Is BMW design on the nose?

opinion
Jez is a fan of the new 4 Series Coupe's look, but not everybody is on board – and the debate around modern BMW styling doesn't end there.
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Okay, I’ll put it out there: I like the kidney grille on the new BMW 4 Series. At least in photos; it’s always important to reserve final styling judgements for seeing a car in the metal.

I also have to allow for an element of surprise influencing my thoughts. I was expecting to despise the new-look 4 – owing to the fairly hideous front end of the the i4 Concept and Concept 4 that last year previewed the enlarged, vertical grille. I dubbed the former the ‘Eye-sore’ concept.

Concepts often exaggerate upcoming design elements, of course, and I reckon the more vertical kidneys have translated well into final production form. I also like the way they make a historical nod to older BMWs spanning the 1930s to 1980s – from the extreme-vertical kidneys of the company’s famous 1930s roadster, the 328, to a variety of models including the Neue Klasse, E3, 2002, the M1 supercar, and earlier generations of the 3 Series (E21 and E30) and 5 Series (E12 and E28).

Wonderful designs all.

(And have a look at Rob Margeit’s excellent kidney-grille history gallery.)

And as front-end designs go, I have bigger issues with other BMWs: the ungainly, gigantic grille on the X7 SUV; and the awkward face of the 1 Series and 2 Series Gran Coupe. (Not that this is anything new for BMW's modern small cars.)

The smallest Gran Coupe also has proportional problems, stemming from longer sheetmetal being placed over an unextended 1 Series wheelbase, while not everyone – including CarAdvice’s Director of Content, James Ward – is a fan of the car’s rear end (“Looks like a squashed X6”).

But the new 4 Series coupe’s proportions look spot-on – and should be on the 4 Series Gran Coupe, too, based on the i4 Concept’s profile.

Of course, not everyone will like the new-generation 4 Series grille, but BMW won’t necessarily mind. It’s better to be talked about than not at all.

Above: the new 2 Series Gran Coupe in M235i form

Emotive design is particularly crucial to coupe-style vehicles and sports cars (while front ends are crucial to brand identity), so BMW says it has aimed to create more emotion around its coupe – compared with the related 3 Series range. It expects the design to be polarising but make it stand out.

Chris Bangle sold just such a vision to the BMW board in the late 1990s – insisting the company’s designs needed to move beyond traditional-looking sheetmetal and be bolder. From the ‘Bangle Butt’ origins of the 2002 7 Series, they certainly did that – making the American arguably the most controversial car designer in history. Yet BMW sales only went in one direction: up.

The i4-to-4 Series transition reminds me of another BMW from 2002: the E85/86 Z4 (pictured below). The coupe/roadster also polarised – with its ‘flame surfacing’ design language – yet the production model looked far more attractive than the X Coupe concept that previewed it while the Z4 was also hugely influential on car designers at other brands.

The 2020 4 Series will spark more passionate debate about current BMW design, of that there is no doubt. And many may argue that Audi and Mercedes-Benz have achieved more consistently effective designs throughout their ranges.

Lexus? Well, you could say the Japanese brand has been just as polarising as BMW with its ‘spindle’ grille and generally aggressive ‘L Finesse’ language that isn’t always, well, finessed. (Step forward the NX SUV as exhibit A.)

That spindle grille has grown on me, though, and there are other examples of ‘new faces’ that have taken years to become more accepted. Audi’s ‘single frame’ grille hasn’t been universally loved since it debuted on the facelifted A8 limo in 2004, yet it’s now difficult to imagine a four-ringed car without it.

And there are even those who chastised Subaru for the ‘bug-eyed’ Impreza back in the day but who are now belated converts.

But in between BMW’s not-quite-resolved compact models at the bottom of the line-up and the ungainly X7 (pictured below) at the other end of the spectrum, BMW design is literally looking in good shape.

The latest 3 Series is arguably the best-looking version of BMW’s signature car since the E46, the current 5 Series is handsome, and – while, in my view, there’s still no better-looking BMW SUV than the second-generation (E70) X5 – the company’s current crop of high-riders are all relatively appealing (or at least inoffensive) from a visual perspective.

That includes the X6 that makes a better fist of big-coupe-SUV styling than Benz’s GLE Coupe (if not Audi’s new Q8).

And the 8 Series, especially in M8 Gran Coupe guise, is a striking piece of automotive design.

Even if the new 4 Series won’t go down as the Ultimate Styling Machine, it promises to have beauty under its skin. BMW says it has been developed to be sportier than the 3 Series.

Considering the 3’s dynamic excellence, the coupe should be something to admire hugely on the road – at least for the way it drives if not by all for the way it looks.