What's the typical Mitsubishi driver look like? How about the Mazda owner or Oldsmobile buyer? What does the Ford brand stand for? Or how about Buick or Volkswagen?

Those are tough questions to answer.

Not so with BMW.

Most everybody seems to have a definite notion of who BMW buyers are - affluent Baby Boomers who wear their cars like Rolex watches and Armani suits, but also express a passion for driving.

That crystal clear image is what puts BMW among the most coveted automotive brands in the world.

It's nothing money and time can't buy, but to establish BMW's kind of brand equity takes an awful lot of both. And there are no guarantees of success. Does anyone remember Ford's Merkur line, Rover's Sterling?

That lack of sure-fired formula is why Lexus is a hit, Infiniti and Acura less so. It's why Peugeot, Fiat and Renault had to exit the U.S. market and Lincoln Mercury had to leave town just to find itself. It's what's behind General Motors Corp.'s mobilization of an army of brand experts, charged with sorting out which of its divisions stand for what, and communicating that to consumers.

It's also why carmakers - in this era of anything-goes mega mergers like Daimler-Benz AG and Chrysler Corp. or Renault SA and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. - keep showing up at BMW's door, cash in hand, like so many unwanted real estate agents, hoping to acquire the Quandt family's hottest property.

"It's the quintessential sports sedan," Jay C. Houghton, automotive marketing manager for AT Kearney Inc. says of the BMW brand image. "It's carved out a niche in our hearts and minds. It's a symbol of wealth, power, athleticism. Even if BMW stopped advertising or it had a major product mistake, these feelings wouldn't stop."

Karl Ludvigsen, an American who runs a U.K.-based consulting firm, says a lot of companies are envious of BMW's stature. "BMW is an object lesson on how to build brand," he says. "All my clients want to be like BMW."

Henrich Heitmann, member of BMW's board of management in charge of worldwide sales, sums it up this way: "We concentrate on products that reflect preciously the core values of the brand. Everybody who sees our product understands that it is a BMW."

But all of the recently renewed interest in whether BMW could be had for a price - rumors that the automaker is on the block seem to surface every half-dozen years or so - is a sign not all is right in Bavaria. A surprising, and surprisingly messy, ouster of Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder in February heightened speculation that BMW could be put in play.

At the center of it all is the boardroom battle, brought about, sources say, when the Quandt family, who control 45% of BMW stock, lost patience with Mr. Pischetsrieder's velvet-glove approach to the problems at Rover, estimated to have run some $1 billion in the red in 1998. BMW acquired the British automaker in 1994. "You can only promise a turnaround is at hand so many times," says one industry observer. "It got to the point the Quandts didn't want to hear it anymore."

Says an executive of one supplier, "The board expected (Mr. Pischetsrieder) to go in as the German conqueror of the Britons" and quickly correct Rover.

Although a spokesman for the Quandts insists the ouster of Mr. Pischetsrieder and subsequent naming of former engineering and production head Joachim Milberg, 56, as his successor was done in an orderly fashion, it is clear Wolfgang Reitzle, not Mr. Milberg, was the supervisory board's first choice. Mr. Reitzle (see sidebar, p.29), who headed up product development and marketing, was known for much harsher views on Rover. Although he reportedly had come to the conclusion it was too late to shut down the British car operations, Mr. Reitzle still was viewed as a threat to Rover's survival. That perception ultimately led to his resignation, as German labor unions - likely at the prompting of their U.K. brethren - refused to back his nomination for Mr. Pischetsrieder's job.

Whether BMW's purchase of Rover for $1.2 billion was a good move in the first place remains up for debate. BMW clearly saw the Rover acquisition as a quick answer to archrival Mercedes-Benz's movement into the sport/utility market with the M-Class and foray down-market with the A-Class and Smart. Both automakers believed they needed to broaden their lineups and production volumes, but BMW was reluctant to do that using its own brand, fearing the marque would be tarnished by the addition of trucks and cheaper cars.

Sources say Daimler-Benz AG had the first crack at acquiring Rover and passed after taking a closer look. But BMW, feeling the competitive heat, succumbed - an unusual move for a company revered for following its own path.

"BMW is one of the most independent thinkers (in the industry)," says Mr. Ludvigsen. "They think for themselves, then press ahead. I don't think they did that with Rover."

