By on November 15, 2009

Happy, happy, happy. Screen shot 2009-11-15 at 6.57.55 AM

As reported here on TTAC, Daimler has decided to start selling smaller, more fuel-efficient cars in the United States. For our international friends, the announcement is meaningless. Outside of The Land of the Free, Mercedes is about as exclusive as the YMCA. (In Germany, Mercedes taxis are a ubiquitous reminder that some Daimler-Benz products are  more equal than others.) But for American pistonheads brainwashed by pre-90’s Mercedes products and marketing (“Engineered like no other car in the world”), the arrival of a B-segment Merc is the final nail in the coffin of brand idolatry. Which leaves what?

Porsche’s purity disappeared with the Cayenne. BMW’s Ultimate Driving Machine focus is fertig. Cadillac as the standard of the world is kaput. Lincoln has left the building. Lexus is building tuner trash (very good tuner trash) and supercars.

Lower down on the food chain, same devo. Volkswagen’s rep for cheap, reliable transportation (as undeserved as it may have been) is tot. Honda’s rep for engineering excellence, value-for-money and design simplicity has taken a major ding with the Ridgeline and Insight. Toyota’s having “issues.” Subaru built the Tribeca. Etc.

Other than Land Rover, I reckon the only automotive brands that haven’t sullied their good name sit at the very pinnacle of price: Ferrari, Maserati, Bugatti, Bentley, Aston. Or the uber-top: Pagani.

What’s your take? Which car brands are dead to you now? Which are still worth coveting? Which ones are ascendant, which ones descendant?

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95 Comments on “Ask the Best and Brightest: Where Have All the Good Brands Gone?...”

  • avatar

    Land Rover hasn’t sullied their rep?  WHaaaaaa…?

    • 0 avatar

      They certainly haven’t sullied their rep for nightmare reliability.

      • 0 avatar

        For a purported ‘carguy’ that doesn’t sound like a very informed comment. NO brand these days has nightmare reliability on the whole. I think VW currently ranks last on JD Power (or one of those objectively-subjective garbage rankings) and last I checked VWs were overall great cars (feel free to chime in with your horror stories, or more likely stories heard, about singular nightmare VWs, but I’m speaking about the hundreds of thousands in general that are churned out). The reality is that the level of reliability across all brands has achieved such a high level, on the whole it’s virtually an irrelevant subject. Land Rover unfairly bears the burden of the misinformed carrying forward a reputation partially earned that no longer should exist.

        • 0 avatar

          Land Rover has had atrocious reliability for a number of years. Even BMW didn’t have time to rectify that. They still have major problems. They have nowhere to go but up. VW has had major problems a few years back, but seem to be making strides toward improvement. There is no denying that both Land Rover and VW both have great autos in terms of interiors, driving dynamics, styling, etc., but neither have anything to brag about on reliability. At the very least, look at Consumer Reports for their huge database of stats for this. Talking to one or two neighbors and co-workers doesn’t cut it. We’re talking major problems here for both marques. The VW CEL issues are notorious and have only recently been improving in the last couple of years it seems. It is not, as you state, irrelevant. Many of these quality problems from LR and VW will leave you stranded. We are not misinformed. You should do some research.

    • 0 avatar

      Robert must have forgotten about the Disco and the LR3 when he wrote that.

    • 0 avatar

      One word:  Freelander.

      • 0 avatar

        I think Robert is right about Land Rover. The Freelander is very capable off road, which is basically what Land Rover is about. All their cars are very capable offroad. And they have not made an X6. Sure you can argue they aren’t as reliable as they should be but point is they are GREAT offroad. I mean compare the Jeep Compass and the LR2/ Freelander. The Freelander kicks it’s butt.

        Also I think you will be able to add to that list Bugatti and Mclaren.

        • 0 avatar

          The Compass and the Freelander are in two different market segments and don’t compete at all with each other. My guess is that in an off road comparison, the Jeep Wrangler is probably more capable than the LR2/Freelander.

