Panke: No Apologies from BMW

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2005 BMW 645Ci by TCC Team (3/13/2004)
The legend returns — and brings some controversy with it.

It doesn’t take much to get a debate going in automotive circles these days. Just mention the name BMW. The German manufacturer’s radical Helmut Panke, BMW CEOdesign direction, along with its high-tech iDrive system, are certain to kick off a storm — if you can find anyone willing to argue on the automaker’s behalf.

Then again, BMW CEO Helmut Panke, a former nuclear scientist and McKinsey & Co. consultant, is more than capable of standing up in his own defense. And as far as he’s concerned, no apologies are necessary.

The debate was set off, two years ago, by the introduction of a new 7-Series sedan, with its tall tail and hooded headlamps. Critics and many longtime owners shrieked in horror — there once was even a Web site collecting signatures on a petition calling for the ouster of BMW design chief Chris Bangle.

Yet to Panke, “It was a necessary step. We had to move away from designs…that were essentially the same, just in different sizes, what (you might) call different slices from the same sausage.”

Winning converts

In an interview with, Panke insisted that the controversy is largely the result of a few angry Internet sites who’ve had their message picked up by the general news media. That point can certainly be debated, but what’s harder to argue is the fact that the new 7-Series is significantly outselling the model it replaced, Panke stressed.

If he was willing to concede anything, the self-confident CEO acknowledged BMW “should have managed better” the way it prepared the public and the automotive media for the changes that were coming. Exactly how that might have been done, he didn’t explain.

With each new model, BMW’s edgy design theme is beginning to win converts, Panke asserted. The 6-2005 BMW 645Ci Series clearly continues the new look, though it’s a bit less radical than the 7er. Once the all-new 1-Series is added, the BMW chairman promised, “You will see how it all fits in. The message will be understood when you see the entire portfolio of cars.”

If Panke is willing to defend the design, he’s also quick to defend the designer. There’d been widespread speculation, last month, when news broke that Bangle was “moving upstairs,” in the words of one critic. In an interview with TCC, Bangle denied the move was meant to get him away from BMW’s drawing boards. And Panke concurred. “I would not put any unnecessary interpretation” on the news, he said, adding that “Chris’s responsibilities are unchanged.”

Bangle butt and iDrive

So if future BMWs will continue to have what some have derisively dubbed “Bangle butts,” what about iDrives? For those who’ve missed the controversy, the iDrive is a large, rotating knob mounted on the center armrest. By twisting, sliding or tapping the knob, you can operate just about every electronic function, from radio settings to climate control.

BMW iDriveCritics contend iDrive just complicates operations that could far more easily be handled with individual buttons. But BMW is wedded to the system, insisting it keeps a car from becoming as cluttered as a 747 cockpit.

Bottom line, Panke flatly declares, BMW is committed to iDrive, but he also hints “there are going to modifications. We are learning whether it is best to have one button, or three, two or four.” Indeed, slight changes were made by the time the new 5-Series rolled out, and that is likely to continue.

It’s a small concession from a supremely self-assured man, and one who sees a bright side to all the debate. “It proves we are still an emotional brand with a strong bond between us and our customers.”

Anyone who expects BMW to shy away from future controversy might be in for a surprise. Panke is keeping a sharp eye on the forces reshaping the auto industry, including the fragmenting of traditional product segments. The automaker responded to the so-called car/truck crossover boom with its X5 and, more recently, X3 sport-utes. Look for even more segment-busting products, according to Panke.

“This is a challenge for premium brands to be ahead of the curve and get there with something unexpected,” he said, adding there will definitely be a “reduction in classic body styles.” But Panke also acknowledged the challenge isn’t an easy one because “You’re trying to guess what consumer tastes might be like several years from now.”

It may be hard to predict trends, but it’s a fair bet that whatever direction BMW takes, controversy will continue to follow.

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