Far from ‘just another show car’ the BMW CS represents no less than the next stage of the German marque’s design direction. Unveiled at the Shanghai auto show, the four-door Gran Turismo ‘concept study’ may pave the way for a new niche range-topper for the brand – it is longer than the 7-series, but lower and with a long 3.1 metre wheelbase – but it is more important for the new design features it showcases that could make production on future BMWs of all shapes and sizes soon.

The much wider kidney grille – tilting slightly forward to give a referential doff of the cap to previous ‘shark nose’ models – the highly distinctive broken side feature line emphasising the rear wheel arch, the low, wide and long proportions and an all-new softer ‘layer design concept’ interior could all make the cut. As BMW cars’ design boss Adrian van Hooydonk puts it: “In this concept car you see the sum total of all our thoughts, craft and dreams.”

But does it mean that Chris Bangle’s highly controversial ‘flame-surfacing’ design direction – typified by the unusual panel ‘cuts’ in the side of the Z4 roadster and manifested in concave and convex surfacing on almost every car in BMW’s range from the 1- to the 7-series – is over? Not completely, is the simple answer, as Bangle is still overseeing things as design director of the BMW group and current BMW cars design boss van Hooydonk was heavily involved in the previous phase.

Hooydonk explains the link, “ten years ago in our ‘big breakaway’ we sort of reintroduced sculpture to vehicles when other carmakers were introducing design that was more flat-sided. What we are showing here is sporty as well as elegant too.”
There are still some concave and convex elements on the CS, particularly around the front snout, but the whole ensemble is more subtle, less sharp and brutal.

Van Hooydonk expands on BMW’s new sculptural approach: “We’re always concerned with the stance of a vehicle. We want to emphasise the wheels and you can do that by sculpting the exterior towards them – the way the shoulder develops into the wheel arches. Classically that is called the ‘coke bottle shape’, there’s nothing wrong with that if it is executed well. A lot of car companies still use add-on wheel arches and then filler in between. We are able to connect all the surfaces and still get light where we want it. We don’t want this car just to look heavy. It has to have lightness too – which is the whole philosophy behind our ‘efficient dynamics’ – use as much power as you need and try and be efficient with it. That means reducing weight and with our design we can emphasise that.”

Another crucial change in the new CS is the interior. Although the Bangle-era marked a revolution on the exterior front, the interiors – bar the 7-series and the irksome i-Drive controller – featured little change. The CS banishes the brutal, dark and sometimes awkward plastics of previous cars. Instead there is a fresh, modern interior made up of simple forms clad in light shades of leather and aluminium framed by a warm dark brown leather-covered dash and door tops.

There is a also a new metallic metal mesh material where wood might normally go – which due to its string-like quality gives a good sense of the planes it covers, like someone doing a graphic drawing with pencil shading.

Nadya Arnaout, the CS concept interior designer expands, “it’s very descriptive of the surface. It’s similar to a fabric made with metal wires but a bit firmer. As far as we know it’s not been used in an automotive application yet, but it would be realistic to use.”

The cockpit is still driver-oriented to be consistent with BMW’s driver-led brand values but the whole affair is less overtly masculine.

Van Hooydonk explains: “The CS shows how elegant and modern an interior we can do. It is warm too. These are things that could fit our brand. But we’re not using any wood for example. We still use wood in other cars, but in this concept we wanted to make a statement about modernity without this classic material.”

The centre stack and flow-through transmission tunnel separating four full seats along with other design elements show what BMW is calling its new ‘layer design concept’. The effect is to make a focus of the joints and seams to house hidden ambient lighting effects and also ventilation – there are no conventional air vents on the dash for example. It also gives a beneficial optical lightness too as Arnaout articulates: “Wherever the dark leather is separated from the white leather we have a larger gap than usual to give a more lightweight feel. If the surfaces are separate they look like they are floating.”

The layering idea is echoed in the instrumentation where various functions and items of information are presented on different optical levels and creates a neat three-dimensional effect. Along with leather seat back ‘collars’ that can be folded up for privacy and to reflect sound back to your ears, or down to be more sociable, the CS unveils a host of original future interior ideas which along with the more elegant exterior could be on BMWs you can buy, very soon.

As ‘Mr flame-surface’ himself, design director of BMW group, Chris Bangle, temptingly puts it: “The CS answers questions of where BMW is going next, not 15 years downstream. It’s much closer to where we are with other products. It’s very much a real concept.”

Guy Bird

See also: SHANGHAI SHOW: BMW shows luxury Gran Turismo design study