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Frankfurt show: BMW M mulls hybrid, four-pot

Back to front: The most potent compact BMW M Performance model is the rear-drive M140i hatch, but the next-gen 1 Series is all but confirmed to be a front-wheel-drive proposition.

BMW M and ‘i’ work on hybrid solutions but four-pot future unclear

BMW logo18 Sep 2017

By TIM NICHOLSON in Frankfurt

BMW M CEO Frank van Meel has left the door open for hybridised four-cylinder M powertrains in the future as well as M-honed versions of the next-generation 1 Series that is widely believed to be shifting from rear- to front-wheel drive configuration.

The go-fast brand’s direct rivals Mercedes-AMG and Audi Sport offer four- and five-cylinder performance variants respectively in their compact models, but M has so far resisted the downsizing trend, focusing instead on its V8, V12 and iconic inline six-cylinder engines.

Speaking to Australian journalists at M headquarters in Munich last week, Mr van Meel did not rule out the use of turbocharged small displacement four-cylinder engines, despite having reservations about the characteristics of such a unit in an M car.

“That I can’t answer,” he said. “I wouldn’t do a four-cylinder standalone engine turbocharged with high performance because you always get the characteristic if you want to have high performance you lose low-end torque and lose this overall driveability that you want to have from a car.” When asked if a four-pot would be a better fit with a hybridised setup, Mr van Meel said it “would be one solution” to help the engine regain the low-end torque that is in keeping with M cars and added that M was working with BMW’s ‘i’ e-mobility arm to look at possible solutions.

“Electrification would help because low-end torque is being done by electric motors. On the other hand you would put a lot of weight into the cars, so the answer is not so easy to say ‘just do it’ because you lose the motorsports topic of power-to-weight ratio which is very important in overall weight.

“So, let’s say at the time being it’s still a dilemma but we are working on that together with our project ‘i’ colleagues to have a look at the next generation of battery cells regarding weight, power density and range to find the right tipping point where you say now it makes sense to go in that direction, but today it is still not the right time.”

 center imageLeft: BMW M chief executive Frank van Meel

Mr van Meel said that full electric or plug-in hybrid applications in M cars were still a while off as the current generation of electrified technology was not the appropriate solution for M cars.

“With the current generation we see e-motors that are still not strong enough for M applications and if you look at plug-in hybrids, you add 200-300kg to a car which would bring our quite unique positioning with M3/M4 with 1500kg, we would put that completely out of balance.

“And we couldn’t rebalance that to a typical M philosophy car. So right now, with the current technology we don’t see that. I can’t tell you what the next steps with BMW Group would be but we see potential in the future.”

When pressed on whether M could use an all-wheel-drive system to help ensure the right characteristics for a possible future four-cylinder M car, Mr van Meel said the brand has a new setup in the upcoming M5 that he describes as rear-wheel drive with traction.

He added that it could technically be used in other applications, but was non-committal about whether it would happen.

“Let’s put it this way. We now have an option to use a system like that which is quite unique for a lot of applications – it is available. Which does not necessarily mean we are going to use that for other M cars. It is just an option and if we do new M cars we always first have a look at the overall concept and say what do we want with that car and what does it need.

“Then we go into what possibilities we have. We have xDrive (AWD) as an option.

It is the same as DCT and torque converters. You can do it but you don’t need to do it. There is no dogma that now every M car in the future will have M xDrive. That will not be the case.”

It is highly likely that BMW Group’s UKL front-wheel-drive platform will underpin the next-generation 1 Series compact hatch, a switch from the first two generation’s rear-drive layout.

Mr van Meel said if all-wheel drive helped ensure typical M car characteristics in the next 1 Series, then it could be considered.

“Well if it is possible to fulfil our typical M philosophy with that concept we could consider that. Of course a pure front-wheel driven car could never do that. If there is a possibility to do that we would do that.”

He added that once M gets their hands on a BMW base model, the engineers ensure significant changes to build in the best possible performance and suggested that vehicles built on the UKL platform would be no different.

“If you look at our M cars you see that we have always had some massive changes in regard to the base car. Not only engine but also transmission and with all our cars, M3 M4 and M5, and also M2 you see that there is more or less nothing left from the base car regarding chassis. And drivetrain components.

“So looking at that I would say you can make a lot out of every concept, it is just a matter of how much do I need to change.”

The smallest model in the M catalogue at the moment is the M140i M Performance model that uses an inline six-cylinder engine pumping out 250kW/500Nm.

Mercedes-AMG has its four-cylinder turbocharged 280kW/475Nm A45, CLA45 and GLA45 models, while Audi has the five-cylinder 294kW/480Nm RS3 sedan and hatch.

In another interview, BMW AG member of the board of management responsible for development, Klaus Froelich said the company had all but decided retain a rear-drive layout for the next-generation 2 Series coupe/convertible, including the M2 halo car.

“It has such success in the markets, we can’t produce enough cars, and we are running out of engines at the moment. I think it will be a very good idea to continue that legacy,” he said last week.

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