2019 BMW 1-Series

Quick comparison image of 2019 BMW 1-Series and other similar compact class cars. From top to bottom: BMW 1 series, Ford Focus, Mercedes A-Class, Kia Ceed, Toyota Corolla

The New BMW 1 series is Front Wheel Drive. Why does this matter? It does not. Potential purchasers of this car do not know that the current 1er is RWD. They have requested more luggage space. BMW has responded. BMW is working in user-centric design methodology. This is correct practice for any profit chasing business, is it not? The first article I wrote explained the reasoning clearly (Autocar) it seems…. but, are the first two questions not contradictory? In solving one problem (lack of space) BMW engineers have created a new problem- and there is the balance of design and engineering we know and fear in the automotive industry. The decision here was that making a FWD car fun to drive was easier than making a RWD with ample luggage and passenger space.

Q&A: Jochen Schmalholz, BMW 1 Series product manager

Q. Why switch to frontwheel drive?

A. “When we asked customers where they see room for improvement, interior size – seating comfort, rear seats, front seats, shoulder width – kept coming up. So when we had to decide on the architecture it was an easy decision, because front-wheel drive addressed exactly what customers have been complaining about.”

Q. Rear-wheel drive made the 1 Series unique in its class, so how will it stand out now?

A. “Customers loved the sporty design and driving dynamic, so this was something we had to keep. The major challenge was bringing out driving characteristics similar to a rear-drive car, and a lot of time, money and effort went into this process.

Q. Why so much emphasis on technology in the interior?

A. “It’s important for younger customers, and the 1 Series has the youngest customers of any BMW model. Some of the technology, such as the reversing park assist, was only introduced a few months ago on our flagship models.”

feeling the pinch

Time for some design trend analysis. This started as a small observation of a certain car, but as usual the observation seems to apply to so many new cars this post has expanded hugely. Trends spread fast in the automotive design world, and when one large corporation owns many brands it can infiltrate across the range very rapidly. In 2014 VW showed some design concept cars that exaggerated a styling theme developed by more than just their own brand. Then in 2015 we have seen ever more extreme versions, but Audi seem to have slowly grown into this particular theme, only to abandon it perhaps with their latest styling statement. Brands such as Infinity and VW are using it to maximum effect, but who did it first? The usual answer applies here and that is BMW of course. Let us start to analyse the technique I am writing about.

Volkswagen Cross Coupe GTE "pinch"
the “pinch” surface

The VW Cross Coupe GTE concept displays a large number of pinched feature lines among it’s surfacing design. Around a similar time, a chance encounter with a new model VW Passat spurred my interest in this design detail. I noticed that the Passat had a very pronounced pinch shaped feature line, but the Cross Coupe has 4 of them along the front wing!

The pinch I noticed in real life...
The pinch I noticed in real life…
VW cross coupe gte Fender
4 defined ridges, or pinched surfaces.

So this got me thinking about the history of this feature, about it’s function. The technology involved is fairly new (in car design terms) and involves a deeper draw for the steel stamping tools that make car panels. The stylistic function is to create a shadow, and of course a strong highlight, to clearly define the shoulder of the car. The reason this feature has become popular I believe, is because cars are getting larger and customers demands are for more interior space. Cars must be packaged to be squarer (with less 3D form) but aesthetic demands are high and customers want drama, speed or just that difficult to pin down “sportiness”. A blocky shape gives limited scope to “sculpt” the surfaces inwards, to design broad shoulders. Any angled surfaces reduce interior space, or make a car wider (too wide). Good car styling has come to rely on great light/dark contrast. A flat sided car panel does not offer this. Early days of using an undercut gave a subtle clue as to why this feature has made a comeback. A VW Passat is a great example as it has class leading interior space, simply huge, but has fairly ordinary external dimensions. To maintain a pleasing design, the designers must deploy some tricks.

BMW established a long tradition of very handsome saloon cars, the E28 5-series is a great example. On this car we can see a small, but very effective undercut. This is the early days of the pinched bodyside feature. It gives a nicely angled (to the sky) upper shoulder, with a shadow emphasising the lower bodyside, and of course a strong horizontal feature that lengthens the whole car, adding elegance.

BMW M5 E28 undercut
BMW M5 E28 undercut

Fast forward 20 years or more, and BMW under Chris Bangle really set the formula for current car design, so of course the revival and exaggeration of that undercut began with his BMW 1-series of 2004.

