Last month we dropped in on the BMW Club of America’s annual O’Fest gathering, which took place this year at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Making a special appearance on the Friday of the nearly week-long event was Dr. Kay Segler, the man in charge of BMW’s M division worldwide. He showed up at O’Fest bearing a gift of sorts — a sneak peak of the 1 Series M prototype vehicle, the real deal. He also came to see firsthand the enthusiasm that surrounds BMW in America, particularly its M cars in what is their largest single market in the world.
Dr. Kay, as he’s often been referred, is a veteran of BMW, having worked in management there for more than two decades. He came to the M division last spring after heading up the company’s export business. Segler is perhaps best known to the world of Mini enthusiasts, where he served as the brand manager in the early years of its revival.
While we were at Road America, we sat down with Dr. Segler to discuss the M brand and where it’s going. In the rolling office inside a Rahal-Letterman Racing trailer, we discovered that he is surprisingly laid-back and casual (especially for a German executive) and possesses a genuine passion for cars. Throughout our discussion, his eyes beamed and a genuine smile spread across his face whenever he talked about the upcoming 1 M coupe and the next M5. Here is what he had to say:
KM- We’re here today at Road America with the BMW Club for Oktoberfest. All around us are M cars of every variety. Tell us what the M brand means to BMW.
Dr. K- For me it’s the pinnacle of BMW. In one way or another, you don’t need to make a compromise. The cars are a little more costly, so we can use technologies that sometimes come only later into series production, like the use of carbon fiber in our M3. Therefore, it’s the pinnacle of sportiness for BMW.
As you know, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for M cars, especially in the United States. It’s our biggest market [for M models] by far. So this event is like home territory for us.
KM- How has M evolved since the first M3 hit the streets a quarter-century ago?
Dr. K- It’s interesting when you dive into the history. The first M car, the M1, was a race car. It wasn’t built as a road car. The road car was necessary [for homologation] only because there was a race. And that is still a philosophy we are still basically following from a mental perspective.
Other companies that are competing [with M] use the tuning aspect. They start with a regular car and add 50, 60, 100, maybe 200 horsepower. That’s a totally different approach to building a car. I think we have a totally different philosophy than anyone else.
What is getting clearer and clearer now is that we are working on this two-car-in-one approach. With the switch of a button you can choose to have a sports car. Otherwise you simply have a very comfortable, very balanced car, as we have already with the X6 M and X5 M. With the new M5, which will come toward the end of next year, we’ll have a very similar car. This is part of the evolution.
In the future, CO2 will become more important. Therefore the new M5 will reduce CO2 emissions by 20 to 25 percent. So that’s a good contribution, I would say. Not bad. So I think we fit into the times.
KM- So the M cars are becoming better dual-purpose cars? Better as road cars?
Dr. K- Yes. And I don’t see a real competitor. Sure, there is a lot competition around. But a lot of our competition comes from pure sports cars, which only get used on the weekends. But cars need to be used daily; it’s best for them. That’s our target.
KM- What current M model would you say best exemplifies the M brand?
Dr. K- The purest way is always to look at the M3. The M3 GTS is the pinnacle — I would say, “M Pure.” Unfortunately we can’t bring it to the United States. Perhaps some of our American customers will have friends in Europe with an M3 GTS that they can drive on the Nurburgring. But this is the purest M vehicle that we have.
KM- We’re here at one of the largest BMW enthusiast events in the country. How important are M enthusiasts to the BMW brand overall?
Dr. K- More and more all the time. Take for example the M3 GTS. There are over six billion people on the planet, and we’re building 150 of these cars. That’s less than one M3 GTS for every 125,000,000 people. It’s easier to win the lottery than to own this car. Marketing to a “lottery winner,” you cannot use standard methods.
So how does it work nowadays? With social networks and word of mouth. Conventional advertising would not really work for such a vehicle. The GTS is an extreme example, but it’s true for other sports car and performance brands. So we need the enthusiasts, because they are doing a better job of communicating than we could ever do with pure advertising.
KM- Tell us about the importance of motorsport as the M brand continues to evolve.
Dr. K- As you know, we have two divisions. Mario Theissen is doing a great job on track with his [ETCC] team and we are very proud that we could win the 24-hour race at the Nurburgring, and of course [the Rahal-Letterman Racing team] won here at Road America. So they are responsible for driving our beautiful cars on the racetracks. And we are basically offering products on the road.
