BMW Continues to Break Free from Brand Nostalgia with the Concept XM

Earlier this week, billionaires, rappers, art dealers, and everyone in between descended on Miami for Art Basel. BMW got in on the action too, unveiling the BMW Concept XM inside a striking concrete Herzog & de Meuron-designed parking garage. It was an appropriate location to reveal the plug-in hybrid SUV that’s not only the second standalone M vehicle BMW has ever produced (the legendary M1 supercar debuted back in the late ‘70s), but the most powerful, marrying a V8 engine with a high-performance electric motor that’s good for 750 hp. But beyond the high-performance specs — this is an M car, after all — it’s the Concept XM’s chiseled, angular exterior (and ultra-swanky interior) that has tongues wagging.

While some carmakers continue to opt for sweeping sinuous curves, the one-off Concept XM looks as though it’s been roughly carved out of a block of stone, with endless sharp lines and hard edges faceting its exterior. There’s no way around it: the Concept XM cuts an imposing silhouette and pushes BMW’s recent design language (read: striking, perhaps polarizing) even further.

BMW Concept XM gallery

While BMW has never been shy about embracing new design directions (just look to the Chris Bangle-era, where purists criticized the brand’s designs only to watch them age remarkably well), the BMW Concept XM isn’t an effort to invent a whole new design language, but rather an attempt to push the brand’s take on luxury and performance in a more expressive direction. “This is the first standalone M vehicle since the legendary 1, and we tried to do everything possible to reinterpret all BMW design elements, so we are not inventing them but basically reinterpreting them — and it really starts with the face,” says Hussein Al-Attar, creative director of the BMW-owned, California-based Designworks.

Keeping pace with the front end of recent models, the BMW Concept XM’s face is certainly eye-catching. It’s defined by octagonal kidney grilles of M-style double bars, highlighted by illuminated surrounds and dove-ended with split headlights (something BMW says we can expect to see more of in the future). From the side, the Concept XM’s heavily contoured profile continues, with an elongated hood and sloping roofline that gives the car a sporty, coupe-like shape. Blocky wheel arches housing hulking 23-inch wheels keep the car looking planted, and pair of razor-thin LED taillights grace the rear. “Here, we have a very different interpretation of the rear lights. Normally, we have this L shape; now it’s turned around,” says Al-Attar. “There are things that seem like sacred elements for BMW that [people] love to reference whenever we change something, like ‘Oh, BMW lost their way’. No, they’re still there. We’re just reinterpreting them. And with this car, we tried to go a little bit further.”

BMW Concept XM in post

As a hybrid SUV, the BMW Concept XM may appear to be only a distant cousin to the M1 supercar, but the design team has also made some subtle stylistic references to its predecessor, starting with a high-gloss black line that divides the car’s two-tone exterior. It’s a reference to the black stripe that ran across the M1’s side. In the rear, two laser-etched BMW roundels also nod to M, along with quad exhausts, which — now updated in a hexagonal shape — keep tune with the Concept XM’s love for sharp edges.

The Concept XM’s attention-grabbing appearance makes sense when speaking to Al-Attar, who explains that the team at BMW often choose a single term to ground the design process, something that engineers and designers can always reference to see if they’re on track. For the Concept XM, that term was “rockstar”. “That was something that we really tried to emphasize from the beginning: how do you interpret the idea of a rockstar into a car? What car would a rockstar drive?” says Al-Attar.

This is most evident in the car’s interior, where there’s a clear demarcation between front and rear seats. While the driver’s cockpit is kitted with vintage-look leather and surfaces made of carbon fibre interwoven with copper — this mix of materials is said to bridge luxury and motorsport — the rear seats are entirely different: an aquamarine, diamond-quilted velvet bench that’s hidden behind black-tinted windows. “[The car] has the M genes: it’s super fast, very performance-oriented, and it’s got the electrified element — but the backseats are a whole different story,” says Al-Attar.

Especially striking is the headliner, a three-dimensional prism structure highlighted by a combination of indirect and direct lighting. “When you sit in there and you see that headliner and the way the seats integrate into the doors, it’s a very different feeling. It’s all taking hints from people who are rockstars — taking hints from their lifestyles, taking hints from the spaces they’re in,” says Al-Attar. Namely, this is a car design for people who like to drive but like to be driven too.

BMW Concept XM gallery

Now, the question remains: just how many of these details will get whittled down when the XM goes into production late next year at BMW’s Spartanburg, South Carolina facility? Not many, says BMW. This is pretty well the exact same car they showed the board four years ago, and BMW’s brass has insisted on keeping the production car especially similar to the concept. “There are obviously a couple of details that will be different — of course, a concept car and production car have different requirements — but if you don’t have them next to each other, you’ll think that it’s the same car,” says Al-Attar.

Fans of BMW have been clamouring for another standalone M vehicle for ages, and while the Concept XM might not be exactly what they expected, playing it safe isn’t exactly BMW’s bread and butter. The Concept XM is undoubtedly bold in appearance, but for Al-Attar and the design team, it’s not an abandonment of the brand’s past design language, but instead an effort to push it forward. “Everything we’ve done here is much more expressive than what we do with our normal portfolio, but it’s all reinterpreted elements that we have already. We’re not starting completely from scratch, because we still want it to be recognizable as a BMW,” says Al-Attar. “[With the Concept XM], we’re just trying to dial it up to 11 everywhere.”

Learn more about the BMW Concept XM here.