Impressions of the 2015 320xi
A rare service appointment with the E46 affords
an opportunity to sample what passes for a BMW these days.
I'm not impressed.
While I try to keep the focus of this site on my own vehicles and make an effort not to be political or whiny, I have on rare occasion relayed my impressions of BMW's latest models if for no other reason than to highlight how far from the ideal BMW has strayed in recent years. A need to schedule the E46 for an airbag recall afforded an opportunity to sample the 2015 320xi for a day, and the result of my brief experience is outlined here.
Disabling the Start/Stop Function
The first thing the service rep asked me upon delivery of the vehicle was "are you familiar with the start-stop technology in the vehicle?" My response was "Familiar? Yes. Like it? No. Please disable it." I asked him to do this assuming I would be forced to deal with the convoluted iDrive system to disable this "feature" but BMW's engineers must have had their coffee on the day this issue came up in the design meeting as they were kind enough to install a button adjacent to the Start/Stop button that allows the driver to control the "feature" directly.
Frankly, my problem with start/stop is that it's the answer to a question I didn't ask. If I had any say in the matter the feature would not be installed in any car I own. "I sure wish I had to replace my starter more frequently" and "I sure wish my car would stumble when I need it to accelerate quickly into traffic" said no one ever.
An Economy Car Engine in a Luxury Car
Getting in the car I pushed the "start" button and almost lost my breakfast. Gone was the silky smooth sound and subtle but authoritative exhaust note of an I6. Replacing it was the sound of a $20K econobox. Now I understand why BMW has thoroughly insulated its interiors and developed active sound (i.e. the practice of piping fake engine noise through the speakers) for their new cars. The engines sound like shit.
As I took off into traffic I became less impressed as the vibrating / buzzing morass BMW calls an engine became more insistent. I don't know who came up with the idea to put an engine with a number of cylinders that is fundamentally prone to vibration in a VERY expensive luxury car but they need to be fired. Immediately.
I used to drive Hondas. They weren't a bad car for the money, particularly back in the day, but even then they were no match for the BMW I6, and, frankly, neither is this steaming pile. Of course the I6 is available for a premium, but that's not the point. Hint to BMW: You ain't Honda and this ain't an economy car. Keep the 4 banger in the Mini or chop the price to $25K and actually compete with the econo-boxes. The E30 notwithstanding, a four cylinder engine in a BMW is an incongruity.
I've been driving BMWs for nearly 20 years so it's safe to say I know what BMW brakes are supposed to feel like, even when brand new, and I found the brakes entirely too grabby, with very little pedal travel required to apply them far too aggressively. In short, the brakes are not as easily modulated as prior versions. As much as BMW apparently enjoys turning everything into a digital signal (I'm looking at you, CANBus / MOST), brakes are not a binary function. I don't know what BMW did to the brake design since the E46 days but they need to revert the change.
Once the hallmark of a BMW and the measure by which all others were judged. Now relegated to the electrical equivalent of an optical encoder driving an electric motor so divorced from reality it feels like a game controller with force feedback disabled. Steering this so-called modern BMW I might as well be tuning the radio.
As many in the press have noted, the steering is precise -- the wheels indeed point where you tell them to go and they appear to move with an urgency rivaling that of hydraulic steering -- but there's simply no feedback about what the tires are doing in relation to the road. Yea, I know...Americans on the whole like their cars this way (or at least don't know any better) and BMW these days is run more by the pointy-haired marketing and finance types than the engineers, so they're chasing alpha and Lexus design ideals as opposed to producing type of the vehicle that made them famous.
But I bought a BMW back in 1998 precisely because it felt alive, in stark contrast to the domestic and Japanese cars of the day. This alone is a reason to avoid BMWs at this point. If I wanted an appliance, I'd buy a fucking Honda. Congratulations, BMW -- you've managed to destroy the one quality most recognized for distinguishing your vehicles from your competition.
