Opinion: Sign me up to BMW’s new options subscription plan

by James Mills
14 July 2022 4 min read
Opinion: Sign me up to BMW’s new options subscription plan
Photo: BMW

Why are car enthusiasts getting their undergarments in a twist about BMW?

If you hadn’t heard, the German carmaker has introduced subscriptions to certain options for some of its cars. These subscriptions could be for one month, a year, three years or (check the small print, folks!) the lifetime of the vehicle. They include features such as heated seats or steering wheel, automatic high beam headlights, active driving aids, maps, and, of course, music partnerships with Deezer or Napster.

The reaction across social media and in forums has been one of anger. How very dare BMW! How did they sneak this one through without anyone noticing? What are we all going to do about it? And how many more clicks can I gain on my social channels by being vocal about it?

Some of the more bitchy blogging sites are even calling for a boycott of buying a new BMW.

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That seems ironic, when you consider half of their audience have come of age playing Fortnite and FIFA, games that – in the case of Fortnite: Battle Royale – are free-to-play and have amassed approximately 400 million registered players, while FIFA can count around 10 million active players for its 2022 game. Both platforms make eye-watering sums of money from players making in-game purchases and buying bundle packs – effectively the car options of the gaming industry.

These are the next generation of customer for the carmakers. They have only known the subscription economy, even if it’s been in tech circles longer than they’ll appreciate. Hands up who remembers Radio Rentals, RentaSet, Thorn Television Rentals and Multi-Broadcast?

BMW, needless to say, has never been one to shy away from money-making opportunities. From the moment the 3-Series arrived in the mid ‘70s, the company set about decimating Ford and Vauxhall’s dominance of the company car market (even if, in those early days, you had to pay extra for nearly everything). And more recently, the arrival of the X5 for the new millennium saw it embrace and satisfy consumer thirst for SUVs.

Along the way, it, like every other car manufacturer, has become something of a glorified bank, hooking consumers on a heady cocktail of the new car ownership experience fuelled by never-ending years of finance.

Now, as it rethinks car manufacturing for the electric vehicle age, it would appear to be streamlining the way it makes its cars. Presumably, it’s betting that it can make more money by fitting the most popular options to cars, and making drivers subscribe to use them or buy them outright, than it can by charging for the cost of the option at the time the car’s ordered, and then fitting those options during the manufacturing stage. It’s hard to imagine the complexity behind such just-in-time manufacturing.

This is what’s angered the bloggers, vloggers and podcasters. Who in their right mind would pay £15 a month to have heated front seats, £10 a month for a toasted steering wheel and £35 a month for active driver aids, they cry?

Those aren’t the only options you can choose to activate, through the My BMW app or BMW Connected Drive, from day one, day 100 or, for the next buyer of the car, from their day one (or later) of ownership. You can subscribe for updates on the latest positions of safety cameras, film the hills of the Dales or gridlock of the M25 using Drive Recorder, activate piped-in engine sounds, get updated nav maps or take on a servicing subscription.

BMW Connected Drive

But guess what? At the risk of incurring the wrath of fellow petrolheads, I think it’s a good idea.

My 12-year old old Mercedes E-Class estate has a navigation system with maps that appear to be no more accurate that the hand-drawn, antique map hanging in one of our loos at home. Being able to update that over the airwaves, rather than visit a Mercedes dealer, would get my money. If I wanted our newly-qualified daughter to drive our year-old BMW i3, and the car had the necessary hardware fitted, I’d take advantage of the three-month free trial and add Driving Assistant Plus, so there was the guardian angel of adaptive speed, lane and distance control watching over her while she was driving. And knowing where the speed cameras were, while making brisk progress to this year’s Le Mans Classic, would have been helpful for yours truly, as there’s nothing worse than being escorted to Le Cashpoint by the gendarmes, to have your bank account emptied.

What the angry mob don’t tell you is you can also pay for a year, three years or the lifetime of the vehicle, if you prefer. But that doesn’t make for such a good headline when you want to question the sanity of anyone paying £15 a month for heated seats, and conveniently ignore that, hell, someone actually might want a warm bum for only the coldest month of the year.

And let’s not forgot how difficult it can be to buy a used car with the exact spec you’ve arrived at in too many hours browsing reviews and classifieds sites online your dreams. Being able to add or switch on features later in a car’s life, either because the previous keeper didn’t opt for it at the time or their subscription has expired, would be helpful, surely?

The fact of life is the subscription economy is extending to everything, from TV streaming to music, health apps to gaming, shaving kits to ready-to-make meals.

Just because it’s arrived in the car industry doesn’t mean we should all stop buying cars. (And let’s face it, this is small beer compared to the way BMW’s design direction has veered.) If you don’t like it, don’t subscribe. But if you change your mind later, well, you know what you can do.

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  • Jonny Pollard says:

    I get the idea of a fee for example, to update the Sat Nav (although Google Maps via Android Auto is free and constantly updated). But monthly payments for hardware options, ie heated seats etc? No, no, no!!

  • V says:

    It’s worth remembering, they tried this with CarPlay. BMW was billing 80/month for it. The revolt is, if the hardware is a part of the car, then it was paid for at purchase. billing for it after the fact strains the meaning of the word “ownership”.

    • James Mills says:

      Few drivers of new cars actually own them, though. The banks/finance companies do, right?

  • Arthur Heaton says:

    I thought indicators were already an option on BMWs.

  • Todd Allison says:

    Could you get a refund by turning off the Driver “Assistance” Systems

  • Mandrake says:

    Sorry James but disagree. If you have paid £30k, £50k, £70k for a car, the least they can do is switch on the facilities that are already built into the car and can be provided to the customer at no additional cost to the manufacturer.

    • James Mills says:

      But at the point of ordering the new car, Jeremy, the options can be bought for the lifetime of the car – just as they could before. This new approach means, if the first owner doesn’t choose that option, any subsequent buyer gets the chance to have it activated. More expensive trim levels will still come with those options as standard.


    Even if these options are fitted during the manufacturing process, you can rest assured that even if you’ve not ‘opted’ for them, you’ll still be paying for them?
    As you mentioned James, it’s another BMW money making scheme to make the manufacturing process easier by building every option in the car in the first place, charging more for the car initially with the options already fitted, then more to be activated.
    As for a second or any subsequent owner having options activated, I would suggest that might not be that straight forward in that you may perhaps have to take the car to a BMW dealer for a software update?
    Sorry, but I’m not in favour of this approach as I consider it to be a potential waste. There could be a lot of cars running around with options fitted that are not being used.
    In this day and age, shouldn’t we be more thoughtful toward the environment and not potentially waste a load of materials fitted to car that are possibly not going to be used!

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