After a long slog through NAIAS and getting TTAC’s house in order for the new year, I was delighted to see the response to my first big endeavor of the year, my Generation Why piece. But with 174 comments and multiple tangents, I wanted to open up the floor to clarify a few things.
1) I should have been more clear in my thesis. While I highlighted both the BMW 320i and the Mercedes-Benz CLA, due to having both of them debut at NAIAS, I do not think they can be weighted equally
2) The 320i is really not that drastic of a departure for BMW’s North American product range – or world product range for that matter. As I mentioned, Canada has had a 3-Series model below the 325/328i for over a decade. This model is actually fairly spartan in its options and features (at least the E46 and E390 variants were) and it’s not unusual to find stick shift models purchased by older guys who just want a fun sports sedan. We all know that the majority of these cars in the U.S. will not be equipped like this, but the point remains the same – it’s not such a departure from BMW’s past ethos. Unfortunately, a number of commenters seized upon the 320i example – to the point of turning it into a strawman – as a means of criticizing my thesis (that a premium auto maker’s quest for volume and short term profits will ultimately erode that brand equity over the long term).
3) I should have been more clear in my piece that the product that’s really in danger of doing damage is the Mercedes CLA. The 320i is ultimately a 3-Series, and part of BMW’s core range. The CLA on the other hand, is a strange bird for Americans. It is a stubby, compact car with odd proportions. For those in the know, it is a front-drive, four-cylinder Benz, something that those types will equate with a cheaper car. For those who don’t know, it’s a Mercedes, but it’s small – and small does not mean premium to many American car buyers. Yes, Mercedes and BMW are full-line car companies in Europe. But merely having a car in Europe is a privilege Anything larger or more expensive than a Golf is a luxury, and that’s why the A/B-Class, 1-Series and A3 work over there. They are right-sized, but pricey enough to let everyone know you’re not clipping Carrefour coupons.
4) I still re-affirm my belief that allowing too many people to obtain a premium product harms its very nature. Let too many people into your exclusive nightclub and it suddenly becomes passe. If too many people can buy your premium clothing line at T.J. Maxx or Marshalls, its seen as a mass-market product, or worse, something for poor people. I’m fairly agnostic when it comes to “brand values” or “heritage” – that stuff is just pap cooked up by suits and sold to wide-eyed types as a marketing narrative. I find it conceivable that, in such a crowded, competitive marketplace, traditional Mercedes customers could abandon the brand if too many undesirables are seen as entering the brand via the CLA and other lower-end cars. In more affluent communities, there are already soccer moms driving AMG SUVs merely because they are more expensive than the more pedestrian GL550s and ML320 Bluetecs. If this is the trend, then how much more damage can a $30,000 compact do?