You see the link — the very clear link, especially within the last year — to the roadgoing M3. The basis of the race cars is the production M3. So it’s a very close cooperation.
KM- How do vehicles like the X6 M and X5 M relate to motorsports activity?
Dr. K- There is no race series for these cars, but we test them on the Nurburgring with the same set of criteria as all our M cars. My personal car is an X6 M, and you can handle that car on the ‘Ring and you are very safe with it. So that’s the link to motorsports.
Otherwise, we use them as safety cars at Moto GP and other races.
KM- How will future technologies and legislative demands shape the next generation of M cars?
Dr. K- Yes, as I mentioned, CO2 will definitely be important. Also, pedestrian safety. I would say this has already had a tremendous effect on the shapes of cars, as well as weight. Legislators sometimes don’t realize they create conflicts. On the one hand they say, “Your cars are too heavy,” and then they write new legislation that automatically adds weight. And cost for the customer.
KM- Will these new demands draw an end to the horsepower escalation? Are we going to start seeing a leveling in horsepower and a reduction in weights?
Dr. K- No, I don’t think this will happen. We know we have to reduce CO2 emissions, and we will. The horsepower race, as you call it, is specifically important in the US market, where customers still look simply into the amount of horsepower they got with their car.
I always explain that there are three phases to driving: acceleration, braking and the in-between. And the in-between is 95 percent of the time. That’s the handling phase. To just add horsepower to get a better 0-to-60 time, it doesn’t give the same thrill to the customer. So we won’t participate in a race where we have to say, “Ok, we’ll add 30 horsepower because you added 30 horsepower.”
Customers already know that driving an M seduces you to drive on and on and on. There are some cars with maybe 200 horsepower more, but they sit in the garage because they aren’t fun to drive in-between. So why bother?
KM- How can you make the M brand more accessible to younger and perhaps less affluent enthusiasts?
Dr. K- By introducing the new BMW 1 M coupe. This is a car, and I can’t show you anymore that we have right now, that automatically appeals to younger people. M has always been a dream of younger people, whether they could afford to buy it or not. I want to make very clear that this is our intent, to offer an M car for them.
KM- And how much of a pure M car will this 1 M be?
Dr. K- It will be an M car. Period. Again, think about the three sequences of driving. The handling is the most important part.
KM- So would you say it’s a very chassis-oriented car?
Dr. K- I would not decline that. It incorporates everything M stands for.
KM- We’re seeing a lot of spy photos and hearing a lot of talk about the next M5. How will that car continue the M5 tradition?
Dr. K- It will take the two-cars-in-one approach. The fact that you have really a great day-to-day car, but at the push of an M button you have a race car. This is very clearly the direction for this vehicle.
When you develop a race car, for instance, you don’t look back and say, “OK, how do I develop that car into another one?” You simply ask what you would like to achieve, and you build that car. Period. It’s a different way of approaching it.
We had very clear targets, and we worked toward those targets. Twenty to twenty-five percent less CO2 output, day-to-day car and a pure sports car in one, and a beautiful design as well.
KM- Is it safe to say it will be the most efficient M5 ever?
Dr. K- Yes. Yeah, absolutely. Additionally, what we found with the last M5 was that the US got short-changed a little with the acceleration, because the car was so much fun at highly illegal speeds because of such low speed limits. So the next generation will offer a more linear contribution to fun, from the moment you roll onto the accelerator until you take it to whatever limit you set.
And it’s a beautiful car, I tell you. Wild car! I test drive it whenever possible.
KM- How imperative is it that every BMW model line receives an M variant?
Dr. K- It’s not. There are manufacturers that apply their performance brand to every model line. We only do a car when we are convinced it will be a true M car.
On the SAVs, there was always a vision. From the beginning we thought, “Can there be something like an M version for these models?” There was a high performance X5 already, the 4.8is. Very powerful. The braking was OK, but the in-between was not. Also, the engine was not responsive in the right way. It was just powerful. No one felt it needed an M badge. Only through new technology were we able to build an X5 M. Not just because we could sell them. Only then was it released.
KM- You told us already that you drive an X6 M. Have you owned any M cars personally?
Dr. K- Well, I’ve been with BMW for 22 years now, so I’ve always driven company cars. The two personal cars I own are both Minis, which my boys have taken away from me.
KM- What is your favorite M car of all time?
Dr. K- Well, it’s between the E30 M3, because it was so pure, and the new M3 GTS. They’re very different cars, but both are very honest cars. I like honest cars.