4 April 2005

BMW has embarked on a radical new model programme that includes both a dramatic coupé/off-roader and a versatile crossover vehicle. The two new cars, described by BMW chairman Helmut Panke as ‘totally different to anything BMW has ever offered in the past’, are currently at an early stage of development and should land in UK showrooms in just over three years.

Created to propel BMW into two emerging market segments, the high-riding SAC (Sport Activity Coupé) and multi-faceted SFC (Space Functional Crossover) are proof that BMW is looking beyond its traditional models in order to meet its goal of 1.6 million annual sales by the end of the decade, up from the record 1.21 million sales in 2004.

SAC coupé/off-roader

Spearheading BMW’s new model push – if more in image than production numbers – is the extravagant SAC, a car Panke describes as a mixture of sports car, coupé and off-roader. Inspired by the controversial X-Coupé from 2001’s Detroit Motor Show (see gallery), it combines the high seating position and raised ground clearance of an off-roader with the sleek shape of a coupé. At 4700mm long, the SAC is marginally shorter than the 6-series, but wider and considerably higher.

Although described as a coupé, the new BMW has been designed around a sleek four-door bodyshell, mirroring key rival Mercedes-Benz’s CLS, albeit with a much tougher off-road-oriented look.

Autocar’s computer-generated image shows the design direction BMW is considering, although the final look is far from signed off. The Germans remain undecided on whether to plump for conventional rear doors or a more complicated and costly rear-hinged layout.

The SAC will offer the sumptuous interior expected from a car with a £48,000 starting price and Panke is clear on the layout. ‘It is not a two-plus-two in the traditional sense,’ he said. ‘It is a four-seater with boot space.’

It sits on specially adapted underpinnings from the second-generation X5 due late next year, but with a rear-biased four-wheel-drive system. However, BMW remains undecided on whether to fit steel springs or make air suspension standard across the range. Although it increases the cost, air suspension adds the ability to alter the ride height at the touch of a button.

Powerplants under consideration include Munich’s excellent 258bhp 3.0-litre six-cylinder and the recently upgraded 306bhp 4.0-litre and 367bhp 4.8-litre V8 petrol engines, along with BMW’s 3.0-litre six-cylinder common-rail diesel in both single- and twin-turbocharged guises.

The big surprise is plans for an M-division version running the M5’s 500bhp 5.0-litre V10. Despite a kerbweight of around 2000kg, it should be good for 0-62mph in 5.5sec and a limited top speed of 155mph. Key rivals are more conventional performance saloons such as the Maserati Quattroporte, Mercedes CLS and upcoming Porsche Panamera.

Panke is bullish on projected volumes, suggesting up to 50,000 is possible. However, he hopes for more in the long run. ‘The X5 has shown six-figure numbers are possible,’ he said.

SFC crossover

Less dramatic than the four-wheel-drive SAC but every bit as important to BMW’s future model plans is a versatile crossover vehicle known internally as the SFC. To be positioned between the 5- and 7-series with a starting price around £40,000, BMW hopes the high-roof vehicle will blur the lines between the traditional estate and off-roaders.

As with the SAC, a major part of the SFC’s appeal lies in its raised seating position, designed to provide occupants with a commanding view of the road. Details remain sketchy, but BMW is said to be considering two different interior formats: a standard five-seat layout and an optional seven-seat arrangement. Despite this, BMW declines to call its new crossover an MPV. ‘We intend to bring the typical BMW driving experience to a whole new market segment,’ said Panke. ‘It will also offer new levels of functionality for a BMW.’

Munich’s answer to the Mercedes-Benz R-class and the controversial Jaguar crossover rides on a combination of components from the 5-, 6- and 7-series. Suspension will be by MacPherson struts at the front and multi-links at the rear.

Standard models will come with steel springs, rear-wheel drive and speed-sensitive steering, according to a highly-placed source. Buyers looking for added comfort, traction and manoeuvrability will also be able to choose air springs, four-wheel drive and variable-ratio Active Steering among a long list of optional equipment.

BMW has already focused a lot of the new car’s early testing on lowering the critical centre of gravity to ensure high levels of roadholding. Among the developments being studied is carbonfibre within the upper sections of the bodyshell to keep weight down.

It’s too early to tell exactly what engines the SFC will be available with, but expect a similar strategy to the SAC with a combination of six- and eight-cylinder petrol and diesel units. Also planned is a zero-emission hydrogen variant although, like the earlier 745h, this is likely to remain solely on BMW’s internal fleet as an image booster.

Volume predictions remain secret, but Autocar’s sources suggest a figure of 80,000 may be within reach if the current signs of growth and demand for this market continue. BMW expects some SFC owners to come from models such as the 5-series Touring and X3, though Panke’s goal is to grab sales from Audi, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and VW.

‘We want to attract buyers that we haven’t in the past. The whole market is changing and we are convinced there is sufficient sales potential,’ he said.

Still, if recent rumours are to be believed, the SFC isn’t the only crossover set to figure in BMW’s future line-up. A smaller five-door model based on the cheaper 1- and 3-series underpinnings, and powered by four- and six-cylinder engines, is also under development as a rival to the upcoming Mercedes-Benz B-class.

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