When it comes to the automotive world, the words of Bob Dylan seem more relevant than ever: The times, they are a-changin’. Technology is making cars more capable every year. With major transitions afoot in electric powertrains, automation and connectivity, technology is set to redefine our relationship with the automobile. Change — and the prospect of more change to come — are forcing auto manufacturers to react boldly. Many established automotive truisms will cease to be true. Here are five we can already cast aside.
1. A “True” BMW Has Rear-Wheel Drive and a Manual Transmission
Picture the platonic ideal of a BMW: a powerful, sporty sedan tuned for driving. It has a manual gearbox and rear-wheel drive, with pinpoint-accurate steering. It’s “the ultimate driving machine,” as BMW itself used to say.
Even if you brush aside the “sport activity vehicles” that make up a huge chunk of its sales, that’s no longer BMW’s identity. The redesigned 3 Series has an option for a 10.25-inch touchscreen. but it doesn’t offer a manual transmission. The latest version of the M5 sedan continues to be a missile, but it too ditched the manual transmission (and converted to all-wheel-drive.) The 2020 Alpina B7, the world’s fastest sedan, also has AWD and an automatic. BMW has even been dabbling with front-wheel-drive.
Each move makes sense. These BMWs will perform better. They will be easier to drive. They will be what most luxury buyers want. But ultimate driving pleasure and ultimate performance are not the same, and it seems clear that BMW is placing a greater emphasis on the latter.
2. SUVs Are Slow and Boring to Drive
Crossovers have a poor reputation among car enthusiasts, one that’s not entirely undeserved. They have been slow. They have handled worse than a lower-slung car would. Their styling has left something to be desired. In sum, crossovers were boring.
That won’t be the case moving forward. As crossovers have become a main profit center for luxury automakers, more effort has gone into them. They now offer better styling, sportier handling — and, judging from recent releases, a ton of power.
BMW brought out full M-car versions of the X3 and X4 for the 2020 model year, with Competition variants of the X3 M and X4 M offering more than 500 hp. Land Rover has a pricey new edition of the Range Rover Velar with a 542-hp supercharged V8 that will reach 60mph in 4.3 seconds. Audi has an RS version of the Q3 coming with more than 400 hp. Chevy resurrected the Blazer as a “surprisingly sporty” crossover. Even the new three-row Ford Explorer has a 400-plus horsepower ST version to pair with the Edge ST launched the previous year.
Yes, you can still buy a robust, hulking, body-on-frame Mercedes G-Class. But even that car — redone for the 2019 model year — has an AMG G63 version with 577 hp that will propel the SUV from 0-60 mph in four seconds or less.
3. Volkswagen Only Makes Small Cars
The Golf is the car that defined Volkswagen’s brand. It’s practical. It’s affordable. It’s fun. There may be no better entry-level car on sale today. The Golf remains a bestseller in Europe, but Americans just don’t want to buy it anymore.
Base Golf sales in the U.S. declined 51 percent year-over-year in 2018, fewer than the outgoing Beetle Coupe. Sales for the entire Golf family fell 39 percent. Meanwhile, Volkswagen SUV sales more than doubled in the U.S. in 2018. VW cars went from outselling SUVs 3-1 to being about even in one year. When VW recently unveiled its three-prong strategy for American domination, the three prongs were the Tiguan, the Atlas and the Jetta. In America, at least, Volkswagen is all about the stylish SUV business.
Some of the Golf’s decline may be model fatigue. The current generation debuted in the 2012 model year, and the new generation will come out in 2020. Still, it’s hard to ignore the Volkswagen paradigm shift.
4. The Internal Combustion Truck Will Be Dominant Forever
Last year, GM’s vice president of global strategy predicted gasoline trucks would be the company’s core business for decades to come. That statement already looks shortsighted. Electric alternatives are coming: Rivian looks poised to disrupt the high-end luxe-truck market with the 400-plus-mile range, supercar-speedy off-road beast called the R1T; Tesla has a truck coming out later this year; and GM’s chief competitor Ford has announced it will come out with an EV F-150.
We seem to be hitting the wall for how efficient a full-sized gasoline truck can be. Chevy tried introducing a four-pot turbo Silverado, but EPA fuel efficiency figures disappointed. In real life testing, it was less efficient on the highway than GM’s 5.3-liter V8. Whatever an engine’s displacement, it has to burn a lot of gas to move a heavy load.
Full-sized pickups remain the best-selling, most profitable vehicles in the U.S. But gas only seems likely to get more expensive, while battery technology will cheapen. There will be a point where gas engines mean paying a premium for an inferior product, which means the truck conversion to EVs may come sooner than we thought.
5. The Car Is Your Personal Quiet Space Away From the World
Driving once meant digital disconnection. Text and emails had to wait; ads could not reach the cockpit. Driving was a time for quiet contemplation, belting out Eagles songs you secretly love and picking your nose without scrutiny.
Then Apple CarPlay and Android Auto pierced the inner sanctum. Tech firms stressing “connectivity” plan to take things much further. Automakers can’t release a new vehicle without a touchscreen. Actually, touching the screen is now passé; your new vehicle will be listening to you so you can yell at the screen, and watching your every move so you can control it with gestures. It will have some form of home assistant like Amazon Alexa permitting you to shop — and, most importantly, continue producing a stream of metadata. Think you can ignore all these digital additions? Here’s a 48-inch digital display stretching the length of the dashboard.
None of this is meant to enhance driving. It’s preparation for when you’re not operating the vehicle — both the times you’re outside of it, and the future where you might not be driving at all. The automobile may still offer you some alone time, but your car and tech companies are starting to know what you’re up to.