No popular car brand has its value so inextricably linked with engines, like BMW.
For decades BMW has traded on the marketability of an unrivalled portfolio of engines. Despite some of the most iconic designs of the last 50 years, when you think of influential BMWs, the defining element is always an engine, not appearance.
But how will BMW navigate an uncertain future, transitioning from petrol and diesel power in its cars, to battery energy?People who loyally follow the brand for its quality of petrol and diesel powertrains will find a recent announcement by the company potentially troubling. In its latest earnings report, BMW places a note that "up to 50 per cent of traditional drivetrain variants will be eliminated from 2021 onwards".
For a company celebrated more for its engines than any other single technical or design feature, having BMW admit that it is about to halve its admired engine line-up, in a year, is dramatic.
Losing 50% of its engine range will radically alter the BMW powertrain offering, but is it only going to be a loss of perception or reduction in function? For most of its modern history and success, BMW has structured a straightforward engine line-up with four-, six- and eight-cylinder engines.
The strategy for BMW has been to round its engines into 2.0-litre, 3.0-litre and 4.0-litre sizes. Those capacities neatly correspond to four-, six- and eight-cylinder applications, allowing for a spread of price points and performance capabilities, for its many different model ranges.
Diesel is going out
In a greatly rationalised BMW engine portfolio, the capacities and configurations which don't fall within those legacy segments, are the ones most at risk. Fuel type is also going to be influential when deciding which BMW engines are retired in 2021.
We can accept that BMW's future liquid-fuelled engines are not going to be primarily diesel. This technically advanced German automotive industry has abandoned fuel-type.
BMW's most potent diesel engines are likely going to die. This means no more fabulously powerful quad-turbocharged 3.0-litre diesels, distinguished for the excellent long-distance driving ability in the South African market.
Another legendary BMW engine which probably won't live far beyond 2021, is the V12. Volumes of this petrol engine are too low, as it is only sold in 7-Series and Rolls-Royce vehicles. BMW had planned to discontinue the V12 by 2023, but rapidly changing production dynamics could hasten its demise.
The two engines which will have ample runway beyond BMW's 2021 powertrain rationalisation deadline, are the 2.0- and 3.0-litre turbocharged petrols. A compact in-line configuration engine is the easiest to hybridise, allowing for the use of integrated start motor/generator units on one side of the cylinder head.
Hybridisation is going to become the bridge factor for all future BMWs which aren't pure electric vehicles. BMW can also build both the 2- and 3-litre turbo-petrol engines on the same production line, with minimal retooling required.
What about the V8s?
The 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 presents an almost unsolvable challenge, as it powers the bulk of BMW's large performance cars and SUV.
The V-configuration requires a dedicated industrial engineering solution to machine an engine block, which has no overlap with the 2-litre four-cylinder or 3-litre six-cylinder engines. Don't expect V8 engines in BMWs for much longer as they will simply become too complex to produce.
Will a future where BMW's liquid-fuel engines are only four- or six-cylinders be an issue to loyal followers of the brand? It shouldn't.
If we scrutinise BMW's history, most of its greatest cars have been powered by four- or six-cylinder engines. Cars such as the E30, E36 and E46 M3. Or the E28 and E34 M5. History proves that by trimming its engine portfolio, BMW might just be returning to its roots of simplified mechanical engineering excellence.