history of bmw's
Illustration by Tim Marrs

It’s easy to become a creature of routine and habit. It feels like humans are wired that way. Sometimes as much as I think I’m open to change, I realize that maybe I’m a bit closed off, wanting things to always stay as they are.

But that ain’t how the world works, Beloved.

People, things, brands all change. The thing that you may have come to know and love from years past just isn’t the same. I called the i7 “hard to read,” which I fully stand behind. But, after ruminating on it for days, I think I’ve understood the BMW i7 a bit more. It was never a bad vehicle, no BMW group product is. It’s just not for me. It’s time to face the facts, BMW isn’t making cars for me or anyone like me anymore. We just aren’t their clients.

2023 bmw i7
Kevin Williams

Electrification doesn’t have to be a death sentence for the fun-to-drive nature of transportation. But, arguably, none of the focus of BMW’s EV efforts has been about the electrification itself. Or the driving dynamics focus, either.

BMW’s EV lineup, including the i7, at least on paper, is completely fine, if not much of a technical stand out. The i7 and iX’s range, tech, and performance, seem competitive, but not earth-shattering. Weirdly enough, its ICE efforts feel the same. Barring the M-cars the brand doesn’t seem to want to focus too much on any of the new tips and tricks it did to make its latest efforts drive that much sharper, move that much quicker, or do just that much more.

bmw ix m60 photos in forest
Jonathan Harper

Rather, BMW seems to have gone all in on the tech, and connectedness, with a weird focus on a styling direction that the brand almost hogheadedly refuses to acknowledge has its detractors. The i7 and iX are odd looking, and the i7’s theatre mode and integrated suite felt like they were more of a focus of the car compared to how it actually drives. Two of the car’s configurable driving modes were focused on what the rear passenger screen experience would be like, and the other two driving modes were solely about lighting and sound configuration, not about improving the car’s dynamic abilities. It wasn’t just the i7, either, these modes could be found on the new 2023 X1, and the iX. I reiterate the tech works fine, great even. The expressive, relax, theatre, and digital art modes found on the i7, iX, and X1, are well-integrated, but like, it’s so different than the traditional BMW experience. The “sport” mode, the thing that tangibly changes how the car drives, felt almost like an afterthought, a forlorn option in the drive mode selector, meant to be skipped over. Certainly, the features and adjustability of the car’s dynamic inputs are still present in the sport mode menu, but its importance isn’t as loud, as the Relax, Expressive, Digital Art, and Theatre modes occupy the same importance in the drive selector.

BMW antagonized its fans, insisting that criticism is always done in bad faith.

For the kids who grew up with posters of M3 CSLs, or Nazca M12s on their bedroom walls, or the adults who’ve leased 3-Series sedans and coupes for years because they liked how they drove, this just isn’t the same company. For years, BMW has prided itself on being the “ultimate driving machine." Now, the driving part doesn’t seem to be all that relevant.

BMW’s trajectory reminds me of one of the once-favorite bars that I frequented in college. I had been going to this place for years now, my way to decompress on a Thirsty Thursday when I was younger and would pretend like I didn’t have a Friday morning class at 8:50 AM. Over time, first slowly, then kind of all at once, the bar changed. The music changed from kitschy Nineties hits and Recession-era Britney Spears and Lady Gaga to some pop starlet I had never heard of called Olivia Rodrigo. The quality of food it served wasn’t the same, and some of the menu items had been removed. The bar was remodeled. My favorite bartenders had moved on to greener pastures. The bar I had come to know and love in college, and now as a young adult, just wasn’t the same.

Was it the right move for the bar? I don’t know their finances, but I do know that the new crowd it attracted knew every word to the Olivia Rodrigo songs even if they didn’t know too much about those 1990s hits that I had memorized note-for-note. The bar had pivoted, and either intentionally or not, it was very clear that I was no longer their primary client.

The most compelling examples of “old BMW” are paywalled, limited to halo models like the M4 CSL.

And that’s the case for BMW, no? I stood around the Ritz-Carlton, breathing in the Palm Springs air, looking at all the new cars BMW had brought a gaggle of assorted journalists to drive. They were nice, but I couldn’t deny that I was feeling the same way that I felt back at my old favorite bar. I, and people like me, weren’t really their clients anymore. The era of the 330i or 335i sitting as the untouchable pinnacle of driving luxury sedans doesn’t exist here. It’s not like the new 3-Series is bad, it's just not great. Even cars like the X1 or iX, well executed as they are, simply don’t have the same driving enthusiast focus that we got from BMWs not that long ago. The most compelling examples of “old BMW” are paywalled, behind a greatest hits-esque limited production scope and limited to halo models like the M4 CSL. These feel more like last-call editions BMW begrudgingly make for a tiny niche of people who have a lot of cash. They serve as a reminder of an era the brand would rather walk away from.

bmw m4 csl

Its new mascot is now the iX, a car that plenty of laymen and BMW fans alike have derided because of its styling, only for the brand to put out an ad lambasting many of the longtime fans of the brand. That’s a shame. I got some seat time with the iX and it’s a solid vehicle to drive, despite its hard-to-love styling. Instead of emphasizing that part of the vehicle, the brand antagonized its fans through advertising, insisting that criticism is always done in bad faith. For whatever reason, it would rather just find new clients.

1991 bmw nazca m12 concept
bmw e46 m csl

The definition of luxury seems to be ever-changing, as big EV startups throw acres of tech once unseen in a car. New luxury buyers want tech-laden, computers with wheels, that can drive themselves, and maybe on some level, BMW is reacting to that. I’ve said that the Tesla Model 3 is the best BMW 3-Series that BMW never built, dynamically. But most of the pomp and circumstance behind the Model 3 tends to be focused on its straight-line performance and tech features. When faced with that information, why cater to a market that increasingly doesn’t care? Well, BMW is trying to court a new clientele, one much less interested in driving dynamics.

One that isn’t like us.