Transmission Selector (a.k.a the "Beer Tap")
From a design and ergonomics perspective the automotive world seemed to get it right 30+ years ago when they all started using console mounted transmission selectors including PRND321 type levers for automatic transmissions. Once shiftable automatics became practical in the late 90's BMW rightly modified this concept using PRND and providing the manual transmission mode selector (+/-) in a physical detent to the left of those settings. BMW's engineers of the day further demonstrated their competence by making the manual mode function such that to downshift the lever is moved forward, in concert with the G-forces naturally pushing the driver's body and hand in that direction during the associated braking maneuvers. My 1997 Honda Prelude (the car I traded for my E36 in 1998) got it backwards, incidentally.
The point being that BMW integrated new technology but retained the physical interface and ergonomics for normal operation. Anyone new to the car or the newly-added feature could just get in, squeeze the shifter and the lock release button that naturally fell to hand, pull the shifter aft until it stopped, and drive off. The physical movement of the lever provided identical physical, visual, and to a lesser extent audible feedback needed by the driver about the state of the transmission. The second I saw BMW's "Beer Tap" shifter for the first time in 2005 I wondered what its engineers were thinking when they decided to rip out what worked and replace it with this abomination. My time with the 320xi has only reinforced my opinion that BMW needs to start drug testing its employees, because only someone snorting and smoking everything in sight would come up with something as idiotic.
The beer tap incorporates an unlock button on the top left side. Confusingly, it is quite possible to tilt or pull the shifter aft without depressing this switch. Naturally, I did this by reflex several times, consistent with the design of every other vehicle I've ever driven. In every occurrence a dissertation appeared on the LCD in the gauge cluster explaining that which should not require explanation. "Hey driver, we at BMW are incapable of designing a human interface so rather than do it the way the entire world's done it for 30 fucking years, here's how we want you to do it for no legitimate reason whatsoever".
Returning the tap to park requires pressing a "P" button on the top of the shaft. Fail to do that and you risk the car rolling away. Touch the button at the wrong time and...well, I have no idea what will happen...probably another annoying message in the LCD, blaming the driver for BMW's own design failure. The problem, of course, is that it is not clear from the physical state of the shift lever whether the car is in park. To add insult to injury, the indicators that BMW once put at the base of the shift lever are now on the lever itself and this means they're covered by the driver's hand when gripping the shifter(!) How in the hell did that get through the design reviews? As a friend says all too often, "I guess common sense isn't so common".
Just in case you think my experience is atypical consider that when I took the BMW Performance Driving School Two Day Course the crew had to warn the group several times to double-check the state of the transmission and make sure the cars were in park, as they had a few cars begin to roll away after the drivers got out. Even I forgot to put the 650 into Park as we waited to take the skid pad, but as the car was on a level surface it didn't roll away.
From my short experience with the 320xi I can tell you I had to consciously think and look several times at indicators, both in the dash and on the shifter itself, to make sure the car was in the correct mode. This is one seriously fucked up human interface. The best thing BMW could do at this point would be to return to the E46-era shifter design. While it too was merely a lever connected to a series of momentary switches, the physical design of the shifter was (and is) far superior to anything BMW has produced since. It worked 10 years ago and nothing has changed with the operation or design of automobiles to change that fact. The Beer Tap shifter is not just difficult to use, it's unsafe, and for that reason alone should be regulated out of existence. But sadly, rather than do the right thing the next step by BMW will likely be to eliminate the shift lever entirely and replace it with a bunch of buttons, thereby completing the long and perilous journey from luxury-sports car to appliance.
While BMW has never been known for its interiors, the interiors of older cars seemed to be designed with a certain consistency, if not cosmetically then in function. The Japanese seemed to get this right as well many years ago. But now BMW has really gone off the reservation, as have the Japanese, sadly.
Cosmetically, I find the interior of the 320xi to be a confusing mess of contrasting lines and materials, in this case an ivory strongly clashing with tacky wood veneer trim. The eye constantly wanders looking for symmetry and purpose, and finds none. Nothing seems at ease here. There is nothing visually appealing about the environment.
