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BMW's new X3 overcomes Germany's cupholder disconnect

Thu, 05 Aug 2010

BMW of North America was eager to improve several parts of the X3 Sports Activity Vehicle for the new generation that goes on sale in January. Not least of those improvements were the cupholders.

Old X3: Bad cupholders. New X3: Good, Starbucks-friendly, American-style cupholders right below the center instrument panel.

The rise in BMW's U.S. sales over the past two years, even eclipsing BMW sales in the German home market, made designers and engineers back in Munich more open to incorporating quirky American preferences, said Joe Wierda, the X3 product manager at BMW.

“That didn't mean we could take over the design,” Wierda said while meeting with a small group of journalists at a Traverse City golf house during a break in the CAR Management Briefing Seminars. “But it did mean we could get good cupholders and we won't get dinged by J.D. Power for not having them.

“That was one thing I spent the past three years doing -- trying to get the guys back in Munich to understand that we've got to get the cupholders right. We sent over Big Gulp cups and big McDonald's cups and said, ‘This is really what we have to address.' ”

It's an old joke at BMW and among the European automakers in general. Sensible German and French drivers wouldn't think of leaving for the office with a sloppy 16-ounce mug of hot coffee sitting in the console of their luxury vehicle -- even if they drank coffee 16 ounces at a gulp.

BMW's U.S. subsidiary has been pressing for better cupholders in its car interiors since at least the early 1990s, but with mixed results. When the first X3 appeared in 2003, engineers begrudgingly gave customers what were essentially water-bottle holders in the door panels. It was hardly adequate for American tastes and habits.

A generation later, the X3 faces a more competitive fight among a field of new small-crossover competitors, including the Acura RDX and Infiniti EX35.

BMW wants to reassert itself in the small-crossover segment, Wierda said.

“We've made improvements all over the vehicle, including an improved ride and a larger body,” he said. “But we also got the cupholders right.”

Through July, X3 sales in the United States are up 17 percent compared with the same period a year ago, to 3,998 vehicles, while BMW division sales have risen 9 percent. The U.S. market as a whole is up 15 percent.

By Lindsay Chappell- Automotive News