas. The i team used that making thei3 and i8, looking at the carbonfibre technologies M cars have used for the past ten years. They took that as a basis and enhanced that, and that’s something we’re looking at now to see if that carbonfibre technology can help us with the next generation of M cars. Also, we’re looking at the vehicle dynamic control systems, which are very interesting on the i8. We are not trying to make an i8M though – that would be a mixing of cultures that wouldn’t work. We want to retain our positions without ignoring the good ideas each one has.’

As a former boss of Audi Quattro, what about a four-wheel-drive M3 or M5?

‘Whatever technology we’re talking about, the properties of an M car must remain rear-wheel drive; very agile, very precise. And I don’t like the phrase ‘four-wheel drive’. Emotionally it sounds stoic, neutral and understeery. If we are talking about M I think we’re talking about rear-wheel drive with added traction. We are looking into those things because power and torque will only increase, and we will run into the necessity of these kind of systems.’

What about hybrid technology, like the i8 or new Honda NSX?

‘Again, it has to enhance the properties we have right now without making anything worse. I wouldn’t exclude it but we haven’t found the right system yet to fulfill all these requirements and stay with the philosophy of M. The power-to-weight ratio is the problem – of course you can simply add more power, but that isn’t the smart way. The car may be fast but it will still be heavy, and that is not M.’

What are you excited about in 2015?

‘I’m not allowed to talk about them. We will show a few of them this year – we showed the organic LED lights at the recent Consumer Electronics show, and they will be on our cars – and we will show a very interesting high-tech new USP that is even more M-like at the Geneva motor show in a few weeks’ time. I am very excited about this so I have to stop talking now.’

Click here to read CAR's BMW M5 long-term test diary

By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three