The man in charge of the most famous letter in the automotive world sits down across the table, flanked by a pair of public relations bodyguards.
To get a seat at this table, you have to go through three reception desks, each time providing credentials and explaining you have an appointment.
Dr. Kay Segler is the managing director of BMW M GmbH, the high-performance arm of the old German automaker. His division is besieged on both sides at the moment: enthusiasts think M has lost the plot, while the current market is pushing greener, smaller, more practical cars.
He has the weary but willing look of an automotive executive on his second day of interviews at the 2011 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. He’s wearing the usual uniform, a dark suit and tie. It feels like here-we-go-again, but then, he says something unusual:
“A man must have a passion for cars.”
He says the words quietly through a fine German accent – as if it is such a base notion it is almost embarrassing to speak aloud. Thing is, it’s something you never hear from auto execs. The passion for cars gets run over by product strategy and the difficulties of making a business case for a niche vehicle. Though, of course, he talked about those things too.
All of the questions asked were submitted by members of the BMW Clubs of Canada...
Less than 24 hours before we spoke, the 1 Series M Coupe made its global auto show debut under the once-again-bright lights of the Cobo Hall convention centre in downtown Detroit.
(A couple years ago, in the depths of the automotive apocalypse, some of the lights were turned off to save on the electricity bill. This year, attendance was up and the booths were palatial.)
The 1M is arguably the division’s new flagship and the most important car to bear that fabled letter in decades.
Segler is as frank about his firm’s shortcomings as he is about its successes.
It’s the smallest and least expensive BMW M car in a long time. This is the car that’s supposed to win back enthusiasts while still being a do-it-all 21st century machine.
“Whereas others tend to go towards supersports cars which you can only afford once you turn 60, we want to offer something more affordable and I am eager to see whether this is a new trend. Some others are already announcing that they have similar cars coming – and why not? The pioneer always sets the pace.”
Segler’s not the kind of man to boast frivolously. M has had more than its share of pioneering cars: the mid-engine M1; the first uber-saloon, the M5; and the everyday racecar for the road, the E30 M3. But, Segler is as frank about his firm’s shortcomings as he is about its successes.
Before the interview, we asked BMW Club members in Canada for questions they wanted us to put to Segler. What we got instead were complaints. The biggest gripe from this old guard - who rev their E30 M3s in anger at the mere mention of an “M Button” – is that the 1M is simply too heavy, making it impossible to get that light, nimble, balanced and connected feel that ensured the early cars easy entry into the hall of fame.
“It’s an uphill battle,” Segler admits without hesitation. “Two cylinders less is reducing weight, but on the other side the turbo is adding weight.”
The 1 Series is built on the same platform as the 3 Series – necessary to make the business
How do you make a 21st century digital car that feels like an analog machine? That's Segler's job and it's not easy either.
case work for such a niche vehicle. There is a lot of “substance” to the Three he says. The PR bodyguards try to run interference, saying BMW has made great progress in reducing weight, but Segler sticks to his point.
“You have to look into each and every screw, but you cannot expect what people might expect: that you could simply reduce 200 kilos in the snip of a finger… This is an equation which is very difficult and does not have an easy solution. But, we are working on it.”
The next-generation M5 for example, will have weight-saving carbon-ceramic brakes and the V10 of the outgoing car is being ditched in favour of a turbocharged V8.
Still, lightweight cars are gone. It’s hard to imagine that shaving a few grams off a bolt will compensate for more stringent safety regulations and the bulk of burgeoning “features” lists. Not until carbon fibre, composites and aluminum move into the mainstream will light cars live again.
As with vinyl records or cameras that use film, there will be diehards and nostalgics who hang on to them, but what about those who want to move on, to find a way to make a modern driver’s car that’s just as fun and involving as the old breed? How do you make a 21st century digital car that feels like an analog machine? That's Segler's job and it's not easy either.
“The feel of performance doesn’t come with the acceleration and braking. The feel of performance is that you overcome your own fear on the racecourse—slightly and always increasing this line of fear, coming over it and being proud that you did it,” he says.
“I think the most important thing is that—and this is what we try to do—is that the driver and the car are one. You don’t want to ride a horse with a very loose line and try to control it, no. Driver and car must be one.”
His heart’s in the right place, but can he do it? The 1M should give a pretty good indication one way or the other when it’s released later this year. But as Segler says, it’s an uphill battle these days – hard even for the man in charge of the most famous letter in the automotive world.
Before he’s hurried to his next interview, I pressed Segler about where his passion for cars comes from. Before he was old enough to have a licence, he remembers learning to drive on private roads. As a young man, this is where he developed a passion for cars.
“To just have the feeling that you are in control of a machine…was simply tremendous,” he says with a smile. “Let’s leave it like this.”