UK: MOTOR MOUTH - Beaming into suburbia.

UK: MOTOR MOUTH - Beaming into suburbia. - MOTOR MOUTH - Beaming into suburbia - Once the confident outsider, BMW man is now top dead centre of the mainstream.

by STEPHEN BAYLEY.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

MOTOR MOUTH - Beaming into suburbia - Once the confident outsider, BMW man is now top dead centre of the mainstream.

Although I once owned a lot of striped shirts, Turk's head cuff links and blue suits, I have never actually owned a BMW. One reason for this was the style of the salesmen: BMW's brilliantly crisp and professional showrooms (consistent investment in which did so much to enhance its corporate identity) tended to cultivate a supercilious style of what we now dumb-up to 'sales executive'.

So one happy day in 1985 when I walked acquisitively into BMW Park Lane with a blank cheque and was given in return a bit of lip, I bought an Audi instead.

In those days, central London Audis came from a garage in bohemian Chelsea's Sloane Square rather than a swanky Mayfair showroom.

Looking back, I realise I had made a life-stage decision.

By the mid-eighties BMW Man was already in danger of being stereotyped.

In the trinity of the German motor industry, Mercedes Benz had a plutocratic, if not positively elderly, ownership profile while Audis were stigmatised as Volkswagens in drag, favoured by Belgian commercial travellers, not yet noticed by style conscious technophiles. BMW, on the other hand, had clearly identified itself as the choice of the cuff-thrusting professional, the prosperous outsider who appreciated technology and knew how to exploit it and, hence, tended to drive like a prat, something both reflected and directed by WCRS's cool but cocky advertising. Fifteen years on, BMW is being squeezed by a rejuvenated Mercedes and an Audi range dense with both discreet style and technical innovations.

The squeeze has made BMW more bland, more cautious.

It is a truism of marketing that, like the ophthalmological phenomenon known as 'the persistence of vision', image remains long after the event that defined it has ceased to be current. In terms of iconography, a BMW is professional aspirations articulate. But the one certain thing about taste is that it changes. While once mere knowledge of the existence of BMW was enough to categorise you as a social mountaineer, now you find BMWs parked in some very unlikely postcodes by people who drive wearing Macs with the buttons done up. In winning the middle-class sales battle.

BMW may be in danger of losing the image war.

I think there have always been some weak points in the BMW substance.

I had my second worst highway experience ever in a first generation BMW M5. Tackling the Elephant and Castle at a speed which would have allowed a very safe margin in my Audi, the 'sporty' M5 flicked murderously and had us going backwards toward the Borough. But it did have a superb engine.

The current advertising for the brand new BMW 3-series emphasises the idea of biological evolution, a cautious millennial theme that's popping up all over the place. The 3-series is the essence of the BMW phenomenon, what in more innocent carburettor-fed days used to be called a 'sports saloon'. Indeed, the evolution is clear. In 1966 BMW created the 1600-02 which evolved into the ineffable 3-series in generations born in 1975, 1982, 1990 and 1998.

Nearly seven million cars in all. In some territories and years BMW 3-series sales rival the Opel Astra and little else need to be said to illuminate the identity crisis facing not just BMW, but of BMW man. Whisper suburban.

So, with the latest 3-series in view and in mind, whither the 'sports saloon'? The new car is a fine, if deeply conservative, exercise in industrial sculpture, beautifully made, flawless ergonomically and good to drive in that characteristic me-first way BMW man has.

Yet today BMW is not only being jostled by Mercedes Benz and Audi at the top, it is being nibbled by Volkswagen and Ford at the bottom. While it is certain that a Golf does not excite the same itch to consume as a BMW, in pure design and dynamic terms the new Ford Focus may be an even better (and certainly much more surprising) car than the 3-series. And that's not something you would have said about a '69 Escort vis-a-vis a 2002.

BMW 3-series

COSTS from £19,745 to £28,145 but options could add 30%

PROFILE the fifth generation of a classic sports saloon with superb engineering, flawless finish and an image that suits publisher John Brown, designer Caroline Charles and celebrity chef Simon Hopkinson.

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