Juan Barnett of DCAutoGeek has compiled the definitive infographic on our favorite niche segment: manual wagons. Using inventory from Cars.com, Barnett found that of 2.4 million new cars current available for sale in America, just 2,336 or 0.09 percent are manual wagons. Subaru, followed by Volkswagen, are the big players in this very small market. BMW is sadly absent from this list, now that the 328i wagon can no longer be had with a stick, but Kia (the Soul is technically a wagon), Scion (ditto their two-box offerings) and Mini still make the cut, according to the government’s definition of a wagon. Who would have thought that Cadillac would replace BMW in these rankings?
TTAC has long been bearish on the Scion brand, and in a lot of ways, Toyota’s global tri-branding strategy with its new “86” sportscar (Toyota, Subaru and Scion versions are being sold) highlights how Toyota has lost its branding focus. On the other hand, the FR-S, Scion’s version of the 86, is by far the most compelling product that brand has offered… well, possibly ever (OK, since the Mk1 xB). If I were king of Toyota, I’d probably still kill off Scion and sell the 86 as a Celica in the US… after all, how much sense does it make to have two sporty coupes at Scion and none for the Toyota brand? But if Scion follows the FR-S up with a new truly compact pickup co-developed with Daihatsu, as has been rumored, I’d be willing to concede that Scion has a place in the market. After all, truly unique, funky vehicles justified Scion’s existence in the first place, before a watered-down second generation of products killed that positioning (and Scion’s sales). With the FR-S, Scion seems to be heading back towards focused and freaky niche confections… let’s hope it continues to return to those roots.
When word first began circulating that BMW was considering an X4, I wondered
is BMW trying to prove a kind of automotive Zeno’s paradox, in which niches can be infinitely subdivided?
It was a rhetorical question, of course, and the answer was “pretty much, yeah.” This official BMW sketch preview of the X4, which has been approved for production, shows a three-door version, but according to Autocar,
The car is also depicted in a pair of official BMW sketches. Although they reveal a three-door model badged X3, they hint strongly at the X4’s design, mainly its roofline and front-end styling; BMW sources insist that too much shouldn’t be read into the fact it has three doors.
But if MINI and Range Rover already have three-door “sport activity coupes,” isn’t it just a matter of time before Audi or Mercedes jump on the trend, forcing BMW’s hand? The only problem: there’s only one number between X3 and X5. Which means we will probably end up with an X4 xDrive28i (say) and an X4 xDrive28i Coupe. You know, the coupe version of the coupe version of the X3. Or maybe they’ll just move on to the inevitable X2 coupe version of the X1 and leave the task of trying to tear logical holes in space-time to the crazies manning the supercolliders.
You might think that now that Mercedes is coming out with a four-door-coupe-wagon, the four-door-coupe craze of the last several years might be ready to disappear in a puff of internal contradiction… but you’d be wrong. So focused was it on the four-door-SUV-coupe and the bloated-sedan-hatch-cum-GT niche, BMW completely slept through the four-door-sedan niche that Mercedes first attacked in 2004. And as far as the Bavarians are concerned, it’s better to attack a niche late than never. And they’re doing so with a “GranCoupe” that is remarkably similar to the existing 6er coupe… only with two doors. The entire premise behind the four-door-coupe is that it combines the practicality of a sedan with the panache of a coupe. The problem, in this case, seems to be that BMW’s 6er coupe has so little panache, this four-door model blends right into Bee-Emm’s increasingly indistinguishable lineup. Between that and the late attack on a played-out segment, it’s difficult to harbor high hopes for this latest niche-warrior.
Since cementing its premium-retro-cutesy positioning in the marketplace, MINI’s been leveraging its two platforms into a niche-munching binge. Soon the MINI lineup will range from cozy Coupe to two-door “Sport Activity Vehicle,” and will include two convertibles, multiple versions of the two-door hatche, two-and-a-half-door hatch, and four door SUV. So what’s missing? A Moke? A Delivery van? What about a re-interpretation of the old Mini Pick Up? You and I may feel like the MINI brand already has plenty of niche offerings, thanks, but here is indisputable proof (found in a supermarket parking lot) that the market thinks MINI hasn’t chased enough niches. Carry on then, lads…
Now that the worst part of the global economic crisis is over, investors are fired up for any investment opportunity that looks good and doesn’t smell funny. Especially in the alternative-energy field. Some ventures make sense while others are based on a rather exotic logic. Better Place, for instance: its institutional investors say it’s “the only EV + infrastructure play”, and therefore something you’d better not miss. I’d just say it requires weird financial reasoning to justify electric filling stations stocked with expensive exchange batteries.
Earlier this week, I was at Mindset Holding’s press conference in Switzerland, where they announced they had received 75 million Swiss Francs of financing from a US fund, GEM Group, with another 108 millions optional. Mindset will be using this money to produce its exotic electric sports coupe — the one I thought was fantastically forward-looking when I witnessed it last year.
Is this madness? After all, Mindset in 2012 will be competing with Tesla’s Model S, the Fisker Karma, and numerous electrified or hybridized German and Japanese luxury cars. Who’d spend 100,000 Francs on a Swiss made electric three-seater?
To be perfectly honest, we weren’t familiar with the work of Weinsberg, Germany-based Xenatec group before hearing that the custom bodywork shop would be building a Maybach Coupe. Thanks to a tip from Auto Motor und Sport, we headed over to Xenatec’s website, and found that the firm offers a wide variety of custom bodywork ranging from the absurd to the sublime. Some of Xenatec’s customs, like the stretched Audi R8 shown above, show just how pointlessly nuts things can get when money is not a factor. Others, like the four-door BMW 6-Series and the Mercedes CLS Wagon actually represent pre-emptive swipes at forthcoming niche models. A four-door Porsche 911 even gives sufficiently well-heeled buyers the option of buying a “real” Porsche four-door as an alternative to the front-engine Panamera. You know the industry is passing through strange days when OEMs and tuning houses start meeting in the middle…
You can already buy a BMW 3-Series in sedan, coupe, station wagon and X3 “cute-ute” bodystyles, and for some automakers that might be enough. For niche-crazed BMW though, it’s just the beginning. A 3-Series GT is planned in the mold of the 5-Series GT, as a midway-point between the coupe, sedan and station wagon versions. You know, in case you can’t decide which you want. “This has never existed!” screamed Autobild… back in 2008. Of course, now it does exist in the form of the 5-series GT, which could actually end up replacing the 5-series wagon in the US market. And as the march of the niche vehicles rolls onward, there’s one more segment that the 3-series architecture still hasn’t capitalized on: the jacked-up midway point between coupe and SUV. That’s right babies, the X4.
Bob Lutz and Bob Eaton bask in the glow of niche appeal, circa 1997 [via The NY Times' eulogy for Bob Lutz]. But don’t put MaxBob in a box:
“People who characterize me as a mindless muscle-car, cubic-inches fanatic don’t know my background,” he said. “I’ve always had a great fondness for relatively small and underpowered cars,” citing the 1981 Ford Cockpit, a Ghia-bodied three-wheel concept car that topped 75 m.p.g.; the European version of the Ford Escort; and the inexpensive Pontiac Solstice roadster.