You can’t throw a roundel without hitting someone who has an opinion on BMW’s recent designs. Big visual leaps like giant grilles, split headlights, and the entire XM have taken the automaker far from the clean and unfussy lines of its past. But if you dare to see what’s next, debuting today is the BMW Vision Neue Klasse, an electric sedan concept that previews how the brand’s next generation of vehicles will look and function.
With flat surfaces and big windows, short overhangs, and an angular trunk, it’s another huge departure from BMW’s current crop of cars. The split grille front end—can you even call them kidneys anymore?—and the Hofmeister kink stand as the only obvious links between the present and the future. It’s not retro, but it’s also not a blob. It’s also not exactly the next 3 Series, though you can bet it’ll have some strong similarities. Whether you love it or hate it, and I’ll be damned if there’s anyone standing in the middle, the sedan represents a major turning point for BMW.
“There are a lot of fans who maybe worry about where BMW is going. We also want to promise them that, although we change a lot of things, we don’t change them just because it’s time for a change. We change them because we see what people want in the future,” BMW's lead designer Domagoj Dukec told me. “We have to somehow move on and to offer other things. That’s what the silhouette and the exterior should express. Some things will become maybe more BMW than some recent products.”
Previewed by the i Vision Dee unveiled at CES 2023 and the i Vision Circular from Munich 2021—you can see the clear evolution in the photo below—the Vision Neue Klasse’s approach isn’t unprecedented. Set your time machine to, say, 1968, walk into a BMW showroom, and you’ll find yourself face-to-face with the 2002, whose headlights were integrated into horizontal grilles. The key difference is that the 2002’s front end featured separate kidney grilles. Uncoincidentally, the 02-Series cars were part of the original Neue Klasse family of cars.
The tall windows echo the 02-Series and let more light into the cabin, while flat surfaces and sharp angles signal the beginning of a new design era at BMW. It’s the de-Bangle-ization of the design studio, and the idea is to reduce visual fuss to focus on what’s essential. This also explains why there’s no chrome, though the European Union’s looming ban on chrome plating may have played a role as well.
“People see the car and even if they don’t like BMW they say that somehow it’s easy to understand. It’s just a nice car,” he explained, citing the clean, simple lines of the E30-generation 3 Series as an example.
Clean and simple also describes the interior. Although there are no door handles, a rectangle on the bottom part of each window lights up to show you where to push when you want to get in. BMW’s interior designers must have spent a great deal of time in Norway, because the cabin is more closely aligned with Scandinavian minimalism than with the Teutonic starkness that permeated German cars for decades. It’s an interesting juxtaposition: there’s both a lot and not a lot going on in the Neue Klasse.
The iDrive controller is dead; I’ll let you decide if it’s going to heaven or hell. It’s been replaced by a new user interface built around a touchscreen and a head-up display called Panoramic Vision that stretches across the entire dashboard. The driver and the front passenger can send a widget, like the navigation menu, from the touchscreen to the head-up display by simply dragging it up past the top of the display. BMW has already announced that this technology will reach production by the middle of the 2020s.
I couldn’t coax anyone at BMW into providing drivetrain specifications. All we know at this stage is that the Neue Klasse is entirely electric—don’t expect to find a straight-six behind those funky headlights—and built around an 800-volt architecture on a modular platform. Martin Hehl, one of the engineers in charge of developing the brand’s electric powertrains, hinted that Neue Klasse-based cars should offer more driving range than comparable battery-powered BMW models sold in 2023 by leveraging advancements in the areas of thermal management and cell density. His team is notably taking steps to improve range in cold weather.
One question echoed through my mind as I walked around the Neue Klasse: is this the next 3 Series?
“We could have also shown an [SUV]. But, when you make such a big transformation … you need to explain all of these changes and it’s easier if you start with a silhouette which is clear for everyone. That’s why it’s a sedan. We could have taken anything,” he noted. So, is that a yes or a no? “Here, we don’t want to express any product specifically; we’re still talking about a vision car,” he clarified. Perhaps tellingly, he added that a concept built specifically to preview the next 3 Series would be called something like Concept 3 Series.
“Neue Klasse is... more of a whole transformation in terms of making the car accepted again by society and politics," he continued. "That’s what we mean by Neue Klasse: it’s much bigger than just an aesthetic approach. We want to turn the car from bad to good.”
What we’ve got, then, is a car shaped by sociology. Dukec’s comments might have a puzzling resonance if you live in a city with a thriving car culture, like Detroit, but the horizon looks far darker on the other side of the pond — I say this as a car enthusiast that has spent most of my adult life in Europe. Regulations written to make driving more expensive, less attractive, or both sprout out of Brussels on a regular basis.
That’s a significant problem for BMW, along with many of its peers and rivals, because bureaucrats aren’t necessarily after your dinky, 65-horsepower Renault Twingo. It’s the big, powerful cars (particularly the high-riding ones) that have summoned a dreadfully dark cloud of disapproval from the European Union.
Shifting consumer tastes also shaped the Neue Klasse’s design. The definition of luxury is changing, and it’s evolving more rapidly than it has in the past due in part to the constant flow of information that gets pelted at us via YouTube, social media platforms, and other forms of marketing. Many buyers no longer want a car that looks like it’s going to mug yours in an alley to steal a few gallons of premium-unleaded.
“It has a lot to do with what we see in society. There are so many things currently going on with AI and digitalization; some people are polluted by so many things. There is so much going on today with politics, wars, the coronavirus, everything, and you can see that people are looking for something that’s simple, clean, and easy to understand. They want a product which is not overwhelming,” Dukec said.
Time will tell what the future holds for the Vision Neue Klasse, the 3 Series, and BMW’s design language. The brand has already announced its unique electric car platform—which represents a massive shift from its current strategy of making joint ICE-EV platforms—is scheduled to enter production in 2025. It will find its way under numerous cars positioned across the entire BMW spectrum, including what company CEO Oliver Zipse described as “a compact sedan in the 3 Series segment and a sporty SUV.”
This is pure speculation, but the former sounds an awful lot like a toned-down, production-ready evolution of the Neue Klasse, doesn’t it?
Ronan Glon is a freelance automotive writer based in France whose work has appeared in Autoblog, Hagerty, Digital Trends, and more. Got a tip? Send us a note: firstname.lastname@example.org