Press turning on the BMW M3?

I know this is a Saab blog, but the earliest press reports on the new BMW M3 are really making for some fascinating reading. As Saab have been the one of the motoring press’ piñatas for a few years now, it’s somewhat satisfying to see Saab having a great run in the press whilst BMW, the press’ darling brand, are getting just a little bit of stick.

I’ve already mentioned The Truth About Cars’ comments in a post earlier in the week. Ted made a note of the TTAC readers’ comments on that post and they certainly are an eye opener:

The first time I saw the torque specs for the car I was depressed. Then I saw the price and was even more depressed. BMW is becoming the Ultimate Lease Machine…..

M what?….

I am a dye in the wool BMW guy. I am on my 5th 3 series car, I am in the CCA, read the Roundel… all that jazz. Even I find the new M3 disappointing…..

Looks like the 335i, or hell the 135i, is the new M3.

And many of these are hardcore BMW fans.

TTAC isn’t the only site doing this. The New York Times sums a few of them up:

What Car? said it was “comfortable and well equipped, and is as eminently suitable as an everyday car as it is at home on racetracks.” AutoWeek said it was “not quite as tactile in its actions, perhaps, as the car it replaces.” And Car thought that “in trying to hit so many targets, the E92 leaves purists wanting.”

Motor Trend are the latest to get on board. Sure, there’s the usual euphoric BMWisms:

It’s quick and precise; beautifully balanced and brilliantly responsive; deeply confident and inspiringly competent when you ask it the big questions. Yep, the new BMW M3 is everything the BMW faithful have been waiting for — and then some.

You’d expect the entire four pages to be filled with such rapture, but the very next lines read as follows:

But ironically, it’s the “then some” bit that might have a few of those faithful scratching their heads.

You see, at first acquaintance the new M3 appears to have — whisper it, now — gone soft.

It would seem that BMW have gone too far along the road that seeks perfection. In doing so, they’ve alienated the base that turned the original M3 and its early decendents into automotive legends. A car that was a sleeper in it’s first iteration, capable of much more than it showed on the outside. A car with legendary handling and a reputation for engines with real character.

They’ve tried to extend the formula and in doing so they’ve fallen victim to their own success. The motoring press was so enamored with BMW that many major writeups are now based on the track rather than on the road, regardless of whether the car was designed for track work. Cornering like a hooker is of absolutely no use to you when you’re stuck in peak hour. The best seats in the business sure help though.

The good news is that the press haven’t been so in love as to overlook it.

Is there a lesson for Saab in all of this? You betcha.

Build the cars that you’ve become known for. Build the cars that have built your brand. Tweak them a little, appoint them a little better, progress them, but preserve the essence of what made you famous.

The qwan.

The BMW debacle proves that no-one’s invincible. Saab’s latest press after years of whipping also indicates that no-one’s beyond redemption, too. Here’s hoping they continue to develop and build cars with character that’s true to Saab’s heritage – safe, practical and turbocharged.


Thanks to Gripen for the chat and the links.

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  1. Well, I’ve got not schadenfreude for BMW, but I still marvel at how people seem to think that they’ve never made a bad car! US$60k for car that looks like an angry sow? You’ve got to be joking!

    Stick to the roots, yes. That’s why the new 9-3 looks to be a winner, and that’s why the new 9-5 should be tweaked with stability and performance as utmost priorities.

  2. Actually, I don’t care BMW and M3. This german company has much-much more sales volume, much stronger financial muscles, incomparable more resources, so it’s not a big deal to produce such good cars.
    Saab is a relatively small, not independent company, to produce the new 9-3 so good as it seems (especially Aero XWD) is a much bigger challenge, and Saab has done it!
    Furthermore, I don’t care M3 because it just a car for fun of the well situated people, not for everyday use.
    My Viggen has 250 HP, when it was the demo car of Nordic before, it performed 300+ HP. I don’t need it. It’s much more important for me that I can drive a good, stylish, unique car with all the safety, performance, practicity and driving experience what I like.
    I’m sure that BMW M3 is a superb car in technical meaning. I’ve driven BMW (not M3), it was good, better quality than any of my Saabs… however, it soulles for me.

