Upon his return to General Motors in 2001, the industry's elder statesman Bob Lutz made headlines with his comment that success in automaking was about providing entertainment.
If true, it can only have been more so in the years that followed. In the advent of the housing crisis, for instance, consumers generally had less to spend on buying and running their vehicles, yet paradoxically had higher expectations and a shorter attention span than ever.
One way to attract attention is to create new types of automobiles. And if an automaker can use the underpinnings from one model to create another model or set of models which convincingly target a different set of customers, it wins the game.
The advent of the crossover as a more practical alternative to sedans, more efficient than traditional SUVs, and yet more stylish than minivans, has stirred designers' imaginations. The strongest auto-makers are well poised to plug all sorts of niches with the same basic platforms and components. The German brands are the most productive in this regard, with Audi leading the way.
Sometimes, however, things can go too far.
You won't see BMW's 2 series "Active Tourer" on the streets of Los Angeles. It's a Europe-only model, launched in 2015. And it is perhaps the most ill-advised move the Bavarians have ever made in modern history.
If this is indeed a niche, it is one that BMW's product planners should never have contemplated.
If you thought the 5 series Gran Tourismo tested the Bavarian marque's boundaries, the "Active Tourer" takes things where they promised they'd never go.
This is BMW's first van; its first front-wheel-drive vehicle; its first vehicle with a transversely-mounted engine, and its first model with a three-cylinder engine.
The 5 series GT brought forth 7 series legroom a class below. With the Active Tourer, BMW wants to do the same in the compact class.
Riding on a MINI platform, this mini-MPV carries no more than a few styling cues to support the company's conviction that this monospace for urban moms is in fact a BMW. What a pity that one of the most focused brands - one that David Kiley in his 2004 book, Driven: Inside BMW called the "most admired in the world" - has now done what it swore it would never do: put its badge on a front-wheel-drive car.
Rear-wheel drive is at the very core of what BMW stands for. After almost having been bought by Mercedes - and having suffered the added humiliation of being rejected - the Bavarians successfully attacked their Swabian counterparts in the premium market not by becoming Mercedes, but by focusing on the opposite end of the premium spectrum. Where a Mercedes was well engineered, if dowdy (much like an expensive Peugeot of the day), BMW sought well-engineered sportiness.
It consciously ditched its Mercedes-like '50s "Baroque Angels" and its rear-engined econoboxes for a new styling theme and a studied conviction that placed driving dynamics above all else.
BMW's MPV also bears a remarkable resemblance to the Kia Carens.
Its Croatian designer, Domagoj Dukec, spent time at Volkswagen before going to Citroën. Indeed, rumor has it that BMW hired him away because it was impressed with the C4 Picasso MPV (though he was not directly involved with that vehicle). It is entirely possible that Dukec was influenced by Peter Schreyer, who was also at VW during that period, and under whose tutelage the Carens was later developed. That a BMW is being visually compared to a Kia suggests not only that Schreyer has done a solid job - indeed, he has - but also that this segment is not one in which BMW should be playing.
The "Active Tourer" is by no means the first BMW that is a poor fit for the brand's high standards and image. Base 1 series models (also not sold in the United States) are not particularly noteworthy drives, and indeed BMW points to research which suggests that most 1 series buyers do not know or care which end of the vehicle is driven.
It is also true that despite its emphasis on dynamics, BMW has not always been at the forefront of technology.
The E21 and E30 3 series, in particular, had fairly basic rear suspensions. But BMW's suspension engineers worked their black magic, and the E30 went on to become the choice of young, thrusting executives in the '80s. It's worth noting that many knew little about rear-wheel drive; and that it mattered not.
The point of a mini MPV is above all pragmatism. Other, more mainstream manufacturers have mastered the packaging it offers. However, BMW has defined itself by steadfastly avoiding these compromises.
This is not, of course, the first time that a BMW has been controversial. Back in 1999, the X5 crossover/ SUV - "Sport Activity Vehicle" - debuted to widespread shock as product chief Wolfgang Reitzle defensively chanted, at that year's Detroit show, "it is still... a BMW." The X5, however, had the advantage of being innovative, in that it entered a relatively new segment. Underneath, it used the proven underpinnings of the much praised 5 series wagon. By proving that its crossover could handle the Nürburgring, BMW took the segment further.
In contrast, with the "Active Tourer," BMW is playing catch-up in a decidedly mainstream market.
Instead of rebranding MINI underpinnings to squeeze maximum profit out of them, the BMW Group could have left this to MINI; or brought back the "Glas" brand (which they own); or created a sub-brand. Anything would have been better than the lesson BMW is about to learn, possibly at risk to itself: that which does not credibly add to the brand, subtracts from it.
The same two-step flow of communication from enthusiast opinion leaders to the general public, which promoted the little 2002 sport sedan and propelled BMW from a cult brand to a status symbol in America, will eventually produce negative effects; for it is hard to imagine a conscientious reviewer who would not point out the prostitution in which the brand has engaged. It's worth noting, too, that the general public is more than able to recognize that two million BMWs a year - the brand's goal by 2018 - is roughly the level of exclusivity that Renault offer.
Particularly galling is that BMW insists on calling the model a "2 series," even as the same moniker graces a new coupé which in spirit recalls the old 2002. Were even numbers in BMW's range not now supposed to indicate coupés and "four-door" coupés; and odd numbers, sedans and their relatives? Mind you, BMW's naming system, once among the most clearly aspirational in the world, has long gone haywire. A 328i, for instance, no longer carries a 2.8-liter engine; rather, it is powered by a turbocharged two-liter, which makes as much power as BMW figures a normally aspirated 2.8-liter might match.
Some might suggest that if Mercedes could build a mini-MPV with the 1998 A-Class, BMW can in 2015 do the same. But, as noted, the Bavarians did not field legitimate Mercedes rivals by copying Stuttgart. Mercedes is unlike BMW, in that it is defined not by sportiness but as a symbol of quality; a long-term investment of sorts. Mercedes can, quite unlike BMW, badge commercial vehicles without harming its S-Class luxury car.
These are two very different brands, and their paths should also differ.