BMW 1-series pinch surface
BMW 1-series pinch surface

This has been much copied… but let us move along to where we are now, with the help of Audi and their slow evolutionary approach to design. This helps us see progression, in one vehicle.

Audi A6 Avant pinch evolution
Audi A6 Avant pinch evolution

As is the way with Audi design, the technique here is subtle. You may need to zoom or enlarge the image above to see the profile shapes that the green lines describe. I have used the Avant version of the A6 to show more clearly a horizontal shoulder, without a c-pillar to blend into the rear wing. We can see from the very first A6 that the high and solid shoulder feature is part of Audi DNA. The surfacing is very simple, and quite soft in radii at changes of direction. See how the upper facing shoulder blends into the main door profile, then it very steadily curves towards the sill. The only negative curvature comes where the flared wheel arches extend from the main body surface. Next (silver car) we can see a small but significant tightening of the radii and surface definition. The 2nd generation A6 shows a sharper shoulder edge, and slightly more flare to the entire body (flare, like flared trousers).  The sill position is further out, and the wheel arches have grown wider too. This car shows exceptional definition of the previously developed form language. A minimalistic and sharply defined design. Onto the 3rd generation and Audi are at this point trying to inject a little more dynamism and sportiness into their cars (oh dear..). They do this by going wide and low. The 3rd gen car is very wide and surfaces flare a lot towards the lower body. The door protecting body side strip is now out of fashion (and we all end up with dented doors?) and the sill is emphasised by being body colour (glossy, not matt) and the door surfaces actually waist inwards. The really significant, but very subtle update here is the  “pinch” or crease, or more accurately an undercut appearing on that core shoulder transition line. Can you see the very small undercut there? A negative curvature surface, under that main shoulder surface change. The wheel arches are getting very flared now, like a sportscar. So this is the fashion, across the entire VW group in fact, for emphasising surfaces and their transition points (light/dark highlights concentrated) with a “pinch”. The latest Audi A6 is again evolutionary from the previous version, but the key part that has grown, is the pinch! That undercut has grown from being not just under the shoulder line, the radius has been drawn out from the bodyside because the shoulder surface above it is now negatively curved. The surface flows negatively (concave) into the base of the windows. This 4th gen (and 3rd) also has a subtle trick on the wheel arches, where the edge is again pinched to emphasise that edge as “sharp”.

audi prologue avant concept Geneva 2015
Insanely sharp surface edges!

The Cross Coupe at the top of the post has so many of these as I mentioned. Other car companies are doing this and using it to very dramatic effect. Meanwhile, Audi chose Geneva to continue previewing its future design direction with a Prologue concept car.  This features razor-sharp surface radii, which seem to have backtracked slightly by using the “pinch” technique very very subtly in order to express sharpness. Concave or negative surfaces flowing into those edges are very subtle too. We don’t yet know if Audi will be able to mass-produce (metal stamp) these insanely sharp creases. Let’s hope so, as it’s a very nice feature.

So to talk about other companies following the form trend of BMW, Audi and VW we can take a look at a few concepts recently displayed by Infiniti and Chevrolet. Infinity and Lexus/Toyota are using sharp creased surfaces as important parts of their design language. The Infiniti QX30 concept crossover coupe is the latest (and almost production spec) design that shows their designers love affair with the very sharp body crease or pinch as we are calling it here. Just look at that edge that runs through the door handle. Amazing! infiniti qx30 Here is Detroit’s latest design that uses the same surface treatment. The Chevrolet Bolt electric plug-in hybrid vehicle. The pinch line forms a strong part of the cars shoulder line, as it does on the VW Passat but this time the form continues on into the rear lamp shapes.

2015 Chevrolet Bolt EV Concept all electric vehicle – ExteriorFinally we can return to a VW group design product, which was announced in 2015. The new Skoda Superb. It demonstrates a dramatic example of the concave, negative shoulder surface (looks nice above the front wheel arch) that pinches into a sharp crease, with very strong and deep undercut for the side surfacing. The aim here from Skoda seems to be about giving the impression of flat surfaces that intersect sharply. They are aiming for a “creased” look to their cars and non-design savvy public are picking up on this prominent design “message”. This use of concave surfaces reminds very heavily of Bangle’s E61 BMW 5-series, from 10 years ago!

(EDIT) Some industry insider info has been passed to me recently- and it is a fact- that this very sharp crease (or draw in the panel stamping) is patented VAG technology. No other manufacturer currently has this extreme level of sharpness available to them. Very interesting, and no surprise that all VAG brands are making use of this design advantage. 

