The rise and rise of BMW M Division

Amidst a falling market, BMW M Division continues its ascent

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It's said that a rising tide lifts all boats so, in the context of car sales, posting decent numbers in boom times is rarely that tricky. Setting records when the market is struggling is another matter altogether, which is why the numbers generated by  for 2020 are, on the face of it, remarkable.

The bald stats make interesting reading. While BMW’s global sales slumped by 8.4 per cent overall in 2020, line item BMW M saw its numbers rise by a chunky 5.9 per cent versus 2019. That translates to 144,218 vehicles worldwide, the healthiest annual figure that the M division has ever recorded, directly in the middle of a global pandemic and its consequent squeeze on discretionary spending.

What will particularly please the burghers at Garching is that the rise in the M division’s fortunes comes on the back of some more market-conventional figures from its rival from Affalterbach, Mercedes-AMG, which recorded an almost mirror-image slump of 5.3 per cent versus 2019, with 125,129 vehicles sold. That comes after a 2019 when the two sub-brands were almost lineball, BMW M shifting 135,829 units compared to 132,136 sales registered for Mercedes-AMG.

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But whereas an M car was once a genuine halo product, of which there may be only three or four scattered across the entire BMW product range, now they’re everywhere. Boss of the M division, Markus Flasch claimed in 2019 that nearly 50 per cent of all BMWs wore an M badge or are an M trim line, so analysis of the numbers would seem to suggest that rather than a huge increase in the popularity of existing M models, that uptick in sales for BMW M comes largely on the back of product proliferation.

Put bluntly, consumer tastes appear to be shifting away from a base-model optic. Flasch is sanguine when it’s put to him that this creeping spread of ‘M everything’ means that the sub-brand is gradually morphing into a default shorthand for BMW. “M has never been a competing brand to BMW,” he says, shrugging. “M is the exaggeration of what BMW stands for, in terms of driving pleasure. M supplements BMW and it’s going to remain this way.”

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Nevertheless, it’s instructive to examine quite how many M cars or M-line models are listed in BMW’s product portfolio in Australia. In 2001, some twenty years ago, there were three: Z3 M Roadster, Z3 M Coupe and E39 M5. Ten years later, that total had doubled to six models, E90 M3 sedan, E92 M3 coupe, E93 M3 convertible, E63 M6, plus the E70 X5M and E71 X6M. This year it currently stands at 32 models, notwithstanding the fact that there’s no representation from the traditional lynchpin of the M range, the M3 or, come to that, M4, which will appear in quarter 1 of this year, with a start of production back at the end of 2020.

Here in Australia, BMW M even beat that global average, underscoring a local predilection for high performance and high equipment models. The 4659 M-badged vehicles recorded in 2020 was a local record, stepping up a hefty 7.9 per cent on 2019. The introduction of the powerhouse X5M Competition and its coupe-backed sibling, the X6M Competition in early 2020 added considerably to the bottom line.

First full year sales for their junior equivalents, the X3M and X4M Competition models (introduced mid 2019) also swelled the pot, as did “triple digit” percentage growth on M135i xDrive, M340i xDrive and the range-topping SUV, the X7 M50i. One of the most encouraging things for BMW M is that certain developing markets have managed to make Australia’s 7.9 per cent growth in sales look distinctly pedestrian. As well as record sales in the key markets like the US, China, Italy and the UK, sales stepped up by better than 60 per cent in South Korea and Russia.

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BMW has a product offensive in store for this year, with Australian buyers taking deliveries of M3 and M4 Competition in rear drive as well as the manual non-Competition versions this month. Those looking for an M3/M4 Competition with all-wheel drive will have to wait until Quarter 4. That’s on top of M5 CS, and X5M and X6M imports. The M division risks becoming a victim of its own success, however, as an increasing focus on group CO2 targets brings the wisdom of migrating customers to more powerful and, as a direct consequence, more emissive models into question.

“The increase of market share of M models does not compromise the role you do. Our models are very efficient, and secondly, we are well experienced in balancing our portfolio,” argues Flasch. Those of a more cynical disposition might well feel that balancing the portfolio is perhaps a euphemism for short-term profit-taking on conventional ICE models while BMW still can, but Flasch hasn’t been able to achieve this without a financial commitment to an electrification roll-out plan for the M division.

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“Success has to be better than the predecessor’s character. We won’t mess around or compromise the distinct character that our M cars have today,” he says. “An electrified car, whether it’s plug in the wall, battery electric, has to take it up with the predecessor, and I know that there are physical limits, but within physical limits of working dimensions, we are going to make it happen.”

“It is remarkable that it was possible to achieve the new sales record even before the launch of our most important models,” Flasch claimed. “The new BMW M3 and BMW M4 generation offers us the promise of dynamic growth in 2021 as well.” The M division is set to present an electrically powered performance car for the first time this year as part of its “Power of Choice” strategy.

There’s due to be an M-Performance variant of the i4 electric sedan, a Tesla Model 3 rival which BMW confirmed would have a beefy 390kW powertrain, enough for a 0-100km/h time of sub-four seconds and a promised range of nearly 600km. Expect that drivetrain to then sit beneath an M-Performance version of the electric iX SUV. Flasch is also conditioning buyers for what he says will be “a year full of surprises” in 2022 to celebrate M’s 50th anniversary.

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