Gavin Green on the all-pervasive effect of brands copying BMW, CAR+ September 2015

Published: 01 August 2015

► Why almost everyone is trying to copy BMW
► How this ruins many wholesome brands

► Finally, change could be on its way 

One of the great tragedies for the car customer, and the car industry, has been the recent success of BMW. It has probably been the most influential car maker of the past decade and, along with Hyundai, the most successful.

It prospers because it offers desirable ‘premium’ vehicles to the global middle class, previously used to mass-maker mediocrity. Plus, it offers a sportier and more performance-oriented driving experience than the volume producers, whose popularity it quickly usurps. When sales began to explode, a decade or more ago, rivals took notice. Then they tried to copy. And that’s when things went wrong.

The mass makers, coveting BMW’s position and profits, are now all trying to become more ‘premium’. Indeed, it’s rare to go to a press launch these days and not hear wishful talk about ‘premium’, ‘luxury’ and ‘upmarket’ from manufacturers that are about as innately posh as a Millwall fan wearing a Burberry scarf. In most cases it is merely a euphemism for trying to become more expensive. 

Of course, the volume producers usually confuse ‘premium’ with offering more features and a slightly finer finish. This invariably means offering more kit, which the poor consumer rarely wants and is even less likely to know how to use. True premium, of course, means better design and engineering, not more features. Luxury is not the opposite of simplicity. As Coco Chanel pointed out, it’s the opposite of vulgarity. Until they understand that, the mass makers will never understand premium, or emulate the better BMWs.

'Almost everyone is trying to copy BMW'

But an even more regrettable and widespread side effect of BMW’s success is the way it has influenced the design and dynamics of modern cars. Almost everyone is trying (or has tried) to copy BMW, from eminent premium rivals (Audi, Mercedes) to those luxury makers heading downmarket (Maserati); from small makers with inflated ambitions (Alfa Romeo) to mass makers desperate to get out of the gutter (Hyundai, Vauxhall, Peugeot) to new car makers, including China’s Qoros. 

‘Doing a BMW’ is motor industry shorthand for prioritising performance over practicality; aggressive design over restrained elegance; sportiness over suppleness. Now, there’s nothing wrong with these priorities, as BMW successfully proves. But there is when everyone is trying to do it.

Look at Mercedes-Benz. The oldest and most esteemed car maker in the world – which lost its global premium sales crown to BMW a decade or so back – now has some designs that prioritise testosterone over taste, and chassis that prioritise firmness over finesse. Thankfully the S-class still sails serenely above all that and, with its supreme balance of refinement and quality, is surely Mercedes’ true model for emulation. (The latest C-class, in the right spec, shows how the company can get it right when it thinks like Mercedes should, not how it thinks BMW would.)

Audi, too, has copied BMW, as it seeks to grab its crown as global premium car leader. It has carved its own niche, of course, by successfully focusing on tasteful design and superior cabin architecture. It puts less emphasis than BMW on chassis dynamics, which is one reason why too many Audis still feel as if they have concrete in their dampers. Lexus, Volvo and Jaguar have all made their Munich-mimicking mistakes. Lexus and Jaguar, let us not forget, once made the world’s most refined saloons (’60s and ’70s XJ, ’80s and ’90s LS). Pleasingly, all now make increasingly individual cars again, emphasising their (respective) Japanese, Swedish and British priorities and prejudices. Meanwhile, the mass makers frequently fit bigger wheels and tyres and sacrifice ride comfort, in a (usually forlorn) quest to match BMW’s handling and roadholding. 

But hark! There are welcome signs of change!

The new Volvo XC90 prioritises elegance, relaxed (rather than aggressive) driving and functionality. The latest Mondeo rides well and is cavernously roomy, never mind the dated cabin. The Citroën C4 Cactus is blatantly softly sprung and cheerfully styled, and all the better for it. 

Most contra-BMW of all is a new front-drive hatch made by… BMW. The 2-series Active Tourer does not look sporty or in any way advertise aggression. It prioritises space. It is aimed at chilled oldies not cool Millennials. With adaptive dampers, it rides with a suppleness alien to most mainstream German cars. The recent Gran Tourer version is a further nod towards space and inclusiveness over sport and self. 

Who knows, this may even start a trend.

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience