Several weeks ago, my jaw dropped. It wasn’t because University President Mary Sue Coleman finally returned my calls — she still hasn’t. It wasn’t because I walked into my dorm room to find its dankness had subsided — it still smells like sweat, feet and sweaty feet (girls are into that, right?). And it wasn’t because I inexplicably lost control of my jaw muscles — that was yesterday.
No, it was because of a post on an automotive blog. Mid-March, Autoblog posted pictures of a BMW M3 pickup lapping the Nürburgring, the infamous German track. For auto industry junkies, this was nothing less than epic. It’s not every day that you see a 414-horsepower mini-pickup. General Motors nearly got there with the Pontiac G8 ST and an inevitable high-powered GXP variant. Unfortunately for the six Americans who would have purchased such an awesome — and awesomely pointless — toy, Pontiac couldn’t make the case for the niche model in the face of bankruptcy and restructuring.
In my nerdy excited state, I didn’t see the M3 pickup for what it was: a weirdly early and expensive April Fools prank pulled by the apparently jolly Bavarians at BMW. At first I was embarrassed I fell for it, but then I rationalized my gullibility and decided to write a viewpoint about it.
The automotive landscape is changing, even apart from alternative power sources and fuels. Automakers are increasingly taking design risks and exploring new shapes that defy categorization. So even though it differed greatly from anything BMW has produced, an M3 pickup — or any new model for that matter — isn’t off the table, just like Ross and Rachel hooking up in that one episode in which they realize it’s never off the table.
BMW and Audi, especially, have had a recent penchant for filling every niche possible, so much so that they’re running out of nomenclature. Along with sedans and crossovers in every market segment, BMW attempted to create a new segment with the 5 Series Gran Turismo, an innovative sedan/crossover hybrid. Though it’s uglier, more expensive and less spacious than a 5 Series station wagon, it demonstrates BMW’s awareness that consumers have diverse needs and aren’t tied to standards. It appears to be working. While BMW works on smaller variations of the Gran Turismo, other German automakers are readying their rivals.
BMW also recently announced a new environmentally friendly sub-brand, i. The company is already receiving criticism for it’s decidedly “un-BMW” designs. A break from the norm, however, is exactly what BMW needs to adapt to an increasingly changing consumer base. It’s exploring, and even if it fails, isn’t an effort to innovate better than standing still?
A surprising leader in the unconventional auto trend is Nissan, which appears to be taking cues from Renault, its radical French partner. This is most apparent in the Murano CrossCabriolet, which recently went on sale. Nissan took its Murano CUV, got rid of two doors and chopped off the roof. The result: the first-ever production convertible crossover. The CrossCabriolet is too heavy, underpowered and expensive and certainly can’t be described as beautiful — but it’s nonetheless awesome.
These Nissans and BMWs are not models that are intended to fly out of dealerships at record pace. They are successful attempts to humanize automakers. They demonstrate that there is still a sense of whim in the auto industry — after all, cars are supposed to be fun. BMW made the M3 pickup to prove it had a sense of humor. In the 80s and 90s, automotive designs became boring. With new machinery to produce and revenue to invest, automakers are starting to manufacture cars that excite people and change their perception of what a car is. So far, it’s mostly foreign automakers challenging conventions — Honda, Kia and even Ferrari come to mind. The Big Three, especially Chrysler, must begin to take more design risks.
Most importantly, this newfound exploratory attitude is a sign that automakers aren’t settling to build machines that take us from point A to point B. They are reasserting that cars are sculptures that we live our lives in, and art is never finished. They’re keeping me glued to my computer, anxiously watching to see what’s coming next.
Andrew Weiner is an assistant editorial page editor.