Niche Busting

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
niche busting

Cocaine is God's way of saying you're making too much money. "Niche" cars serve the same divine purpose for automobile manufacturers. Porsche's foray into the SUV market is only the most topical example. Volkswagen, renowned makers of the "people's car", are preparing to pit their £60k Phaeton against Mercedes' S-Class. On the other end of the scale, once exclusive BMW will soon offer runabouts to badge-aspiring plebs (1 Series). Audi is messing about with bullshit, I mean, Lamborghini. And Ford is still fiddling with Wilton-clad off-roaders (Range Rover).

You know things are getting out of control when The Big Boys start dabbling in the manufacturing equivalent of freebasing: reviving an old marque. Bringing back the old sub-brands may look like a noble attempt to recapture lost heritage, but it's actually a reflection of boardroom boredom, designed to give bored boffins and their marketing chums a challenge. Bugatti: can a passenger car have as much horsepower as a Spitfire? MG: can a staid Rover sedan be tuned to Fast and the Furious standards? MINI: how do you get new money for old engines, Brazilian style?

As the [Not So] SMART [Mr. Bond] demonstrates, Mercedes has been snorting niche for a while now. A visit to any major motor show confirms that Mercedes is on a real bender, making more and varied examples of cars that no one asked for, and even fewer understand. How about the world's fastest crossover thingy, blending estate, sedan and MPV? Or a SUV with 450bhp? Oh wait, that's the Cayenne. You might have thought that merging with Chrysler— a company with more debt than a Latin American dictatorship— would have curbed Mercedes' appetite for bizarre brand experiments. But no, they've gone and built the Maybach.

Given the Maybach's stupendous length (5.77 metres long), it's surprising MB didn't launch the limo in a dry dock, smashing its snout with a Magnum of Moet. In these post 911 times, the idea of creating a gi-normous luxury barge for Gulfstream plutocrats indicates nothing less than impending niche overdose. How many of the world's movers and shakers are stupid enough to be driven around in a machine that instantly identifies its occupants as suitable candidates for kidnapping or assassination? The Maybach is a dubiously profitable car that's no less an example of wretched excess than a stretch Lincoln Town Car with a Jacuzzi full of strippers.

When manufacturers indulge in such obvious niche busting, it's usually explained away as "image building". In that sense, Mercedes' SLR makes some kind of sense. It's an SL on steroids, a recognizable extension of an existing Mercedes theme. But the Maybach? There's only one connection with Mercedes' corporate identity, and it ain't pretty: Nazi staff cars. Like the Maybach, they were enormous chariots built to flatter egomaniacal owners, impress gullible underlings, and intimidate everyone. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Maybach is the wrong car at the wrong time, for the wrong people. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that Mercedes built it simply because the head of the world's largest car company wanted one.

As Melanie sang just before the Poseidon went belly up, there's got to be a morning after. I have no doubt manufacturers will return to their core values, once a few of their bold experiments in off-message engineering end up languishing on the showroom floor. On the upside, their niche-busting hangover will soon be your performance or luxury bargain. Have you seen the prices for a used BMW Z8 lately? Exactly. How fast do you reckon a £250,000 (base price) Maybach will depreciate? So sit back, enjoy the show and get ready to exploit corporate niche abuse. Me, I'm keeping my eye on that mid-engined VW W12. Vee-Dub rocks!

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 1 comment
  • CRConrad CRConrad on Sep 14, 2010

    Stumbling across this posting (again?) many years later, I notice that mr Farago got his facts wrong on at least one point (no worries, though; it can happen to the best of us): "There's only one connection with Mercedes' corporate identity, and it ain't pretty: Nazi staff cars." The most immediate connection, of course, is that the Maybach corporation was founded by Wilhelm Maybach, who used to be Chief Engineer at Daimler -- hey, BTW, look who built the first Mercedes for mr Jellinek! -- Oh, and here's another connection, perhaps even more direct and "corporate": Daimler bought Maybach in 1960. I suppose that's how they acquired the rights to the name; of course they made sure to keep those when they sold the rest of MTU in 2006. So, no, it wasn't just "Nazi staff cars" that were the only connection between Daimler and Maybach; far from it. And besides, as everybody knows (or ought to), the real Nazi fat-cats rode in Horch cars. (Which is, AFAICT, the only reason VW/Audi [who oh-so-fittingly/ironically own the rights to that nameplate] haven't revived it.) HTH!

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