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The BMW i3 Concept is projected to be launched as a product vehicle in 2013. It features a 125-kW electric motor and rear-drive. The vehicle seats four and thanks in large part to extensive carbon fiber body work, weighs just 2,750 lb. (Remember: given the weight of batteries, electric vehicles tend to be much heavier than conventionally powered cars.)

Adrian van Hooydonk has been in charge of BMW design since 2009. “I never have trouble finding enough designers to work on a car. There are no boring BMWs. All of our cars are exciting to drive, exciting to design.”

Six generations of the BMW 3 Series. Speaking of the design of the new 3, van Hooydonk says, “The front end dives down a lot more aggressively than even on a 5 Series. On the side view you can see the elegance of the new design. The roofline is more fluid than on the previous car. The main feature lines on the body side are finer—and there are two of them, on the previous there was one. The lines move up toward the rear so they have some wedge, so there is forward movement. Because they are so finely chiseled, they are very elegant and an expression of precision.”

Adrian van Hooydonk on Design

Not only must the head of BMW design keep the tradition alive for the main brand, Adrian van Hooydonk is also tasked with creating mobility for the future, as represented by the new i sub-brand—to say nothing of helping drive forward MINI and Rolls-Royce design.

Given the controversial run of his predecessor at BMW Group Design, you might think that Adrian van Hooydonk would be eclipsed by Chris Bangle. But van Hooydonk, who has been with BMW for 20 years (“It sounds like a long time, even to me”), has more than carved out his own identity as senior vice president for Group Design in 2009, though he acknowledges that there is an on-going tradition at BMW: “In the time that I’ve been there, BMW developed a design language that we’re still working with today that says that each of our cars will be highly recognizable as a BMW but will also have a clear identity of its own. You can distinguish a 3 from a 5 from a 7, even in the rearview mirror. This is something that we’ve fared well by because it offers our customers a real choice. And when you offer customers a choice, you can find more of them and grow the company.”

This expansion of BMW in the market has taken a number of forms. On a macro level, there has been the acquisition of both MINI and Rolls-Royce, about which van Hooydonk says, “They are two very strong brands in heritage, but at the time we acquired them, not very strong in the market. Yet 10 years later, both British brands have been revived, you could say, in an authentic way. People see the heritage, still, in the new MINI, but MINI has been able to find a lot of customers that didn’t know about the car. That’s tricky to do, not easy, because if you do retro design, you find the people who loved the old car. And then, eventually, it is going to be over.”

He adds, “Rolls-Royce has done the same thing, in a segment that is so far above the clouds you can’t see how big it is or is going to be. Year after year it has done better and better, and some competitors have completely fallen away. Rolls-Royce is a profitable business for us.”

And on a more micro level, BMW brand has expanded its offerings, with vehicles including the X1, X3, X5, and X6. Van Hooydonk says that in some ways BMW has become a “niche creator.”

“In the last couple of years BMW has continued to strengthen the M brand and set up a completely new sub brand, BMW i. Which stands for ‘intelligence’ and ‘innovation.’ In short, for the new mobility that is around the corner. This is something that as a designer I’ve been involved in in some way or form. In the last two years I’ve been responsible for all of it. So I think when you sum it up, BMW has come from being a small Bavarian niche manufacturer to a global company, a multibrand company with very distinct brands.” One of his challenges: “Keeping these brands separate.” And he admits, “All of this stuff keeps me quite busy—and well entertained.”

Two of the biggest undertakings of van Hooydonk and his colleagues of late are the new, sixth generation BMW 3 Series, the car that is certainly definitional of the brand in the global market. And the second is the forthcoming i Series of cars, which on the one hand must be reflective of the BMW visual identity while at the same time have a new appearance. Speaking of the i, van Hooydonk says, “Both from the drive train technology and the body-in-white construction technology—it’s actually body-in-black, because it is carbon fiber—and everything that has to do with this brand is new. It is a clean-sheet approach. So for a designer it means you are completely free. And I think we’ve used this freedom. We want to draw attention that this new mobility is there and that it will be emotionally attractive, emotionally appealing, and not just on the rational side.” In other words, even a highly technical, energy-efficient car can evoke desire. Still, there are some heritage cues, like the kidney-shaped grille, which, he points out, is closed, not an air intake, as this is an electric vehicle. “We put it there because it offers instant recognizability and the aura of perfection and quality that belongs to BMW. There are some sharp lines on the i vehicles, like on most BMWs, that communicates precision. All of the surfaces are very clean and aerodynamics play a bigger role in the design of the i vehicles than the others.”

Still, there is the need for distinctiveness for this new approach to what a BMW is: “There are some elements that relate back to BMW core brand but all executed in a different way. 80% of the design of the i vehicles was clean sheet, completely new. There are no elements, no buttons, carried over from the normal car.”

So the challenge is to telegraph two messages simultaneously: this is a BMW but this is something new and different. “What it requires—and this is normal in any design project—is that when you design an i product you have to get your head around the kind of customers we are going to be talking to, the complete philosophy of the brand, how the electric car is going to perform, and what is different in the technology. The design that we do needs to be authentic. The design expresses a lot of what lies underneath. Our customers won’t read all the literature we provide. The design has to explain this vehicle is light, clean in terms of emissions, and has good quality.”

But then there is the 3 Series. While there are, arguably, more confining parameters for the car that is probably the most aspirational sport sedan in the world (what other car indicates to the world that you’ve “arrived” than the 3 Series?), van Hooydonk says, “We did as many sketches for the new 3 as we did for an i3.” As one car continues the tradition and one car is intended to create a new tradition, “As a design problem you could say they are of the same magnitude.”

Van Hooydonk says that in developing the new 3 Series they conducted a design competition. “We don’t have a rule book that I force the designers to read. There are no real dos and don’ts. I ask them to be aware of our history. They have to know the 3 Series. The previous generations. Then do the one to take us to the next decade.”

While the new 3 is most certainly a 3, van Hooydonk says, “If you see the previous and new one next to each other you’ll find we’ve managed to increase the elegance and the sportiness, which is not easy to do because they sometimes contradict. It is easier to do a car more sporty or more elegant; it is not easy to increase both. But I think we’ve managed that.”

Van Hooydonk gives credit for what they are accomplishing to the BMW engineers, as well. “Our engineers are really, really good compared to the competition. For a designer this means once your design gets chosen, you have a very, very good chance of seeing it come to production just like they imagined it because our engineers make it possible.”

“I’ve loved my job at BMW since day one,” van Hooydonk says. And that passion is clearly manifest in the products that he and his colleagues have brought and are bringing to market.