  3. Saabusa’s website has increased their discounts,
    including the 9-7 at $9000 off certain units with a summer sale and the Saab loyalty discount;
    the 9-5 at $8000 off MSRP.
    wish I could make a move… 🙂

  4. The second generation M3 received bad press for going soft compared to the original as well, so BMW have been there before. Why make the same mistake twice? They have also made the classic mistake of looking too hard at the competition, rather than making the best car they can.
    Swade is spot on about the drive – we took the Saab on holiday to Donegal not the BMW. The Saab is a more relevant drive more of the time.

    I do think that as a community we do worry about the press too much though. I read a lot of motoring press (I need to get out more) and aside from What Car, here in the UK the press does not give the Germans a completely soft ride – this quote is from EVO

    “…its in the details it… disapoints has obviously been working to a budget…”
    What are they talking about? Saab 9-3? no a £100,000 stg Mercedes. Not earth shattering stuff but similar to what we read about Saabs.

    A lot of the Saab press I have seen recently simply echoes what I see here and on Saab central – Saab were great but they have lost their way. (I don’t totally agree with that btw)

    As always there are lessons for Saab too. BM are suffering in the UK because of over supply and while I fully respect Saabs need to turn a profit, GM needs to think longer term as well. There is a balance somewhere between selling enough to turn a healthy profit and becoming just another car.

    Build an alternative, not a clone.

  5. “Saab were great but they have lost their way”

    Jon, I am 100% with you on that. Most of us are quick to bash the brand – and more precisely the perceived GM mismanagement of it – but Saab needs to evolve and stay relevant.

  6. Jon, I agree we pay too much attention to SAAB’s press, but speaking for myself that’s because when someone’s going to invest the kind of money one needs to invest in a near-luxury car they’re going to look around in the car magazines to see which one is best for their money. When SAAB continually gets knocked as “not good enough” and BMW is revered as a god, it’s not too hard to see why more people spend the extra money for the “Ultimate Driving Machine”.

    Also, part of the draw of the near-luxury segment (like it or not) is the prestige. In some circles if you tell your buddies at the gym you just bought a new Bimmer they congratulate you. If you tell them you bought a SAAB they look at you weird and ask, “why”?

    Unfortunately in my opinion, SAAB has started to engineer cars to impress the press. They need to do this to increase sales. I don’t like it either, but hopefully we won’t lose too much of our beloved SAAB practicality in the process.

    On another note, something that interests me in regard to the M3: “Ion flows across the spark plug electrodes are monitored to sense knocking or misfiring, and control the combustion process in each cylinder.”

    I believe this is yet another thing that was pioneered by SAAB. Here is a snippet from an article on the new (at the time) M5 I read a few years back which seems to use the same system now in the M3:

    After three years spent on research and development, BMW makes its first introduction of a combustion charge ion analysis system first to be implemented on the S85. Similar to Saab’s system of the 90’s and based on theories developed in the 30’s, this ion analysis takes the place of a conventional knock sensor by monitoring the combustion event and combustions pressures for each cylinder. Using the spark plug as a positive pole and the cylinder as a ground, the ion current system measures the conductance of the air fuel charge throughout the combustion process. As combustion takes place and the charge chemistry changes, so does the electrical conductance of the contents of the cylinder. Based on the conductance as a function of crank angle, each individual combustion event is evaluated to better refine and control the sequential fuel and spark maps on a per cylinder basis. This is basically like a very smart version of an automotive oscilloscope. Unlike previous attempts of combustion ion charge analysis, the BMW system also discerns misfires either from inadequate fuel or spark, something neither Saab’s system or a knock sensor can do.

    One thing I mentioned privately to Swade: I give credit to BMW for reinvesting a lot of their money back into R&D to innovate rather than just follow the pack.

    For example, BMW will feature Bosch’s stop-start system in both this new M3 (turning it into what’s called a “mild hybrid”) as well as the upcoming 1-series. This system uses a beefier starter and alternator. It turns the car off when it’s at a stop and quickly restarts it again when you need to go again. Regenerative braking charges the car’s battery so that the alternator isn’t a load on the engine.

    SAAB could very well buy the same system from Bosch or a competitor, but they’d just be the 2nd to the party. I know it has to do with SAAB’s financial constraints, but I’d like to see them first-to-market with some technologies again.

  7. As a follow-up to my last comment, obviously SAAB was first-to-market with the Haldex XWD system and it looks so far like they hit a home-run with that one. I give them credit for that.

