The creation of new mobility services and predictions of how people will use vehicles in the future has meant that traditional legacy vehicle manufacturers are being forced to re-evaluate how they run their businesses in a bid to stay popular and profitable. The industry has seen a number of collaborations that may have seemed unlikely some years ago—platform sharing between Ford and Volkswagen, for example. The eventual shift away from pure internal combustion engine power has left some OEMs pondering how to move forward, but not so quickly that they lose their core customer base.

One such company that has looked to address this conundrum is BMW. A group that produces everything from a Mini Cooper to a Rolls-Royce Phantom will always have challenges, but when it also includes items as emotive as the products that fall under the M brand, the approach to the future needs to be carefully considered.

At the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show, a few people were given the first opportunity to see and find out more about the Vision M Next concept car—a two-seat petrol hybrid that looked into the future of design and driving. 

"We realize that cars are becoming more and more intelligent all the time, but to ensure a BMW is still a BMW we have to inject driving pleasure for the occupants,” explained Domagoj Dukec, overall head of design, BMW, and formally head of BMW i and BMW M brand design. “With our concept cars, we look to define two overall approaches to driving: Ease and Boost. The Vision i Next was designed around the Ease experience, looking at autonomous driving in a relaxed and comfortable environment, but this car is different. The M Next is more Boost, and it gives you more control over the vehicle, maintaining that interface between human and machine.”

Described as a “progressive” plug-in hybrid, the M Next is powered by batteries, electric motor, and a four-cylinder petrol engine that creates a combined output of 600 hp (447 kW) and a 0 to 62 mph (100 km/h) time of 3 s. Dukec says it was never the company’s intention to go with full electric power in an M car, aware of its potential drawbacks in such an application.

“Connected driving and future mobility is important, but Klaus Frölich [BMW’s Director of Development] wanted to make sure that every BMW was all about performance,” he explained. “At the moment, the amount of batteries that would be needed for an M car would make it far too heavy. You might get the same range, but not the performance. We want to ensure we still offer sporty driving, which is why a plug-in hybrid works. We truly believe in the i8, with the range and zero emissions that it offers. But everything missing in the i8, from a performance perspective, this car can do.”

He confirmed that the range of the concept car is 100 km (62 mi) in all-electric mode, but given the performance on offer, that figure could be difficult to achieve for a lot of drivers! 

It is challenges such as that range that makes Dukec and his BMW colleagues slightly wary of committing to pure EV power too soon—especially with the M brand. Frölich has stated there have been no calls for long-range BMW BEVs from Europe because of cost and performance. As a result, hybrids seem to be the company’s main aim.

“It used to be necessary to make diesel exciting, but plug-ins are now much more relevant and are filling that role,” Dukec added. “We made the decision to go with plug-in hybrids because we still don't really know when EVs will dominate the market, and we wanted the car to have some relevance now, even though it is a concept for the future. No one will ever complain that our M cars are not fast enough, but M was never about competing with other manufacturers about horsepower. We’ve always said that BMW’s M products were designed to be the best balanced sports sedans on the market, and that won’t change.”

So there is clearly enough power on tap with the standard configuration, but the addition of Boost+ Mode at the touch of a button adds some extra performance should the driver desire it. More choice comes from the drivetrain as drivers can choose from electric all-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive using all-electric or hybrid power. It’s progressive from BMW, and Dukec realizes the role the company has to play as it moves forwards to compete not only with its traditional rivals, but also new entrants to the market.

“We need to think like a startup and deliver like a grownup,” he said. “We have to think like this because customers are less tolerant when we make mistakes because we are an established vehicle manufacturer. [With] the likes of Tesla, people will allow mistakes because they are learning and growing as businesses. It’s a very different situation for us. We want to be responsible for future generations. We have a cultural responsibility, and we have to deliver on intellectual value.”

Inside the car, there is a striking contrast between the i Next and M Next. While the former was designed to offer a light and pleasant “lounge” feel, the M is uncharacteristically dark and minimalistic, confirmed Dukec.

“Having very little to look at in the cabin means that you can concentrate and focus on the road, not your immediate surroundings,” he explained. “There are only three main elements to the interior components—the steering wheel, the instrument panel, and the head-up display. It is set up for performance driving, and when you get in, everything moves to you and adjusts to your own comfort.”

This adjustment all comes from the aforementioned elements moving towards the one-piece fixed seats that have been constructed with memory foam for extra comfort. A BMW logo in the center of the steering wheel doubles as the start/stop button and has fingerprint detection so that the car knows exactly who is sitting in the driver’s seat. It then adapts the interior to their specific requirements.

The message from BMW is clear, that hybrid will be its way forward in order to keep the core customers happy. There will be advances in powertrain and power delivery, but the Munich-based manufacturer is happy to create its own path has absolutely no plans to make an autonomous M car.

“A lot of the ideas integrated on this car will be used on future M cars, but the focus for them will always remain on maximum driver interaction,” said Dukec.