After years of aggressive and overwrought designs, BMW has made a sudden about-turn with its Neue Klasse concept
It would be easy to look at the new BMW Vision Neue Klasse concept car, which previews the design and technology of the company’s next generation of electric vehicles, as a repudiation of its recent efforts.
The evocative name, retro look, stripped-back lines and nods to classic BMW saloons feel like a dramatic course correction away from its recent history – all confrontational, controversial, aggressive and edgy styling and advertising.
Except – if you believe BMW bosses, at least – it’s not.
“This is a statement of confidence, showing what we can do and what we feel capable of – and we do it from a position of strength,” says Pieter Nota, BMW’s customer, brand and sales boss.
“Our current portfolio is highly successful. We are by far the number-one brand in the premium segment globally and we’re ahead of mass-market brands in some markets. We’re doing this out of a position of strength.
“It’s not that we suddenly feel the need to completely throw away everything we have. But we see the markets moving fast, and we need to stay ahead of the game.”
Whatever you might think of some of those recent front grilles, they certainly aren’t putting off buyers. And yet here is the Vision Neue Klasse, promising not so much a step-change in design as a revolution.
It’s because this generation of Neue Klasse – the Neue New, as the firm’s marketing folk would have it – is BMW responding to the change the whole industry sees coming: electrification.
Essentially, the next-generation BMW 3 Series into which the Vision Neue Klasse will morph in 2025 and the five further models that will join it in the following 24 months will represent a first for BMW: a co-ordinated roll-out of bespoke, mainstream electric cars.
They will also use BMW’s sixth-generation lithium ion batteries, new electric motors and the ninth-generation version of BMW’s iDrive infotainment system, which will make bold use of an enlarged head-up display. Technical details are thin on the ground but BMW claims the cars will have 30% more range, offer 30% faster charging and be 25% more efficient than its existing EVs.
Technology will play a huge role in the Neue Klasse models, both in that new iDrive system and the underlying electrical architecture.
At the launch event, BMW boss Oliver Zipse had a Steve Jobs-style “one more thing” moment when he revealed the ‘Heart of Joy’.
A small black box, it might not seem as exciting as a straight-six engine or a manual gearbox, but BMW is convinced that it will be key to its cars remaining the ultimate driving experience in the future.
WIth the powertrain and driving dynamics software merged into one centralised hardware unit, it reduces the lag time caused by having separate ECUs talking to each other, resulting, claims BMW, in a more analogue feel.
“It’s a fine line between staying loyal to our roots [and] still making a big leap, and that’s exactly what we’re capable of doing,” says Nota. “It’s really about both technological innovation in the drivetrain and the interaction of the driver with the vehicle.
“The new iDrive system means that [the car] isn’t just a physical product any more. It’s really a companion that makes it easy and effortless to interact with.”
BMW was laying the groundwork for the Vision Neue Klasse for two years. It first showed us the i Vision Circular concept, which focused on many of the sustainability and recycling techniques that the firm is developing, at the 2021 Munich motor show; and then it showed the i Vision Dee, which focused on much of its bold new infotainment tech, at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.
The Vision Neue Klasse, which BMW Group design chief Adrian van Hooydonk promises is “pretty close” to the production 3 Series, takes design cues from those cars but reinterprets them in something far more familial. “We deliberately set out to make a [saloon],” he says.
That, of course, is a decision that will make many Autocar readers happy. “That was the utmost objective,” says van Hooydonk, joking.
But he adds: “We know your publication is read by a lot of BMW fans, and we do want to address BMW fans. We don’t want this to be a change at the fringes of the brand. We want this to affect the entire brand, and we want BMW fans to take note of it and hopefully like it.
“If you do a [saloon] and you do a very modern [saloon], that’s a very good measure of how much you’re changing the brand.”
Strong overlap in design
At first glance, there isn’t much in common between the Vision Neue Klasse and the new Mini Cooper, but put the two BMW Group EVs revealed in Munich next to each other and there are clear links: both are pared-back designs stripped of many visual styling elements, with a real focus on a handful of core, retro- inspired design cues.
“It’s music to my ears that you recognise that: it has been the plan for many years,” says van Hooydonk.
“We’re pursuing the same philosophy for both brands, although the way we execute that is very different for each, because they have different heritage and iconography.”
He notes that while using retro design can aid familiarity, there must always be a balance when it comes to pushing new tech. “We want to take a big leap, but we want to take the customers we have with us into this new future.”
Speaking about future Neue Klasse models, he adds: “Since they will come in such short succession, you will see a strong overlap, perhaps stronger than when you do a whole model generation in 10 years, which is what we used to do.
“We used to have 10-year cycles, often starting with the 7 Series and then trickling down, and then the last one would come 10 years after the first one. Now the change will come in a relatively short space of time, so it will feel like we turn the pages all at once.
“Two years isn’t a long period of time, so it will appear as if they have grown together a little more – but you will still recognise individual characters.”
Van Hooydonk hints that the order in which the six EVs will be released will be dictated by “lifecycle mainly” but also “where we feel demand is strongest for change or technological update”.
Return to factory settings
The Neue Klasse EVs will initially be built at BMW’s new factory in Debrecen, Hungary, in a process that is said to be entirely free from fossil fuel, be much more dependent on the use of secondary materials and have a lower CO2 output.
Its factories in Munich and Mexico will get the necessary upgrades in 2026 and 2027. Just as revolutionary as the new concept’s tech and design is its interior, which previews how the ninth generation of BMW’s iDrive operating system will reshape the brand’s approach to interior design.
Neue Klasse interiors
Neue Klasse EVs will be marked out from current cars by their minimalist cockpits, which feature only the bare minimum of physical controls, even dropping the iDrive rotary control knob that has been a hallmark of the brand’s interiors since the E65-generation BMW 7 Series arrived in 2001.
Instead, users interact with the new system using a slick central touchscreen, BMW’s voice-activated Intelligent Personal Assistant and a new Panoramic Vision head-up display, which extends across the entire windscreen to provide information at “the ideal height” for the driver and front passenger.
This is operated primarily using a switch on the right-hand spoke of the steering wheel, but the driver can transfer content from the touchscreen to the holographic projection using a swiping gesture.
Other clues to Neue Klasse interiors come in the form of the concept’s bright yellow corduroy upholstery, chunky, squared-off steering wheel and ‘floating’ centre console, which holds a wireless phone charger.
Additional reporting by James Attwood