    But if you step back and realize that though SAAB is the first in the world to debut the fourth-gen Haldex system, they’re also one of the LAST to offer AWD…

  8. Gripen, the point I was making was that we tend to look at negative Saab press and point it out. There is lots of negative BMW, Audi and Mercedes press out there too if you look for it. The press are harder on Saab though.

    I do wonder how big an effect the media has though. I look at Audi – sales up in every market from what I see, but they do not get the same good press as BMW. I think that marketing is the bigger issue. Audi have been VERY smart in their marketing. Getting Princess Di to drive a convertible in the early 90s was a great move. They also make sure that A8s deliver movie stars to awards – the message – if you drive an Audi you are successful. The use of Audis in movies too like the car in I Robot or the TT in Misssion Impossible 2 or best of all, the A8 in Ronin – that made the car very, very cool. A constant drip, drip, drip of positive reinforcement.
    It was like when Frasier was seen driving a car it was a BMW, it just summed up the character nicely.
    The filp side is you get a lot of wannabes driving your cars and Saab need to be smart about it, but a Saab ‘Vert nicely placed in something like Heroes can send the right messsage. For the folks in the UK, (they are remaking it for the US) the follow up to Life on Mars is going to use a Quattro (nice move again Audi) as it will be set inthe eary 1980s. Saab should have been on the ball and offered a mint 900 Turbo. Gene Hunt would have been telling Ray to “fire up the Saab”. If anyone in Saab UK reads this you know what to do, pay the BBC to use it if you have to.

    I have been saying for a while that Saab need to introduce the stop/start system etc. Peugeot Citroen already have it and Fiat are introducing the system this year so it more a case of not being last (like they were in Europe with Diesel) rather than being second. The system goes back to the Golf mark 3 of 1990 and maybe even before. Combined with Bio Power it would be a winner.

  9. I think the reason BMW is going “soft” according to magazines, and cramming so much garbage into the cars, is because of Lexus. Lexus is the gismo king and people who can afford $60k cars typically are looking for as much “stuff” as they can get, whether its in a luxury car, sports car or whatever. Lexus has shifted every day performance car drivers into expecting “cush” instead of hard-edged performance. If the M3 was devoid of all the cush, it’d get criticised for being “too harsh” and not worth the $60k price tag. Now it’s got all the cush AND performance and it’s being criticised for being too soft. I’m siding with BMW in thinking they can’t win, but they’re also going to sell more M3s because of the added “stuff.” The average M3 buyer wants that stuff. The M3 “enthusiast” may not want the extras, but most true enthusiasts are going to buy the car in the used market anyway and will probably be more than happy to get the car in a few years, regardless of “then some” mentioned by MotorTrend above.

  10. The M3 used to be the ultimate driving machine among the ultimate driving machines. I think it’s not so much that the M3 has gone soft but the RWD light, agile performance lead will pass to the 135.

    Jerry Seinfeld drove a Saab through his show. That was good for his character too.

  11. Good points again there, Jon.

    Saab needs a flagship model to put it in the press and average people’s mindsets, so to not build the Aero X was a very short-sighted decision; it would have propelled the brand’s image just like the R8 does for Audi.

    Perhaps Saab should also look at the next level up the 9-5. A 9-7 or 9-8 big sedan may sound like a crazy idea, but Saab completely lacks the cachet that even Volvo has with the S80. And like Jon said, I doubt Hollywood stars will get to the Oscars in 9-3s and 9-5s.

    Saab and Apple are two brands that have a lot in common, and how Steve Jobs saved the computer pioneer from obscurity is a lesson for Saab execs. Jobs practically invaded market niches where Apple had never before been a contender, and with the proper branding and marketing effort behind him basically stole the portable player market from Sony and has now invaded the cellphone one, too.

    In a related story, Sony – with much more cash and influence than Apple prior to Jobs’ return – completely lost a lot of the markets where it used to dominate: Samsung outrun them om the flat-screen market, Microsoft in the game console game, Apple in now the king of portable music players, not to mention Sony completely missed out on the PC boom of the 1990s.

    Saab may have limited access to funds, but that starts to sound more and more like an excuse half the time. Google also had limited access to funds before its IPO compared to its competitors (Microsoft, Yahoo!, even Excite et al. former stars), but this didn’t stop them from becoming leaders.

    What Saab really needs is visionary management and innovative engineering. This is how Saab made its impact originally, not by having loads of cash to spend around.

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