Back in the day, many auto makers offered single marques in a profusion of body styles, sometimes offering multiple distinct versions of a single type. Take has an example the 1956 Chevrolet. Even excluding trim levels (150, 210, Bel Air), the brand mainstay was available in nine distinct body styles – including both pillared and pillar-less two-doors. This variety demonstrated a brand that was reading the market and willing to go to great lengths to ensure they had a product to meet just about anyone’s needs- within a certain price range. Today, most car makers achieve this through not a single model, but a wide range of them.
Consider now Chevy’s current analogue to that ’50s family of family cars, the Impala, which comes in… one 4-door sedan body style. Now the Impala is a nice car, I mean seriously the new one is leaps and bounds better than the last, rental-only version, but it’s kind of a one size better darn-well fit all offering. The last time that Chevy offered multiple models on the mid-sizer was back in the ’90s when the Lumina offered a choice of two- or four-door sedans. Even by then the idea of giving buyers a choice of convertible or wagon wasn’t even a consideration. In fact if you needed the extra capacity of a longroof, your only options by then – and now – were to go with an SUV.
Other mainstream manufacturers have followed suit. Ford sells four and five door versions of the Focus, but the wagon, sport coupe and (in Europe) drop top editions have all been Escorted to the pages of history. And Chrysler, well just a few years ago they brought both a sedan and a wagon for their big-car offerings, but you needed to choose between a Chrysler and a Dodge if you wanted one over the other. That’s a far cry from the ’80s when a K-car could be had with 2 or 4 doors, a wagon, or even a convertible top, all under one model name.
Why has this freedom of choice become so much less… well, free? Cost for one thing. It takes a lot of dough-ray-me to design and – more importantly certify for safety and emissions – any new car and the fewer versions you have the better your margins will be. Then there’s the market research, the focus groups and surveys, that drive corporate decision making.
And what you might ask does this have to do with BMW and their beloved 3-Series? Well, right now, with the impending introduction of the 2-door 4-series still waiting in the wings, BMW’s most popular car is also its most bounteous. Right now the 3-series is available in 4-door sedan, 2-door coupe, 2-door convertible, 5-door wagon, and – in some markets – a 5-door hatchback, the GT. That’s five different and distinct body styles, making the 3-series, at least as far as I can tell, the largest single model family currently being sold in the U.S. of A. Pretty much all other contenders have fallen by the wayside.
Close contenders include the Mercedes E-class which may still be had in 2-door coupe, 4-door sedan, wagon and convertible, and of all things, the Cadillac CTS which until the wagon goes by-by (Oops, probably shouldn’t have said that), can be had in three different body styles. While the expensive brands continue to offer this level of choice, the cheap seats have pretty much given up on the ides. Consider that in 1982 Toyota offered the Corolla in 5 body styles – 4-door, 2-door, sport back, lift back and wagon. Today, the company gives you but one Corolla from which to choose.
Now soon BMW will split their model naming convention, creating the 4-series family of 2-doors and convertibles and leaving the 3s to soldier on with 4 or more. Sure, right now the body styles for the new 4-door and old coupe/convertibles aren’t the same, but they’re not all that different. And while that model diversification with splitting the models by door count may make the positioning of each model more accurate, at the same time it’s kind of sad to have the choices within a single family go away. This is the reason that I come here today not to bury the 3, but to praise it, in all its freedom-affording forms.