When Herbert Quandt saved BMW from bankruptcy (or from a takeover by Mercedes) from 1959 onwards, he had the BMW 1500 drive up as an ambulance: newly developed down to the smallest sheet metal part, the 'Neue Klasse' became the core of a state-of-the-art model family that replaced the crazy and unprofitable range of Isetta microcars and Barockengel management limousines.
This Saturday, in the run-up to the IAA, CEO Oliver Zipse (59) will present a car under the slogan 'New Class' for the second time in the company's history, which is intended to redefine the entire BMW brand. But unlike 60 years ago, the new will not replace the old. Instead, the future model family will be created alongside the previous one.
For months, the company has been more or less openly beating the drum for the project: First, the project name was smuggled into the public. In January, at the CES electronics show in Las Vegas, there was a concept car called Dee, which was supposed to introduce the digital functions. And since the summer, BMW has been showing important suppliers and other stakeholders in a small circle more and more freely the IAA showpiece, probably the penultimate milestone on the way to the finished car.
"This is a vision vehicle, not yet the final concept vehicle," Zipse commented on the car in advance. "But the essential idea can be conveyed very well in this way."
"Hands on the wheel, eyes on the road"
And that is: After ten years of hesitation, BMW wants to make a big leap into the electric age, and throw a lot overboard in the process. In contrast to the rolling luxury lounges, in which, for example, ex-Audi boss Markus Duesmann (54) saw the future of premium mobility until his resignation, Zipse and his head of development Frank Weber (57) continue to rely on the classic distribution of roles in the car: A person should be in charge. "The Neue Klasse does not take anything from the past, except for the idea that BMW stands for: hands on the wheel, eyes on the road."
This is one of the reasons why the car is at the IAA as a compact sedan about the size of the 3 Series, the epitome of BMW's identity for decades (and the next series to be replaced). The shape is again emphatically simple.
"We wanted to reduce the number of parts and completely replace chrome with lighting effects," says BMW chief designer Adrian van Hooydonk (59). From his point of view, the purification was due, and it also saves production costs. "I think BMW will be a different brand when we launch the Neue Klasse. Ten years ago, the i3 was the harbinger of changes to come. The New Class is no longer a harbinger, but the implementation." The aim is to show that "such a car can become a BMW despite all the changes".
Technology for combustion engines
Technically, BMW's upcoming generation of electric cars is a leap forward in many respects: Instead of prismatic (i.e. angular) cells, round cells will serve as energy storage in the future. They can be integrated into the load-bearing structure and thus save space and weight. The energy-intensive on-board and control electronics have been redesigned around four computing units, which are structured according to functions ranging from "Drive & Drive" to "Infotainment".
The car should be 25 percent more efficient than today's electric models, BMW claims. With 30 percent more range and 30 percent shorter charging times.
Above all, however, the building blocks can be integrated into other models. In Zipse's eyes, Neue Klasse is more than just a product or a platform. "It's an idea that the whole company can benefit from."
This means that the probably double-digit billion investments in the model launch of the electric architecture are designed in such a way that everything that is not directly related to the electric drive can also be transferred to conventional new BMW models from 2026. This is especially true for electronics, which is now by far the most expensive part of automotive development. Functions for semi-autonomous driving or the interior electronics with the integrated head-up display will also appear in the future generations of the conventional X5 and X7. This should also help to establish the promised "margin parity" between the electric models with their expensive batteries and the combustion models.
Zipse, who has long been misunderstood, continues to plan on two tracks, the central difference to the new beginning 60 years ago: On the one hand, the company already sells the most electric cars of the three German luxury brands. On the other hand, he persistently refuses to name an end date for the production of cars with internal combustion engines. Zipse's calculation: In the foreseeable future, combustion engine sales will not decline worldwide. This could give BMW whopping revenue in a segment with decreasing competition.
At the same time, electric cars are driving growth. How quickly the politically desired change to electric mobility takes place is not decisive for the future of the company, BMW calculates. Zipse himself repeatedly sows doubts as to whether the electrical specifications can be met. His argument is that one hundred percent electrification of the automotive industry would make Europe vulnerable to blackmail from raw material suppliers such as China.
First an SUV, then a sedan
Nevertheless, the Neue Klasse takes on the role of the technology carrier. Prototypes of at least two model series based on the technical basis of the show car are currently being tested: In 2025, a car in the format of today's X3 is to roll off the assembly line at the new Debrecen plant in Hungary, followed shortly afterwards by a sedan at the Munich plant.
It will be roughly based on the IAA show car. Much of it, especially in the interior, is still recognizably trimmed for show effect. "But the front will come like this," says Zipse. At least half a dozen models are to be built on the technical basis within a few years, including smaller cars. "We will price the Neue Klasse as a premium product, but BMW has always been about accessibility, and that will be the case here as well," says Zipse, without naming orders of magnitude.
How customers and competitors react to BMW's promise of new class will be shown in the coming days at the IAA. A good 60 years ago, the model at that time made the competition from Mercedes nervous: "You could observe with them," noted a trade magazine at the time, "that slight nod of the head and advancement of the lower lip with which experts all over the world comment on respectable achievements of their colleagues."