German Brands Sluts
Porsche has received a lot of criticism for building a truck. The New York Times, America's 'newspaper of record', recently weighed in. They ran an article pegged to a Porsche owner so disillusioned by the Cayenne's appearance you half expected him to run his 911 into a wall. If that wasn't enough to depress Porsche's stock price (it was), USA Today revealed the company's claims that they'd sold the Cayenne's first year's production run were a tad misleading; the assertion was based on 'expressions of interest' rather than deposits.
Of course, the pundits and purists are right: Porsche has no more business building an SUV than McDonald's has serving burgers by candlelight. So what? Once the novelty wears off, Cayenne sales will wither, profits will dip, and the company will return to basics. They'll build something small and sporty that enthusiasts will lust after with hormonal fury. They did it in the 80's with the Boxster. They can do it again. At worst, the Cayenne will turn out to be an expensive distraction, a bizarre footnote in the company's illustrious history. Other German manufacturers will not be so lucky.
Hello? Has anyone noticed that Mercedes, BMW and the Volkswagen Audi Group (VAG) are making the same mistake as Porsche on a truly colossal scale?
Porsche gets it in the neck for building an SUV, but Mercedes makes a pseudo mud plugger and that's OK. Huh? Once upon a time, a company called Mercedes Benz built luxury cars. Not Elk aversive city runabouts. Not German taxis. Not teeny tiny hairdressers' playthings. And definitely not off-roaders. Mercedes' luxury cars were revered, and rightly so. They had peerless build quality, innovative engineering, classic design and superb ergonomics. The dealers treated you like royalty.
Then Mercedes divided into two tiers: S and E class. Then they added the C class. At that point, even Merc mad aspirational consumers noticed that the 'lesser' cars weren't quite as bulletproof as their upmarket equivalents. Showrooms lost their Swiss bank atmosphere and became frantic Mediterranean bazaars. Still, sales exploded. Mercedes took this as their cue to build anything and everything they could think of, including something stupid called a SMART, and a truly dreadful, American-made SUV.
In the process, the Mercedes brand lost its reputation for quality and exclusivity. In fact, the brand has become so devalued that Mercedes themselves abandoned it, reviving the Nazi-friendly Maybach marque for its top of the range limo. Now that Mercedes has morphed with Chrysler, the company is busy proving that the average of something good and something bad is something mediocre.
Of course, BMW also builds a truck. The X5 may be the world's best soft-roader, but you'd no more call it 'The Ultimate Driving Machine' than you'd call an M3 'The Ultimate Snow Plow'. Just like Mercedes, BMW has widened its remit to include all manner of brand strange products. The Z4 is certainly better than the Z3, and the Z8 is marginally better than walking, but what is BMW doing building sports cars? Isn't that Porsche's job? Meanwhile, The Boys from Bavaria are busy crafting a new 6, 8 and 1 Series, as well as entering the supercar and MPV markets. Can all of these machines be ultimate drivers? Nein.
In a similar rush to fill every market niche known to man, VAG is also sacrificing its brand identity on the altar of corporate megalomania. The company's relentless expansion has blurred any distinction between its two marques. The 'People's Car' company now builds expensive luxury sedans (Phaeton), while its luxury sibling builds down-market city cars (A2). The company competes against itself in all markets save one: off-roaders. And wouldn't you know it, VW's Toureg is more expensive than Porsche's Cayenne S.
A rising tide lifts all boats. A sinking one will eventually leave these German brand excursions high and dry. Again, the small, privately owned Porsche will recover from its adventurism with relative ease. The big boys won't. Witness Cadillac, the gigantic, once-proud luxury marque that squandered its good name on all manner of crap cars. It has taken Caddy more than thirty years to reclaim its heritage. As a result, Cadillac is reporting the largest unit growth of any luxury manufacturer operating in the American market: 13%.
OK, a lot of that's down to sales of their SUV. But the Escalade was a much-needed bridge back to their home turf, not an end in itself. The company is currently working on a car to take on the Mercedes S-Class. Unlike their Germans competitors, Cadillac is – finally – at the end of its brand prostitution phase. When General Manager Mark LaNeve was asked if the renewed marque would build a low-end model, he revealed the lessons learned. 'I want high school kids to dream of owning a Cadillac. I don't want to produce a car they can actually buy.'
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