First Mercedes-Benz...now BMW looks at the ute market
BMW will produce a ute ... but only if the workhorse can makes bags of money for the company to spend on developing hybrids, electric vehicles and self-driving car tech. And should the Munich-based brand give project pick-up the go ahead, the result will be nothing like rival Mercedes-Benz's X-Class.
"I think that product is appalling,” says BMW executive Hendrik von Kuenheim. "You would have expected something more serious.”
The X-Class is basically a Nissan Navara wearing three-pointed star badges and fitted out with a new interior. Officially unveiled in Cape Town in July, it will be manufactured in a Nissan factory near Barcelona. It will go on sale in Australia early next year.
Benz bills the X-Class as "the world's first premium pick-up”, but it doesn't impress von Kuenheim, BMW Group's senior vice-president in charge of the Asia, Pacific and South Africa markets, including Australia.
"Very cheap, very plasticky, not very much Mercedes-like,” he says.
BMW has built two utes before, one-offs, handmade by the company's M Division. In 1986 engineers took a 3 Series convertible and cut away half the roof and boot to make room for an aluminium checkerplate tray.
The vehicle was used to lug heavy stuff around M Division's production facility near Munich. The second ute was based on the M3 Convertible and equipped with a V8.
Hendrik von Kuenheim is the son of Eberhard von Kuenheim, the man who turned BMW into a highly profitable premium car maker during his long reign as chief executive officer from 1970 to 1993.
He says a pick-up is on the company's radar. "I am well aware BMW engineers have looked into detail, what it takes.”
The big question, he explained, is whether doing a pick-up would make more money than other vehicles the company might choose to make. Vehicles that might prove more profitable.
At the same time, big spending is needed to develop hybrid, battery electric and fuel-cell electric drivetrains, as well as autonomous driving systems. As a result, the financial burden on car makers is heavier than at any time in the past 100 years, he said.
"Traditionally we used only to invest in diesel and petrol, but now we invest in all the other sectors where the stream of revenue is years and years away.”
"So you need to prioritise yourself, what we want to do.” Right now, a ute isn't the company's priority, von Kuenheim added. But this might change.
Should BMW decide doing a ute was a smart move, it would then face another tough decision. "Let's say we are past this point of pick-up,” von Kuenheim theorised. "Do you do rather a pick-up which is more what you see from our friends in Stuttgart (X-Class), or do you do more a pick-up which is luxury, which is more like a (Ford) F150 twin-cab?”
The cover of von Kuenheim's mobile phone shows the pick-up idea isn't going to go away. His team gives him a new cover every six months, adorned with a bunch of photos selected to remind him what's important in his area of responsibility.
Just below the iPhone's camera lens is a neat piece of Photoshop work. It's white double-cab 4WD ute powering through sand ... and wearing a BMW grille.