Among the many products offered by a marque that bills itself “the ultimate driving machine,” it’s those branded with the vaunted “M” badge that best live up to that boast.
In recent years, BMW has significantly expanded its line-up of M offerings, including the new M3 and M4 models that go on sale this month. But those two high performance products reveal an ongoing shift in strategy for the M brand-within-a-brand, a move away from big-block naturally aspirated engines, to more technically sophisticated powertrains that are downsized and turbocharged.
BMW is by no means alone. There have been reports that General Motors may take a similar route with the next-generation Corvette. But in an exclusive interview with TheDetroitBureau.com, the chief engineer for BMW’s M line revealed the subsidiary is giving serious consideration to going a step further with hybrids and other battery-based powertrains.
“That would definitely be a change of game,” said Albert Biermann, the vice president of engineering for BMW’s M GMBH subsidiary, adding that “We’ve been thinking about it for quite some time.”
BMW is by no means the only automaker thinking about the performance benefits of battery power. Indeed, the new La Ferrari and McLaren’s P1 supercars both rely on hybrid powertrains to deliver benchmark levels of performance. Porsche, meanwhile, has gone hybrid for its own flagship 918 Spyder.
And another BMW subsidiary, the new “i” brand, is focused exclusively on battery-based technologies. Its new i3 is an all-electric city car, but the i8 is a plug-in hybrid sports car delivering 0 to 60 times approaching some of the Bavarian maker’s M models.
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Having the new “i” line takes some of the pressure off his own unit, said Biermann, letting it focus on what it traditionally has done best, the raw “emotion” of a high-performance internal combustion engine. But the world is changing, he acknowledged. As those new Porsche, Ferrari and McLaren hybrid systems demonstrate, there are new alternatives that not only can push performance up to unheard-of levels, but they also can improve fuel economy in the process.
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One of the challenges is cost, Biermann noted. Pointing to the P1 and La Ferrari, he stressed, “We don’t do million-dollar cars,” despite the substantial price premium for the likes of an M3 or M5.
But the veteran engineer made it clear BMW M eventually may have no option but to consider battery-based alternatives. The real “question is when will be the time that we are ready to do that.”
Tough new emissions and mileage standards are coming into play in many key markets for BMW M products, he acknowledged. In China, which is rapidly becoming the world’s largest luxury car market, the government is making a heavy push for electrification. And in Europe, a number of cities are putting limits on vehicles powered by traditional internal combustion engines. Hamburg, for example, wants to ban them entirely. Other cities may limit vehicles that can’t operate on battery power in the urban core.
“When you can’t use your car in the city anymore, we will have to react,” said Biermann.
It is too early to say the M division is “working” on a hybrid powertrain, he stressed, but quickly added that it has been “thinking” about its options.
“The typical M customer is not ready for that yet. They want the emotion of a powerful combustion engine,” said Biermann. But the world is changing rapidly, he acknowledged. There was a time when a BMW M needed to be a large-displacement, naturally aspirated gas engine. With the new M3 and M5 models it is moving into smaller turbocharged alternatives. Hybrids and other battery-based options could very well be the next step.
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