2004 BMW 3-Series Photo
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Considering last year’s strong sales numbers, you might expect to see BMW Chairman Helmut Panke... Read more »
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Considering last year’s strong sales numbers, you might expect to see BMW Chairman Helmut Panke thumbing his nose at skeptics. Global sales burst through what Panke called the “magic sound barrier” of one million last year — despite the loud criticism of the automaker’s new design theme and its complicated iDrive system.

Still the customers keep buying the cars. What does that tell us?” asked Panke, during a recent interview. “We should continue doing what we’re doing.”

Well, maybe not entirely. An all-new version of the Bavarian marque’s 3-Series is just starting to roll into dealer showrooms around the world. While there’s a clear family resemblance to the edgy 7-Series, the vehicle that launched BMW’s new look, Dutch designer Adrian van Hooydonk took an admittedly more conservative approach with the fifth-generation 3er. Few were surprised.

“Taking a low-risk approach…was a good move for BMW,” said George Peterson, chief analyst with the consultancy, AutoPacific Inc. Since the 3-Series accounts for more than 40 percent of the automaker’s global sales, it is a make-it-or-break-it car for BMW. And not just in the short term. “This is the product that attracts young people in to have their first ‘Bimmer’ experience,” added Peterson. Scaring them away with an over-the-top new 3-Series could have hurt profits now, as well as long-term sales of the more expensive 5-, 6-, and 7-Series lines.

BMW even played it safe on the technology side. The new car has plenty of electronics onboard, including active steering, dynamic stability control, and laser-guided active cruise control. But buyers can opt out on iDrive, with its single, hockey puck-sized controller, if they’re willing to forego the DVD navigation system.

iDrive, they question

There’s no question iDrive is a controversial subject. Even the mildest criticism will bring a wince to a BMW executive’s face. But Panke insists the company won’t walk away from technology he sees as crucial to tomorrow’s car. There are simply too many electronic systems onboard, he points out, and without iDrive — BMW’s equivalent of a computer’s mouse — the instrument panel would be covered with what the CEO likens to electronic butterflies.

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