          Certainly the Range Rover is an impressive vehicle. Once, after an appointment with my shrink he offered me a ride down to the public parking lot from the private lot on the third floor. I didn’t realize he had a Range Rover and when I said that it’s probably the best SUV in the world he was completely flummoxed, expecting me to be my usual negative self.
          More than the Freelander, the Range Rover Sport may have done more to damage the concept of the brand than anything else. OTOH, the market seems to have liked the Range Rover Sport since most of the new RRs I see are the Sport model.
          Brands are a double edged sword. Yes, they define a company’s products in consumers’ minds, but they can also be a straitjacket. Ferdinand Porsche designed all sorts of vehicles, not just racing cars.

          I don’t see a problem with a Ferrari minivan as long as it can do 0-60 in less than 6 seconds and can pull .9g+ on the skid pad. But then my favorite Porsches are the front engine 944 variants.

          One problem with brands is that they mean different things to different people. Assuming that the B&B are mostly car enthusiasts, a Ferrari means, to us, a technically sophisticated high performance motor vehicle with possibly a V-12 engine with a bunch of camshafts and valves, paddle shifting transmission, a suspension and steering set up capable of both extreme roadhandling and precision steering, wrapped in a body styled by Pininfarina or another Italian design house. To the average person who is not a car enthusiast, a Ferrari is an expensive, fast, beautiful Italian sports car – in that order.

          As for Honda, we have to remember that they aren’t a full-line manufacturer. Honda picks and chooses market segments carefully. At the time that the Ridgeline was
          designed, lifestyle truck sales were going through the roof and it probably made good business sense for Honda to dip its toe into that segment with the unibody Ridgeline.

  • avatar

    I’m going to have to disagree with you on Aston Martin:

    Also, what about Lamborghini?

  • avatar

    Cayenne or not, I think Porsche is one of the only car companies that hasn’t sullied their reputation.  Their core reputation remains the same. They’ve just, errrr, augmented it.

    • 0 avatar

      If we were to accept the common wisdom that Porsche needed to make the Cayenne because that’s where the profits are, then fine. If only they hadn’t made it so ugly. Same goes for the Panamera. Someone should tell Porsche only the 911 should look like a 911.

  • avatar

    “Other than Land Rover…………” Land Rover  has been raped by BMW and Ford and now finished  by Tata. The Land Rover of yore has nothing in common with the emasculated Brand Identity it is now touting. True Land Rover died on its 50th birthday (1998). Land Rover is still selling a few Range Rover and Range Rover Sport on their previous reputation, but ultimately their current status will catch up with them. How I weep and mourn on what was once and can never be again.

  • avatar

    Mazda and Nissan have both made continuous improvements in their car portfolios and haven’t seemed to lose the plot. 

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Mazda may be an enthusiast’s darling, but it is an also ran in the marketplace.

    • 0 avatar

      I was going to say Mazda and Nissan. Hyundai is continually improving, one day I might even like a Hyundai, I despised the one’s I’ve driven so far however.

    • 0 avatar

      Nissan’s CVT fetish and reluctance to add safety features have caught the ire of a lot of reviewers (you could buy an Altima without ABS as recently as 2007).  There aren’t many Mazda dealers in my area.
      Kia, Hyundai, Mazda, and Nissan’s products don’t have as good fuel economy as their competitors.

      • 0 avatar

        What are you talking about? Nissan’s CVT’s are actually pretty good- in fact I’m hard pressed to name an Automatic transmission at the price that performs better, and the Altima gets better fuel economy than the Camry, Accord, last-gen Fusion, Mazda6,

    • 0 avatar

      Mazda and Nissan have both made continuous improvements in their car portfolios and haven’t seemed to lose the plot.
      Mazda’s cartoonish design disqualifies them from the ranks of actual automobile manufacturers.  Nissan?  Think current Maxima and that larger than nature intended pick up truck they sell.

      • 0 avatar

        I had a current-gen Maxima for a week, it’s a fine car with an excellent ride/handling trade off. It’s not a G35, but I don’t know of any FWD sedan that handles better or is more enjoyable to drive. You apparently do?
        And Mazda’s recent designs have strayed, but you mean to tell me they’re any uglier than most other manufacturers?

        • 0 avatar

          I had a current-gen Maxima for a week, it’s a fine car with an excellent ride/handling trade off. It’s not a G35, but I don’t know of any FWD sedan that handles better or is more enjoyable to drive. You apparently do?