Many industry insiders agree that size will matter in the future. To survive, BMW needs at least the 1 million-plus unit volume its tie-up with Rover provides, they say. "It's all about economies of scale, affording new technologies and who can carry fixed costs best," says Michael Robinet, managing director for CSM Forecasting.

But some observers contend Rover, which has seen its market share hit record lows in its U.K. backyard, was never the best strategic fit in that regard.

"The industrial logic of Rover was zero," Mr. Ludvigsen says. "It offered no opportunity to improve the economies of scale for either Rover or BMW. Rover is front drive, BMW rear drive. It was pretty obvious from the beginning."

But BMW's Mr. Heitmann contends volume is overrated. "I don't know why we should merge," he says. "We have the right size. We have what is called the critical mass to generate sufficient profits and cash flow in order to invest in assets and R&D. And we can act much, much faster and more precisely than the huge conglomerates."

Philippe Houchois, European auto analyst for Standard & Poor's DRI, agrees with Mr. Heitmann. "The hype about global volume, that you need 2 million units, is overrated," he says.

But besides the Rover controversy (see sidebar, p.32), there may be other chinks in the BMW armor. Since his departure, some critics have pointed the finger at Mr. Pischetsrieder, credited with pushing BMW's bold move into U.S. manufacturing with its South Carolina plant and upcoming foray into the truck/car crossover market with the new X5, for being too conservative when it came to revamping BMW's existing product line.

"BMW is largely a 4-door sedan company, and they are not participating in the growing segments such as the (Renault) Scenic-type cars and true sports cars and coupes," says Mr. Houchois. The new

3-series, he adds, "looks just like the one two generations ago."

Problems aside, there still would be no shortage of carmakers lining up to bid on BMW, if the Quandts were to decide to cash out.

Overall, BMW remains healthy. Although profits have been hurt by Rover, the automaker posted record revenues last year. BMW brand car sales hit an all-time high of 699,400 units worldwide in 1998, a year that also saw record motorcycle deliveries of about 60,000 units. Land Rover had its best showing for the sixth straight year, with sales up 20% to 153,500 vehicles.

In addition, BMW's audience demographics read like the Holy Grail of the auto industry.

In the U.S., the mean household income across the BMW line is $163,000, ranging from $140,000 for 3-series buyers to $260,000 on the 7-series. And the automaker has weathered an anti-Yuppie backlash from the 1980s to make it OK for the well-heeled to own BMWs once again.

The mean age of its mostly male buyers is 46 across the line, ranging from about 43 for the 3-series to just 51 for the top-of-the-line 7-series. As Joseph S. Phillippi, senior vice president at Lehman Brothers Inc., points out, "You've got millions of baby boomers turning 50 every year for the next two decades. More and more of them are coming through the pipeline. BMW, even more so than Mercedes, tends to appeal to younger baby boomers."

BMW's sales in the U.S., its second largest market, also are concentrated in regions - California, the Northeast and South - where Detroit automakers have struggled. BMW sold 25,291 cars in California last year, more than twice Lincoln's sales and about 56% more than Cadillac's, registration data from The Polk Co. reveal.

The Bavarian carmaker also is among leading importers in Japan, a tough market for any outsider to crack. That, too, observers say, is a tribute to the company's consistent brand message worldwide.

"The beauty is that BMW's brand image - status and driving pleasure - is the same position around the world," says Mr. Houchois. That actually helps give BMW better economies of scale than appear at first glance, because its cars are the same no matter where they are sold, he says.

"Everybody wants BMW's brand equity," says AT Kearney's Mr. Houghton. "They want to milk it, they want it to rub off on their other products."

And besides the brand, BMW has other assets. Its engineering heritage is considered second to none. "BMW has a sense of passion when it comes to technology," says an executive at one large U.S. supplier. "Everything is well thought out and they end up with a well thought out piece of machinery."

And the company does have a strategy for moving into mass markets, even though it denies repeated press speculation it will launch a new 2-series entry level model. BMW executives still feel Mercedes lost some of its luster with its A-Class and Smart, and they don't want to risk that happening with their marque.

"There's no question you lose position if you go downward," says one brand management consultant. "It's clear BMW won't do what Mercedes did with the A-Class."