Skoda SuperbWell there we have it, watch out for the “pinch” effect on other cars. It really is very common, across cars from all brands and all market segments. To end I will add a gallery of images that formed the basis for this article.


Bangle on form as usual

Another golden chance to hear what Chris Bangle thinks of current Auto design. Courtesy of Form Trends.

designing difference in a world of sameness

The legendary (and a personal hero of mine) Chris Bangle, talks to Stanford University about designing cars. You’ve seen him before on my blog of course! Sadly none of his slides can be seen, as they contain sensitive images from the BMW design studios. Still worth listening to the great thinker of car design!

behind the scenes at BMW

If you look on the right hand side of my site- the links section now has a new link… which is this one. Recently BMW have added some nice videos and explanations of their design process. Their process is no different to any other manufacturer, so I highly recommend taking a look.


lean BMW

I decided to write a post prompted by a co-workers comments on the new BMW 5-series design. This latest 5 is from what some might call the post-Bangle era (and many might celebrate that fact). Personally I was a big fan of the previous generation design- the E60 as it is codenamed. This was (according to Wikipedia) the best selling 5 series ever, despite the styling causing heated debates. The design of this car is credited to Davide Arcangeli, but it had something that was nicknamed the Bangle-butt- a shock design feature at first, but it has now become the de-facto rear design for nearly every large saloon car on sale. The “butt” name seems to have originated from the 7-series that was even more controversial, and had a very tall almost pill-box style of boot lid. The lid sat on top of the light clusters, rather than being smoothed away to invisibility. The 5-series simply had a much less severe version of the same theme, and was not as radical in hindsight. Bangle and his co-workers were pioneers of design, and have proved to be more successful than they could’ve imagined. So my post here is actually related to a comment on the newest F10 design, which went something like this: “I don’t like it because the front leans forward… it looks weird.” This got me thinking- as my own visual knowledge of 5 series designs seemed to remind me that ALL 5 series have forward angled grills, and perhaps the E60 was the only 5 series ever to break from this tradition? On checking up- I was right, and more interestingly the front aspect of the latest F10 design does not lean forward very much- if at all. What do we mean by this angle? Take a look at this side view comparison of the E28 version of the 5 series (very similar to the original 1972 E12, the first 5 series) and the latest F10 model. I’ve added highlights to the main feature lines and also to the front grill angles. The arrows show where the grill (kidney grill, in BMW design language) opening appears on the cars.

BMW 5-Series design comparison

First thing to notice is that the front aspect of the F10 design, is almost vertical- rather than actually leaning forward much. The impression of forward stance is heightened however, by the entire cars wedge profile and ride angle- which is definitely higher at the rear. The front of the old E28 is very severely angled forward- with an almost evilly sharp leading edge. This design would never pass pedestrian impact legislation now in place, so the current F10 design is probably as far as the designers could go with the forward angle. Also note how high the centre point of the bonnet is- again a result of new pedestrian safety laws regarding the gap required between engine and bonnet (scarily, so you crush the bonnet as a crumple zone when the car hits you!). The middle car is of course the E60 design, and you can see that the grill is actually very steeply raked back, possibly for aero reasons, but more likely a first response to safety legislation. Essentially the fact that a friend thought this forward rake looked odd proves a couple of things: that people actually move forward faster than we think in aesthetic tastes, and that people quickly forget the past, so why is car design constantly referencing it?

BMW kindly created some awesome images showing the line-up of all 5 series models a few years ago, I include these as visual proof that all 5 series models have a forward angle to the front grill (or at least vertical), except for the E60!

History of the 5 series

Lastly- a gallery of some nice 5 series pics I found.

UPDATE: I have just recalled the common name given to this design feature- thanks to reading an interview with current BMW boss Adrian van Hooydonk- it’s called the Shark Nose! As he puts it “The sportier the BMW, the more shark we put in!”

star bangled banner

Short but sweet interview with the legendary Chris Bangle. In my opinion this guy is a genius, one of the greatest car designers (even designers) of the 21st century. Arguably his output was so visionary that everyone criticised it heavily, because it was quite literally beyond them- and he became infamous as a result. Looking at the many, many copycat designs (particularly of the 5-series) proves that this guy moved the whole game forward. He apparently allowed designers to break out of tradition, to actually think about what they are designing. He even managed to change the process- or at least get people to think about the process and why they were just blindy sticking to tradition- because “it’s always been done this way”.

InFrame TV link– click me!