I must admit to feeling a bit nostalgic while surveying the HVAC control panel. The displays show the temperature in classic BMW orange illumination, which I love, but I can't believe they are STILL rendering characters on extremely low resolution displays straight out of the 90's. Would it have killed them to take a lead from Porsche or Audi and use a high(er) resolution LCD and allow the font size to grow a bit for those of us with older eyes? This is unacceptable for a car this expensive in this day and age.
The somewhat familiar gauges are absolutely uninspired, with tiny almost unreadable lettering and thin needles. The tach also reads slightly beyond the 9 o'clock position at idle because BMW can't leave well enough alone. "Ready"? What's the point? The tachometer is an engine RPM indicator. A more rational approach would have been to illuminate an icon on the gauge cluster LCD to indicate start/stop mode is active and the engine is intentionally off...while the tach points to ZERO. I would have called it an "engine armed" indicator. Not only does that sound cool, it gets the point across. The engine is off but could start at any time. Simple eh?
BMW would be well advised to fire their entire interior design department and poach some people from Audi or Porsche, since the latter two companies actually understand a thing or two about interior design. To demonstrate my point look no further than the Cayman GT4 interior. That is perfection, defined.
iDrive Display and Infotainment
The iDrive display looks like an iPad installed as an aftermarket accessory by a poor high school kid trying to impress his friends. I'm surprised BMW didn't add any duct tape along the bottom of the display for effect.
I found BMW's implementation of HD Radio to be just this side of worthless. This was not exactly unexpected, as HD Radio is broken by design. The best digital transmission systems are able to function with an extremely poor signal to noise ratio. Cell phones and GPS are two examples of this. Unfortunately, HD Radio in practice performs much worse than its analog equivalent unless you're very near the transmitter.
By default BMW's audio system is configured to tune HD Radio stations and fall back to FM if the HD Radio signal falls below a certain threshold. The problem is that the HD radio stream is derived from the analog signal and buffered so by the time it finally hits the speakers it's several seconds out of sync with the analog station. In my experience this caused the music to constantly mute and repeat. It was, in a word, unlistenable. I know the system can be configured to stop switching but that sort of defeats the point of having both systems installed, does it not?
Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing!
When I stopped I pressed the "P" button to put the car into park. I then hit the Start/Stop button to stop the engine and then sat there wondering why the car hadn't shut down electrically. The gauge cluster LCD remained on, as did the iDrive display, and music continued to play. Now, I'm sure there's some reason for this but it left me scratching my head. When I turn the key to position zero (the equivalent of hitting the engine stop button...or so I believe) before stepping out of either my E36 or E46 the car provides every indication that it's off. In fact, that's the way it's worked on every car I've ever owned or seen in my entire life. Not the case here, obviously.
I pushed the volume control for the audio system but all that did was mute the audio. I noticed a power icon just below the volume control on what appeared to be a button so I pressed it. No effect -- as it turned out it's not a button. I then took the only action I knew for sure (hoped is more like it) would fix the problem -- I got out of the car, closed the door and locked the car with the remote. Hunching over and glancing back into the interior I confirmed the iDrive display was dark. What can I say. This is not sound design (no pun).
I've never been a fan of the start/stop button concept because it eliminates the accessory position. BMW "solved" that problem by just leaving all the battery-draining electronics on until the driver gets out of the car, but this is clearly unacceptable. Maybe there is a way to just turn everything off and sit in the car, as I might be required to do while waiting for something or someone, but I never did figure out how to do that. While I'm not necessarily a fan of the traditional twist-lock key approach to vehicular mode control, there should be a way to emulate position 0 (all off), 1 (accessory) and 2 (start) without confusion. Clearly BMW has not found it.
When my dealer called me to return the car I was all too happy to oblige. On the drive home I confirmed what I've thought for some time. BMW is on the wrong path, employing designers with no understanding of functional design or ergonomics, and attempting to appeal to a clueless mass market who would just as soon avoid the task of driving in favor of tapping on their iDevices. The evolution of the brand is now more about technological demonstration and gimmickry than real progress or performance, and until that changes I am unlikely to buy another BMW.