Says CSM's Mr. Robinet, "If Mercedes had its druthers, it probably would not have slapped its name on the A-Class."

What is now more likely is a whole new line of entry level cars under the Mini brand. A new Rover Mini is due in 2000, and it appears BMW will treat the car as the beginnings of a fourth marque, selling Mini-badged vehicles in BMW dealerships. In fact, BMW's proposal to the U.K. government for aid in revamping its troubled Longbridge plant reportedly calls for output of 700,000-plus vehicles annually, including 200/400 replacements, a sport/utility, a multipurpose vehicle and several niche products, some of which presumably could be badged Minis. The 700,000 total does not include the capacity for 150,000 Minis and 20,000 MGF sports cars also planned for Longbridge.

Also in the BMW portfolio is the Rolls-Royce brand, which Volkswagen AG will turn over to BMW in four years. BMW already has a new Rolls model under development in house for launch in 2003.

Does all that make BMW more or less of a takeover target?

Either way, not too many carmakers could afford the ticket to a BMW auction. Wall Street analysts say it is difficult to peg a price, but industry estimates range as high as $30 billion or more.

"It (would be) huge," says Mr. Houghton.

That narrows the potential field of suitors down to a handful, analysts say. GM has access to that kind of money, as would Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Volkswagen. Fiat SpA, which went after AB Volvo's car operations, would like BMW, as well, but it may be too big a bite for the Italian carmaker. And Honda Motor Co. Ltd., perhaps lacking the financial wherewithal for such an acquisition, is seen by many as being a good strategic fit with BMW just the same.

"A VW/BMW combination would be fire and gasoline," says David E. Cole, head of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "I think it would be easier now for a non-European or non-German company. The most natural would be BMW and Honda."

But others say the Japanese have to be considered long shots, having shown an aversion to acquisitions so far.

GM certainly could benefit from acquiring BMW, says Mr. Phillippi. However, such a move "would shake the place to the core," certainly offending Cadillac partisans, he adds.

Ford also could be a nice fit, combining BMW and Rolls with Lincoln, Jaguar, Volvo and Aston Martin to create a luxury car powerhouse, while melding Land Rover into its already strong truck operations. "If I were Bill Ford Jr., I'd take a hard look at (buying BMW)," says Heinz Prechter, chairman of supplier ASC. "It would be a natural."

While a potentially volatile partner, in the end a sale to VW could be more palatable to the Quandts than putting BMW into foreign hands, other analysts contend.

"The owners and managers want nothing more than to survive as an independent car company," says Mr. Ludvigsen. "They (certainly) don't want to be the first German carmaker to sell to foreigners since Opel."

But all this conjecture about who has the resources to buy BMW and what they would do when they got it likely is moot. BMW executives and the Quandts, themselves, insist the carmaker is not for sale.

"The Quandt family couldn't make any better money than with BMW," says Mr. Heitmann.

A spokesman for the Quandts points out the company went through a similar period in the 1960s when industry pundits were predicting BMW wouldn't survive into the next decade on its own. Herbert Quandt decided then that the company would "find its own way," he says. "And it's been very successful. There have been very good results."

Besides that, German newspapers are speculating the Quandts may be reluctant to sell because of new tax laws under consideration by the Schroeder administration.

What the Quandts and BMW are likely to do is stay the course. Sources say Eberhard von Kuenheim, now chairman of the company's advisory board and hand-picked by Herbert Quandt to run the company back in 1970 (see sidebar, p.30), will be relied on to make sure the ship is righted before his scheduled retirement at the end of May.

As for the Quandts, they probably won't take a more active role in managing the company, insiders say.

"They have no intention of being more involved in the BMW business," says Mr. Heitmann.

In the meantime, the company will focus on launching a spate of new products - in addition to the Rovers and Minis, BMW plans a new Z8 roadster due in the market in 2000, a possible 6-series coupe and potential successor to the 8-series coupe in 2002-03 - while fending off unwanted media speculation and acquisition overtures from other automakers.

"Rumors about a conceivable takeover we hear time and again are absolutely meaningless. BMW's very strength lies in its independence," sums up a defiant Mr. Milberg. - with David C. Smith, Andrea Wielgat and Drew Winter.