A Front-Wheel Drive, Four-Cylinder BMW Isn't Sacrilege, It's a Great Idea

Last Updated Jun 15, 2011 5:52 AM EDT

The BMW i Megacity car: small is beautiful
BMW is thinking of creating what some see as sacrilege, offering a car on the U.S. market that is not only front-wheel-drive (gasp) but four-cylinder as well. Despite what could be body blows to the "Ultimate Driving Machine" image, however, the company would be making a shrewd move in not only putting a BMW badge on Mini Cooper technology circa 2014, but bringing it to the American market, too.

The new BMW/Mini, possibly a new subcompact series, is already a foregone conclusion for European markets and has been recently spotted in disguised form undergoing testing.

Contrasting expectations
BMW's image in Europe and the U.S. are rather different. In Europe, the brand covers the spectrum from tiny city car to 12-cylinder luxury missile. In America it's much more focused on performance cars, inevitably with rear-wheel drive. The smallest American entry is the 1-Series (offered with a variety of six-cylinder engines).

But the Mini is a lively performer and very popular with buyers on the lower end of the sporty car segment, both in the U.S. and Europe. BMW's image isn't besmirched by association with the brand. It would be a natural progression for buyers to move up from a Mini to the as-yet unnamed BMW ("The ½ Series," says Edmunds). And to meet tightening fleet fuel economy standards (up to 35.5 mpg by 2016, and a possible 62 mpg by 2025) it will need more U.S. small cars with stellar gas mileage.

If BMW doesn't do the car, the image is the issue. BMW spokesman Dave Buchko told me:

We're considering bringing front-wheel drive cars to the U.S. -- I certainly wouldn't rule it out. But there is a big question about established premium brands bringing small cars to the market. Nobody's been really successful at it.
But the pluses decidedly outweigh the minuses. According to executive market analyst James Bell:
BMW isn't known here for front-wheel drive cars, but it's been making the Mini, one of the best-handling front-wheel drive vehicles you can buy, since 2001. It was only a matter of time before BMW would be badging Minis, because it needs smaller, lighter, less mechanically complex vehicles so it can start to get the fuel economy numbers. When the portfolio features a lot of bigger 5- and 7-Series cars, it has to be balanced out.
Crimes have been committed!
But the marque enthusiasts -- and they are legion -- are going to howl at the prospect of a Mini-based BMW. They're already howling. Spy photos of the car were shown on BimmerBoost.com and comments ranged from "pissing in the wind is more fun than driving a front-wheel drive BMW" to "beyond disgusting" and "looks as @#$% as a Toyota Matrix, DAMN BMW!"

Despite the inevitable whining, however, the new cars will almost certainly be very sporty, even with front-wheel drive and a four-cylinder engine. The company would be insane not to make them so. Buchko told me, "The purists should know that whenever we've gone into new areas, like SUVs, we ensured first and foremost that they drove like a BMW."

BMW is really being open-minded about the new subcompacts, and four-wheel-drive is an option, too. CEO Norbert Reithofer said that BMW could share the adapted Mini platform with other manufacturers:

Once we have built our own modular platforms, we can approach others and ask them to participate.
I think that's great, and appropriate for our fuel-straitened times. BMW faces not only restive buyers wanting something more efficient than a 760i, but also an urgent need to green its fleet. Why not use every arrow in the quiver, in this case including the sprightly Mini? Remember, BMW has the i Series electric "Megacity" car coming in 2013, and that will be revolutionary and probably upset the purists, too.

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Photo: BMW