Here are some sights and scenes from one wicked cool tradeshow.
LOS ANGELES — Upon learning that BMW formally entered the U.S. chauffeured transportation industry this year, and after spending some quality time with the BMW 535i Gran Turismo, my reaction resembled that of a single person who finally meets a special someone: Where have you been all this time, and what took you so long? It’s always been a mystery why BMW never entered the limousine industry years ago.
By ceding the premium luxury vehicle limo market to Mercedes-Benz, BMW stayed single-and-waiting far too long — and apparently for no good reason. Having test-driven three Mercedes-Benz chauffeured vehicles so far, I can say there is nothing that a Benz has that a BMW doesn’t. By the way, the whole Mercedes-Benz vs. BMW competition resembles one of those endless Coke vs. Pepsi-type branding arguments that will never get resolved, so don’t ask me to choose.
Better late than never
The 535i GT debuted to the industry in February with much anticipation and excitement at the 2012 International LCT Show in Las Vegas. The 535i GT and its bigger companion 750Li sedan were buzz-makers at the Show, eliciting interest from a handful of well-known operators, such as Joe Ironi of Global Alliance in Toronto.
As is often the case with people who get committed later rather than sooner, the BMW 535i GT is a vehicle comfortable in its own skin, not to mention for the chauffeured people riding in it. This newcomer, with an incentive-base price of $46,440, qualifies as a formidable competitor on two levels: With the standard workhorse chauffeured vehicles such as the Lincoln MKT Town Car and the Cadillac XTS, and with vehicles on higher levels of luxury, such as the Hyundai Equus and Mercedes-Benz sedans. And if you overlook the svelte trunk space (more about that later), the 535i GT can mingle comfortably in the same league as the premium-category vehicles.
Actually, we’ll let limousine operators decide whether the 535i GT belongs in the standard luxury sedan category, or if it should be marketed as a premium-level luxury sedan, or a mid-category in between. The advantage for the BMW 535i GT is it can have it any which way.
As is the case when finding a reliable mate, selecting someone with some depth is a good approach. Right away, the BMW lets you know that it is solid, sturdy, and will hug the road curves as long as you want it to. You feel fewer bumps, lurches and jiggles than in comparable sedans. With its sleek hatchback design, the 535i GT hints a bit at being a crossover, but once inside, feels like a sedan.
The 3.0-liter, dual overhead cam (DOHC), 24-valve, 300-hp inline 6-cylinder engine with TwinPower Turbo technology performs in three modes: Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus. Comfort mode delivers ample power and pick-up, whereas the Sport modes can easily lead to higher RPM shifts and acceleration, which is a formula for speeding tickets if you’re not paying attention. For chauffeured transportation operators, Comfort mode is fine, and frankly, the thought of a chauffeur switching to Sport mode, even when accelerating onto a freeway, would raise GPS tracking alarms; exactly what is the chauffeur doing? The Sport modes are strictly for pleasure, and if a client asks for it, by all means, push the button. Otherwise, no chauffeur needs it, but it’s nevertheless nice to know the extra power is there.
An Interior parlor
Luxury vehicle compartments are now commonly referred to as parlors or saloons. That means it has a vista roof, black leather and wood-trim interior, partially reclining rear seats, ample headroom, and abundant legroom with the right front seat pitched all the way forward. The interior appeal of the BMW evokes images of Wall-Street-Journal reading corporate clients, or better yet, fashion models being ferried to Manhattan photo shoots. As measured by LCT, the rear seat legroom can accommodate a tall executive or a lithe model just the same. From the top edge of the rear seat to the back of the right front seat pitched all the way forward is 19-inches. From the bottom edge of the rear seat at floor level to the lowest edge of the right front seat pitched forward is 22.5 inches. And getting in and out of the rear seat is effortless, as the BMW stands at the right height for clients who must relax the back.
Trunk & transmission
As much as we idealize the perfect mate, we all know there is no such person. The same applies to luxury vehicles, so choosing one is a matter of finding one with flaws that you can live with as opposed to flaws that can drive you crazy. The 535i GT has an economical trunk compartment when both back seats are up. You can push down one of the split rear seats to create more space, but as any luxury client would tell you, such an arrangement would unduly penetrate the parlor, or sully the saloon. Based on LCT measurements, the trunk is 41-in. wide at its narrowest, 53-in. at its widest point, and has a height of 19-in. Bottom line: The trunk can handle a corporate client with a complete luggage set just fine OR two clients who know how to pack lightly. As to two clients heading to a golf resort with luggage, clubs, laptops and carry-ons, well, you’ll need to fold down a seat or find another vehicle.
As to the transmission, I did say BMW stayed single a bit too long when courting the limo industry. And as longtime singles know, you do develop some quirky tics or mannerisms over time. The transmission is a bit puzzling: You have to press an unlock button with your thumb while pushing the shift stick FORWARD to go into reverse. Meanwhile, if you want to manually shift among the eight gears while going up and down hills, you have to push FORWARD for a lower gear; and pull BACKWARD for a higher gear. That’s the opposite of every car I’ve ever driven, and a source of confusion as I unwittingly roared the engine a few times while shifting. I believe you should not have to consult a manual to operate a transmission. So a memo to auto manufacturers: Please stick to the universal and traditional vertically designed, front-to-back “P-R-N-D-3-2-1” shift configurations with a side slot for manual shifts where you PULL BACK (downshift) for lower gears and PUSH UP for higher gears. Got that? Back = Low, Up = High.
So the question is, are the trunk and transmission quirks relationship killers? No. Just make sure the chauffeurs get some practice before driving the BMW 535i GT and the clients are business/corporate travelers with airline-regulation luggage.
And that brings us to the big picture-point of the BMW 535i GT being in the luxury transportation market: It is a brand that has positive associations with the younger half of consumers and creates a mobile luxury experience. In the limousine industry, transportation is not just a matter of four wheels taking people from point A to point B. Brand, quality, aesthetics and comfort experiences define the essence of limo service. BMW already started building a solid, positive luxury brand in the 1980s when the vehicles became associated with yuppies and elite, smart consumers. To be driving a BMW on my college campus in the late 1980s meant you were the bomb. One operator detected an excited ripple among his chauffeurs and clients at the mere mention of adding BMWs to his fleet. There is a reason for that: BMW confers sophistication and savvy out of its German engineering legacy. In an ever-shifting chauffeured fleet market, standing out and up with distinct flair carries a lot of cachet.
BMW 535i GT Facts
4-year/50,000 miles includes free maintenance for all factory-recommended maintenance and specific items requiring replacement due to normal wear and tear for the first 4 years or 50,000 mi., whichever comes first; BMW also offers a Maintenance Program Upgrade for $2,495 covering all BMW 5 Series GT models (MY 2012) for up to 6 years/100,000 miles, whichever comes first.
Note: Actual price for operators will vary depending on package options, also priced at wholesale
Operating Cost & Profit Estimates: BMW 535i GT
What would be the estimated operating costs? How many runs would you need to make in a month to earn a 10% profit after expenses? How much revenue would the vehicle have to bring in? To answer such questions, LCT asked Dan Goff and Barry Gross of A. Goff Transportation in Virginia to estimates costs and revenues using their customized cost calculator. The live calculator is available at www.agofflimo.com/affiliate.
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