In the future, Mr. Robertson says, what makes a "premium" car will be equated with technology. "The number of cylinders will not be irrelevant," he says. "But we are moving toward that."

To survive in this new world, he says, BMW must build more small models without breaking the bank. Purists won't like it, but that means sharing the front-wheel-drive systems of future Mini models with future subcompact BMW models.

Auto enthusiasts—including many automotive designers and engineering executives, as well as wealthy car buyers—generally prefer cars to have the driving wheels in the back. It makes a difference in the way a car handles and steers. That difference is instantly recognizable but hard to define.

Rear-wheel drive may not even be that important for some of BMW's new customers. BMW had a survey that found 80% of the customers for the BMW compact 1 series, which in Europe is sold mainly with four-cylinder engines, didn't know it was a rear-wheel drive car.

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80% Of Customers Who Bought A BMW 1-Series Didn't Know It Was RWD. Does It REALLY MATTER Which End Drives?

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