Design identity is a tricky concept. In the car world, it’s supposed to bring all the models of a given company a family feeling; to make them easily identifiable as its members. However, it must allow each model to develop its own image, otherwise they’ll compete for the same buyers to some extent. It gets tricky because creating both images is like trying to go north and south.
In nowadays, competition is so strong that companies feel forced to prioritize the group image: they try to attract potential buyers to themselves as a whole, then encourage them to go upwards in their lineup each time they want to get a new car. The thing is, buyers are becoming less loyal to companies in general as time passes, so companies must not neglect each model’s individual appeal.
German automakers are famous for their overly consistent design; sometimes, it’s difficult to tell their models apart. After helping them build the image they boast today, this strategy has become undesirable once they started to venture into new market segments: some models end up unable to stand out and lose buyers to the adjacent ones in the lineup, which are frequently three or four.
Take this Car Design Chronicle’s model as an example. If you prefer something more stylish, the 4 Series has a Cabrio sibling. If you need (a little) more room for people, you can get the Gran Coupé. Those who want to follow trends have the X4 crossover. Finally, rational customers might prefer the 3 or the 5 Series, which offer a similar number of versions, but each one on a particular budget.
BMW released the 4 Series in 2013 as part of a “divide and conquer” effort: by emancipating coupé and cabrio, they got green light to look sportier than ever while keeping the 3 Series’ proven image intact. The Bavarian automaker kept investing in the lineup by adding the Gran Coupé, the M4 performance coupe, and the X4, but it didn’t quite follow up with the models’ external appearance.
Perhaps out of fear of failure, the company gave them the same corporate look of the time, with headlights connected to the grille, focus on horizontal items, exclusive sporty parts for the M variations, and strong, but predictable creases on the sides. The Coupé and Cabrio, for instance, still looked derived from the 3 Series, only with another number. Fortunately, that took a complete change.
Automakers invest in a new design language around every ten years. It means drastically changing their guidelines towards a desired objective, which could be making the lineup sportier, fancier or more modern, or making it clear that a new brand has become independent. Lexus is a famous example because the L-finesse language defied the typical conservative attitude of luxury makers.
Once the first new models are released, people deduce that all the others will be updated soon, so the automaker should hurry so as not to face a temporary sales plunge. The thing is, that means investing a lot in a new language whose reception is still unknown. Because of all that, this type of operation is highly risky regardless of for how long an automaker prepares what and how to do.
While the all-new 4 Series hardly represents that level of change, it’s still quite impressive for BMW’s standards. The overall appearance is much bolder, now featuring a strong rear-quarter crease that joins the typical long hood to create a performance-oriented style. The sleeker lights give it a Jaguar-like elegance especially in the rather discreet Luxury Line trim. And there’s the front grille.
After debuting last year on the Concept 4 and obtaining mixed feedback ever since, the full-height component manages to remind of 1960s BMWs and, at the same time, makes the 4 unmistakable. Since it’s large enough not to need much extra air-intake area, the maker nods to visual harmony by hanging the license plate on the middle of the grille and giving its frame a different color.
According to Autocar, this grille is part of design chief Domagoj Dukec’s effort to make every BMW stand out. The 3 Series uses a horizontal version because it’s much more rational. Larger cars, such as the 7 Series and the X7, feature a rather square one to be even more opulent. Now, Dukec says that “a coupe like the 4 Series should express the exotic part of BMW.” But there’s more about it.
The designer doesn’t worry about what people say on social media because he believes things go beyond that: “the criteria for design is to create something unique, something daring, to make a statement.” If there was any BMW where such guideline should be applied, it’s an emotional one that was emancipated precisely for that reason; not having to bother with conservative preferences.
Having all that in mind, we can only conclude BMW has managed to solve the image problem it was facing. Not only is it working to differentiate emotional models from the traditionally rational ones more than ever, it’s also doing that with the very same design elements that helped establish its image in the first place: the company has literally reinvented its omnipresent twin-kidney grille.
To quote Dukec once again, “in two or three years, I’m convinced this will be a really strong product on the road, and people, whether they love it or not, will see it as a car with a certain identity.” The fact that BMW has pulled off the X7 and the latest 7 Series with equally divisive design shows it’s on to something. We might be facing the beginning of a whole new era for German car design.