By on March 20, 2017

2017 BMW 4 Series Convertible – Image: BMW

Choice is good for car buyers. But in the never-ending quest to produce incremental volume gains, the planet’s largest premium auto brands agree that certain niches are quickly becoming untenable.

Known for questioning in 2014 whether the global sports car market would ever recover from its post-recession collapse, BMW sales boss Ian Robertson told Car And Driver earlier this month that “some body styles will be removed in the future.”

Meanwhile, the head of Mercedes-Benz Dieter Zetsche said at the Geneva auto show that the lack of Chinese uptake for specialty cars “makes the business case for these vehicles less easy.”

Yet long before a model cull returns us to the days of tidy luxury lineups — 3 Series, 5 Series, 7 Series, and 8 Series as the 1990s intended! — premium German marques will first introduce a slew of new models. And the body styles destined for removal? Likely not the silly four-door coupes and impractical SUVs you love to hate.

The problem described by BMW and Mercedes-Benz does not relate to unrealistic expectations but rather to rapid changes in market trends. There was never a belief, for example, that niche-filling models — the Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class and BMW X6, for instance — would outsell their mainstream partners, such as the E-Class and X5. The goal at Mercedes-Benz and BMW was to spread development costs across multiple model lines by spinning off more costly nameplates from higher-volume platforms. In that regard, they’ve succeeded.

Nevertheless, the lineups are too large, filled with too many models that cost great sums to develop but fail to deliver in a market that’s quickly moved away from impractical, low-slung cars.

As a result, BMW says, body styles will be removed. Making a business case for niche models, Mercedes-Benz explains, is too difficult.

YOU DON’T KNOW THE HALF OF IT
Of course, many of the niches already filled by the German luxury trio aren’t filled in the United States. While Mercedes-Benz markets the CLA-Class sedan and GLA-Class crossover on this side of the Atlantic, the A-Class and B-Class hatchbacks along with the CLA-Class Shooting Brake remain elsewhere.

The BMW 2 Series we know well is linked to three-door and five-door 1 Series hatchbacks in other markets, while the 2 Series coupes and convertibles are joined by a Mini-related 2 Series Active Tourer mini-minivan.

And here you were confused about where the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe fits into the time-space continuum? Puh-leeze. You ain’t seen nothin’.

BUT FIRST…
Before body styles are removed, however, the business case has been made for additional model lines to fill narrow holes in the German luxury lineups.

On the way are vehicles such as the BMW X2, squeezed into the narrow gap between the X1 and X3, and the X7, a proper full-size BMW to take on the Mercedes-Benz GLS.

Mercedes-Benz’s recent AMG GT Concept shows how Mercedes-Benz will squeeze a performance sedan into a lineup already chock full of AMG E63, CLS63, S63, and S65 four-doors.

WHO DIES?
The result will be like an episode of 24. Perpetually, characters are being added one after the other after the other. Yet all the while, you know somebody’s about to die.

In the auto sphere, the vehicles likely to die are the coupes and roadsters we all say we want but which none of us seem to actually buy.

MY2017 C63 S Coupe Edition 1 - Image: Mercedes-Benz

It hasn’t always been so. In calendar year 2005, for instance, Mercedes-Benz USA sold 41,105 copies of the CL, CLK, SL, SLK, and SLR McLaren. Those five two-doors combined to outsell Mercedes-Benz’s entire SUV range.

Times have changed. Today, Mercedes-Benz’s “light truck” division accounts for more than half of the brand’s U.S. volume, while two-door models produce less than one-in-ten Mercedes-Benz sales.

In a market that’s veering away from impractical cars towards more flexible utility vehicles, BMW and Mercedes-Benz aren’t going to sacrifice vehicles in their booming SUV divisions.

Instead, some impractical cars — the proper coupes and the convertibles — will die. Probably not in a 24-esque explosion of industrial park gunfire, but rather as a result of negligent homicide.

FOUR-DOOR TWO-DOORS
Cars won’t die completely. “We’ve done the Gran Coupes; they’ve really worked,” BMW’s Robertson says. “People like the lower seating position and the sporty dynamics but also the fact there’s a door in the back.”

