BMW’s cousins over at Rolls-Royce have a term that they like to use when describing their most luxurious options for customization: bespokeAt the Rolls-Royce level, there are quite a few elements of a car that can be given the bespoke treatment. These range from the benign (exterior paint matched to the color of your favorite smoking jacket) to the opulent (diamond-encrusted dashboard trim, as you do) to the personal (having the aptly-named Starlight headliner modified to reflect the orientation of the stars on the day you were born, should you wish). There’s even the downright outrageous, like a limited-run series of Drophead Phantoms for you and four of the other finest families at the Monaco Yacht Club.

But what about us mere mortals? What do we have in the BMW factory portfolio to suit our most personal tastes? Is it worth sparing no expense on a vehicle that’s not a million-dollar Phantom—or even an M car, for that matter? These are the questions that my partner and I pondered as we began to explore the new-car market this summer.

As you might imagine, we weren’t the only ones considering the idea of owning our first new car this year. Buyers have had a historic amount of time on their hands, and with leisure travel still limited, families have been eyeing new cars as never before. Still, it’s a poor time for members of the new demographic to explore automakers’ configurators en masse, because chip shortages and shipping delays have ravaged the already resource-dependent supply of new vehicles.

And it’s an even worse time to consider custom-ordered specifications.

But in our case, the idea of shopping for a new car meant competing with the tastes of the past, and we’ve always shied away from gray-scale BMWs. There was a pair of Topaz Blue and Boston Green E39 530i sedans from the early 2000s, up through our current 1970s themes, an Arctic Blue 635CSi and a Ruby Red 733i. Even the one “plain” specification, a Space Grey BMW 328i Touring, was underlined by a vibrant Fox Red interior.

A study in pastel: the 1979 BMW 733i in Rubinrot (Ruby Red).

Naturally, compared to these options, modern offerings seem a bit tame. Sure, much of the current BMW lineup is offered in the location-relevant Vermont Bronze, but what if you want to go more bespoke? Is it still possible to build a one-of-one vehicle that doesn’t break the bank?

BMW of North America provides a good jumping-off point. We’ve all been there: Dive into the configurator via the BMW USA website, dial up some base models, and start building. But this time, in keeping things budget-oriented, we noticed a couple of interesting things while building the most value-oriented model available: the 228i Gran Coupé. While colors are limited in the American design program, and don’t include the crown jewel of personalization (the BMW Individual catalog), BMW is generous enough to supply some vibrant optional hues like Snapper Rocks Metallic, seen below.

A lot of visuals for the money, even if the drivetrain isn’t the most potent.

Paired with an Oyster White interior, it’s a fun combination, and the price pushes $42,000 thus equipped, with just the paint, wheels, and heated seats. While I was sad to see that I couldn’t pair the CS-style M Sport seats with the base engine, I was also relieved to find that BMW still offers a moonroof delete, saving $1,000 and offering the rigidity (and rarity) of a slicktop.

Still, BMW USA’s configurator, while useful, doesn’t necessarily push the limits of customization; chances are that somebody (or several somebodies) out there will have the same slicktop 228i as you. It’s time to switch gears—literally, in this case—and see what’s available through the original personalization legend: Mini.

For those who used it, the old-school Mini configurator is one of those charming memories from the early Internet that sticks with you forever, like Adobe Flash games or that video of a screaming gopher. It was a game of sorts, trying to build the most expensive, excessive, and bespoke R53 Mini Cooper S possible, and I was curious to see whether the modern version retained any of the charm.

Unsurprisingly, the Mini configurator runs on the same framework as its BMW USA counterpart. No, there aren’t pages upon pages of checkerboard mirror caps and JCW bumper-trim pieces this time, but I’m happy to report that even in near-base-model form, the Mini configurator offers you a fair amount of personalization.

If only changing out all my cars’ headliners for darker material was this easy.

For the Mini Cooper S Hardtop configured below, I was able to include the finest seats (Malt Brown Chesterfield leather), select a contrasting roof and mirror color, swap the blinding-white headliner for black at no cost, delete the moonroof, add roof rails, drop in a Harmon-Kardon audio system, and retain the manual transmission, all for just shy of $34,000. For a $4,000 premium, they’ll even include the funky technicolor roof panel, making your build that much more… um… bespoke. Not bad for a near-base-model build.

Elegant, inoffensive, and timeless.

Still, despite a lovely green for the exterior, I found the color palette to be a touch limited. What if you want to go really wild? What if I want a 2 Series that drips with the same elegant color palette as my 1979 BMW 733i? That would mean turning to BMW Individual, and their excellent product visualizer.

We’re big fans of the visualizer here at BimmerLife, but instead of turning it up to eleven, I wanted to turn it down—as low as it would go, in fact, beginning with base-model 2 and 3 Series sedans.

Green with silver wheels: a timeless combination.

In the hands of the configurator, the 2 Series Gran Coupé (in this case a 220i) becomes a wildly different animal. Finished in a tasteful Verdant Green Pearl, with plenty of sidewall thanks to seventeen-inch Style 546 wheels, the 220i Gran Coupé becomes an elegant sedan inside and out. You can even include those fantastic heavily-bolstered M Sport seats that the American configurator reserved for the M235i—albeit only in Black or Oyster leather. Green over tan is cool, but the M Sport seats are cooler.

Those bolsters signify a pair of superb seats.

The visualizer hits its stride, however, with the 3 Series. Among the dozens of color options was Ruby Red—not the same tone as my Seven, perhaps, but close enough to justify matching the rest of the car throughout the build. After fitting some M-inspired wheels, the visualizer opens up interior customization, turning this base-model 320i into a bed of luxury, with extended leather across every touchable surface, even more so than in the old 7 Series. Add some wood to the console to match the classic model, and you end up with a 320i that I would have no issue keeping forever, parked in the garage alongside its vintage inspiration.

The 7 Series doesn’t even have this much leather!

But as always, there’s a catch, and it’s not just the cost of covering those interior surfaces in leather. For the time being, these high-level BMW Individual versions of entry-level cars remain exclusive to rest-of-world markets. While we have some choices in the U.S., the truly bespoke BMWs—the cars that would make us want to keep them forever—remain a foreign temptation.

Okay, so it’s a little flashier than the 733i. But if you’re going to keep a car long-term, it might as well look good.

So, in the end, were the American options enough to sway us toward either BMW or Mini? As Geddy Lee said, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” As the new-car market soared higher and hotter, we put off our search, at least for the next few months.

In the meantime, we found something that would trump even the most ferocious production-number obsessive: A couple of weeks ago we tracked down a 2011 Saab 9-5 Aero, complete with the turbocharged V6 and AWD, in a lovely Java Brown—not a special order, necessarily, but rare enough that only a handful of other examples exist in our year, trim, and color. Twelve others, to be exact.

Still, since it’s a Saab, I’m confident that we’ll have the new-car discussion in due time. And when that day comes, I hope, at the risk of my wallet, that BMW Individual can build me a bespoke base model to cherish.—David Rose

[Images and photos courtesy BMW USA, BMW AG, and David Rose.]

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