Halo Effect

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

It's called "the halo effect". A range-topping super model allegedly inspires punters to buy the low-end variant. I can't afford an M3, but I can buy a Compact, which shares the same engineering bloodline. I might not be able to get to sixty under six seconds, or lap the Nuremburgring in less than an hour, but hey, it's still a BMW!

God knows how you measure the halo effect's precise impact on "brand image", "market positioning" or any of the other vague concepts that keep people in suits employed. Common sense says there's something to it. If you're a parent looking at a new school, your attention is immediately drawn to the cheerful, bright-eyed student, and away from the listless dullard endlessly exploring the entertainment possibilities of a rubber band. As an automotive journalist, I welcome any trend that justifies (not to mention subsidises) my own obsession. I'm delighted that manufacturers are cranking out expensive, powerful and exclusive models. After all, I can drive them without having to pay for the privilege. Still, for certain manufacturers, the halo effect has clearly gone to their head.

Case in point: Volkswagen. Their very name defines the company as chariot makers to the plebs. Given the marque's bread and butter brand image, Vee Dub's £100k mid-engined supercar is destined to be a lost leader, rather than a loss leader. Can you imagine a Polo buyer being impressed by a car that can crest 200 miles per hour without being able to carry a single bag of shopping? Volksie's upcoming D1is another violation of everything the company stands for. The existence of a £60k sedan on the showroom floor is guaranteed to piss off their "What Car?" clientele. Besides, anyone with even a subliminal appreciation for the German car industry knows that Mercedes makes cars for dictators!

Unfortunately, Mercedes is busy Mclarening the SLR. While I'm a great believer that too much performance isn't enough, the idea that a traditional Mercedes owner needs more show and go than an AMG SL500 is ludicrous. Granted, the £250k SLR is aimed at a market well above customers who enjoy nodding their head at road users discerning enough to purchase the exact same car. But Mercedes is taking a real gamble with their wealthy customer's less than robust egos. The fact that there are poor people larking around in SMART pedal cars is galling enough for members of the S-Class. The existence of a model above their mortgage money Merc will do nothing to bolster the sense of smug satisfaction they currently enjoy.

Mercedes is so big you can just about forgive their stupidity. Porsche has no such excuse. Although the industry's most profitable (per car) company claims there's a business case for building their £250k Carrera GT, and has the deposits to prove it, Jaguar made the exact same noises before the crash that transformed their gorgeous XJ220 into an automotive paperweight. Even if Stuttgart's bean counters are not kneecapped by the upcoming supercar glut, the GT is yet another uber-model bound to upset owners of the current range topper. Like the Cayenne, the GT makes a mockery of the marque's formerly tight focus on doing very little very well. The aesthetically unsuccessful attempt to graft the Porsche family nose onto both machines drives the point home– and, in the fullness of time, residuals down.

Jaguar is one of the few prestige manufacturers that seems to have resisted the temptation to build something monumentally unaffordable. And yet, if you look a little more closely, the story is depressingly familiar. What is Jaguar's F1 car but the world's fastest haloeffectmobile? Unless your name is Ferrari and you build thoroughly impractical sports cars, the link between racing and showroom success is a myth as ridiculous as the one that says a full-size adult can sit comfortable in the back of a modern Jag. Not to put too fine a point on it, even if Jaguar annexed the winner's podium, their F1 fortunes will never sway a Lexus, Mercedes or BMW owner into a Brown's Lane barge. If Jag want to sell sporty, they should build the F-Type and call it good.

Again, I'm not against the halo effect per se. Every company should have at least one model that says, here, this is the very best we can do. Sometimes, the harder you try to do something, the worse it is. Manufacturers who go too far to dazzle their customers risk alienating rather than impressing them. Some companies understand this. BMW has quietly dropped their plans for a mid-engined extreme machine, in favour of slowly expanding its core models. Some companies don't. Audi's rumoured uber-coupe shows that the Lambo-loving, Bugatti-boasting, Bentley-building VW Group doesn't "get" restraint. At the end of the proverbial day, all carmakers should realise that you don't set out to make yourself a halo. You earn it.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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