At BMW, Gran Coupes are essentially coupes with four doors. Otherwise known as sedans.

BMW will replace the Z4, but Robertson — again pointing out that the roadster segment wasn’t restored following the economic collapse eight years ago — says BMW needs to work with Toyota “to try to gain some economies of scale.”

Indeed, the volumes are so low with such cars that the purpose of developing them relates purely to branding, not the bottom line. BMW isn’t really BMW if there’s no sports car in the range, so the company is forced to stick with the traditional program, at least to some degree. Doing so comes at a cost: money is made with high-volume SUVs, not low-volume two-door cars.

As for Mercedes-Benz, does there need to be C, E, and S-Class coupes plus SLC and SL roadsters plus AMG-specific sports cars? No.

But when a two-door dies, an SUV is born.

Timothy Cain is the founder of GoodCarBadCar.net, which obsesses over the free and frequent publication of U.S. and Canadian auto sales figures. Follow on Twitter @goodcarbadcar and on Facebook.

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13 Comments on “No More Niches: German Luxury Lineups Likely To Shrink, Not Expand...”


  • avatar
    mikey

    I can’t see myself ever buying a BMW…But that baby in the top photo, is one sweet looking ride.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    The prestige German marques are rationalising their lineup.

    This is good for them in cost reduction and providing the consumer with better products they like.

    What also needs to be realised is MB & BMW have placed themselves in a position where the must also be more competitive against the mainstream manufacturers.

    As vehicle quality has improved the prestige manufacturers must produce better products, especially since MB & BMW have moved down in the market.

    Their problems are becoming more like the massive volume producers. I believe in many cases MB & BMW badges inflate the price of a vehicle more than necessary, especially the cheaper ones.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    “BMW isn’t really BMW if there’s no sports car in the range”

    I’d argue the opposite. That was the beginning of their needless diversification. Granted the Z3 and first Z4s were great, but I think that’s pretty much it for great BMW sports cars (including the M1). 3 series was, is and always will be the focal point and best product of the brand.

    I don’t think the “coupification” of sedans is a terrible thing, as long as the rear seats remain usable for adults (which is admittedly a challenge). All the anti-crossover activists speak to high heaven about the dynamic superiority of a Camry over a Highlander, but then get up in arms over something like a 4 series Gran Coupe. But the fact of the matter is the sedan is the new coupe, regardless of door count. If manufacturers want to keep selling sedans they are going to have to double down on style.

    • 0 avatar
      Timothy Cain

      Ah, but is it coupification of sedans or the sedanification of coupes?

      • 0 avatar
        Chris FOM

        Does it matter? The language moves on, the meaning of words changes. English isn’t French, there’s no ministry dedicated to preserving the purity of the language. If you can move past an absolute dogmatic belief that the word “coupe” MUST be a synonym for “”two doors” then the phrase “four door coupe” makes sense. The BMW 6 GC is differentiated from the 5 sedan by far more than the roofline, same with the MB CLS from the E sedan. And in aggregate those differences tend strongly towards the features that traditionally separated coupes from sedans. Outside of linguistic purity the term makes sense: if I say “four door coupe” even if you’d never seen one you could instantly picture it in your head.

      • 0 avatar
        bumpy ii

        The first. “Coupe” meant cutting off the back section of the greenhouse for styling purposes. The fact it was initially done to 2-door sedans was an accident of circumstance.

  • avatar
    thornmark

    Hope that doesn’t apply to BMW’s Mini. They can always use more models.

    I was looking forward to the Mini 9 passenger Limo, AWD of course. The MaxiMini or MiniMax.

  • avatar
    Whatnext

    We are indeed in the automotive end of days. Autonomous cars lurk around the corner and the Breadbox Mom-wagons known as SUV/CUVs are considered aspirational.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    What will most likely happen is that the coupes will just be pushed further upmarket. Oh, sure, they’ll kill off the C-Class Coupe, E-Class Coupe and SLC-Class Coupe, but the S-Class Coupe, AMG GT and SL-Class will remain, firmly out of reach for most people.

    But if you want a crossover, fear not; they’ll have 12 crossover models that start below $60K (or something like that).

    I think, really, that the paradigm of a car is shifting back to the high-bodied models of the 20s.


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