It’s a strategic decision that will significantly alter the way it develops and sells cars, as our story on the 2012 3-series explains.
We’ve had environmental scares before. The oil crisis of the early 1970s eventually (after quite a lag) produced a few aerodynamic experiments such as the Ford Sierra and Audi 100, as well triggering Toyota’s hybrid developments and introducing a 55mph speed limit in the US.
BMW also had an early toe in the water in 1983 with the fuel-efficient 525e (e for eta – Greek for efficiency) with its lazy, torquey engine and long-striding gearing.
We had another environmental scare at the end of the 1980s (remember acid rain, leaded petrol and the hole in the ozone layer?) led by then-PM Mrs Thatcher, who made a very early speech on the perils of global warming.
This eventually led to specialist urban cars such as the Mercedes A-class, Audi A2, Smart and the 90mpg VW Lupo 3L.
The point is that all these panics faded and while the environmental influence on the auto industry left its mark, it did not fundamentally change the direction of the industry.
Cars are faster, more powerful, more luxurious and heavier than they have ever been. Only the widespread adoption of modern diesel engines has improved overall economy.
A couple of years ago, I spoke to a senior BMW employee who said the company was watching the latest environmental movement closely. ‘We want to see if it sticks this time.’
Clearly, BMW has now taken the view that it will. The company's marketing brains must also believe that it will not be regarded as a premium brand in the future if it doesn’t become overtly environmentally friendly.
But the company won’t be producing wild or revolutionary designs. BMWs, say insiders, will continue to be slick and desirable.
It’s just that your next 316 will have a three-cylinder turbo engine, some very sophisticated underfloor aerodynamics and will, eventually, see every under-skin component re-thought for the fuel-sipping future.