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The life and times of BMW M

From a hardcore motorsport outfit to major sales success, and on to an electrified future - this is the past, present, and future of high-performance brand BMW M.

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Markus Flasch, BMW M president, with a historical 1970s BMW 530 MLE race car.

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The BMW X3 M is BMW M's new high-performance SUV. "Many of BMW's customers want to be a part of the M family, and we believe in giving them the power of choice," says Mr Flasch.

Johannesburg, South Africa

THE BMW X3 sport utility vehicle (SUV) has been in existence for 16 years, but it's taken until now for BMW to offer a full-blooded M high-performance version, the X3 M Competition.

Better late than never though, according to Markus Flasch, the president of BMW M.

As a high-performance sub-brand, it is to BMW what extra-hot peri-peri sauce is to normal chilli sauce: Hotter, more exciting, and too much for some people. That idea isn't so far fetched given the X3 M Competition has a considerable 510 horsepower, which is significantly higher than what some sports cars have.

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Mr Flasch revealed that the brand did a 'taste test' first by introducing a middle-tier performance variant, the X3 M40i, developed under the brand's mid-range M Performance label (think Nando's Medium peri-peri sauce, rather than Extra Hot) in order to gauge customer demand.

"The response surprised me," Mr Flasch said. "The X3 M40i was a massive success for us. And so we decided that there was a market for the X3 M."

Mr Flasch was speaking to The Business Times at the BMW M Festival 2019, a two-day celebration of all things BMW M, held recently at the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in Johannesburg, South Africa.

He emphasised that customers are drivers of the brand, literally and figuratively, since they play a big part in determining the future growth and direction of BMW M.

"Our customers are fans of our products. They love our cars," Mr Flasch states. "They have a very clear idea of what they want, and what an M car should be. We have to listen to what they tell us, and continue to improve our products and line-up to meet their demands."

For now, those demands seem quite straightforward: "More M in everything please."

In 2012, M began extending its portfolio by offering the M Performance line-up of cars. They have a broader appeal, packing improved performance over normal BMW models, but are still less powerful, focused, and expensive than full M cars.

As Mr Flasch's example of the X3 M40i shows, these models have been a big success and now make up the majority of BMW M's burgeoning sales. Over the past six years, the brand's sales have grown 229 per cent from 44,872 cars sold in 2014 to 102,780 cars in 2018, with an ambitious target of 140,000 units for 2019.

It aims to achieve that by bolstering its current line-up further, with a plan to release 10 new M models over the next two years. These include the next-generation M3 and M4, as well as even more accessible models like the M235i Gran Coupe, a small four-door car in a new segment for BMW.

BMW M's most dialled-back level of spice can also be found in normal BMW cars. Called M Sport variants, these have minor improvements, such as body kits and suspension tuning.

Daily practicality and German luxury

It's all a long way from M's beginnings as BMW Motorsport GmbH in 1972, as a purely motorsport-focused operation, which then gradually branched into developing high-performance versions of BMW road cars.

These cars, such as the M3 and M5 sedans, were the core of the brand's initial success, offering considerable, motorsport-derived performance with elements of daily practicality and German luxury.

BMW M was a pioneer in this regard and its success prompted BMW's rival German carmakers to follow suit - rival Mercedes-AMG only officially became part of Mercedes-Benz in 1999, while Audi's equivalent outfit, Audi Sport, started in 1983. Like BMW M, both these marques have expanded their reach with more accessible performance models, as well as factory-fitted parts and accessories in recent years.

While BMW M's high-revving past has driven it this far, what about the future?

According to Mr Flasch, electrification is an inevitable reality that the brand cannot avoid, and one that it's already planning for. Mr Flasch confirms that plug-in hybrid M cars are currently in development and set to hit the market around 2025.

Like its approach to the X3 M, BMW M may be a brand focused on speed, but it isn't in a hurry to push out electrified vehicles: "It must gel with our brand philosophy, and we won't dilute our brand essence just for the sake of keeping up with technology - we don't have to be the first, we just have to be the best," quips Mr Flasch.

For now though, its focus on expanding the menu so almost anyone can have a taste of the BMW M fast life is one that has proven its worth as a business model.

"Many of BMW's customers want to be a part of the M family, and we believe in giving them the power of choice," he states.

In the past, a focused, powerful BMW M car was out of reach if you couldn't stand the heat. Now, variety will provide varying degrees of spice to the lives of the growing number of BMW M owners.