          A Maxima smaller than an Altima?  What’s the point?  Better handling and more enjoyable: a GTI  comes to mind.

          And Mazda’s recent designs have strayed, but you mean to tell me they’re any uglier than most other manufacturers?

          Yes.  But some are close, I’ll give you that.

  • avatar

    I didn’t know where else to put this, since the original post about the new site layout is buried pages back.. but I’m still seeing alot of issues with the mobile site popping up when not viewing the site on a mobile device. Usually the front page loads fine, as normal, but the article page will load up as the mobile version. Once in a great while its exactly the opposite, as now: the front page was the mobile site and the article page is as it should be.
    Just a quick heads up, sorry for being off topic.
    So that my reply has something on topic in it… subaru has gone away. No longer do they build built like a tank reliable cars that could take on just about anything short of serious off-road work. They’ve become chevy’s (and now toyotas) with all wheel drive. Its sad, really. my 99-era legacy is one of the last vestiges of rock-solid subaru’s on the road.

    • 0 avatar

      I guess I’m not the only one having those problems, except mine is in reverse. The home page loads as the mobile edition, while the articles… eventually… show up as normal. This is only at work, though, which should be a big hint, using IE. At home, using Opera, everything’s fine.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m also having the same problems.  The main one is getting the mobile version at home–I always get mobile on mobile.  And on my home iMac it varies, seemingly randomly, on whether the front page comes up as mobile or whether the article or both.  I’m using Safari at home and on an iPhone, but I also tried Firefox at home with the same result.
        On the general topic, why does GM have anything in the US but Chevrolet and Cadillac?

        • 0 avatar

          I agree about GM.  They should have “standard” and “deluxe” – that is Chevrolet and Cadillac.  When they’re doing real well, they can start having in-between versions.

      • 0 avatar

        Funny, I’ve got the problem using Opera…

  • avatar

    There are too many brands currently.  If Mercedes can operate in Europe selling a range that covers everything from inexpensive city cars to AMG barn burners, why can’t it operate profitably doing that in the US?  Toyota created Lexus specifically for the US market, ditto Acura for Honda, and Infiniti for Nissan.
    VW has tried multiple times to push further upmarket, first with the Phaeton and now with the CC (and perhaps again with the Phaeton again), and Ford is making similar moves with the new Taurus SHO.  Chrysler bet big on the 300C, which could easily top $40K with options, and it won big.
    Do we need Lexus, Cadillac, Lincoln, Acura, and Infiniti ?  Why not just take their unique models and make them a model for the parent company, then offer higher trim levels on the badge engineered versions, and thus operate just like Mercedes and BMW do in Germany.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Hyundai is doing an outstanding job of building a brand. It isn’t an enthusiasts brand, but that’s ok. Enthusiasts are a tiny but vocal minority of the automotive customer base.

    Subaru is doing just fine, even though the Tribeca was a massive oops. All in all, brand purists have entertaining conversations but are getting to be irrelevant in the modern automotive marketplace. Once upon a time, people working for large companies considered it a lifelong commitment. Once upon a time, people identified passionately with their chosen brand of automobiles. Both paradigms are nearly dead now.

  • avatar

    Buick in China
    possibly Volkswagen with upcoming volume American-made sedan
    stable (Southern California still digs all these brands):
    Jeep still a solid choice in California
    Dodge Ram
    Chevy/GMC full size SUVs and trucks

  • avatar

    Focused brands: Mazda, HUMMER, Mini, Smart, Ram, Fiat, Alfa Romeo (for now)
    Poor brand identity: GMC, Acura, Dodge, Buick, Mercury

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t see GMC as poor brand identity (they sell trucks and suvs only) – rather the big problem with GMC is it has no unique vehicles to itself and makes no point when there’s an almost exact identical version of a Chevy.
      Acura has fallen so far from being a gem of a near luxury car maker now to a strangely styled Audi or Lexus ES / RX impersonator.

  • avatar

    The need to reduce cost via the economies of scale and the need for market expansion are a lot to blame for the decline of well defined brands. Car makers are under big shareholder pressure to find additional revenue from new market segments and to produce cars which have a broader appeal so they can sell more of them. As your broaden the appeal of your product and focus more on the what the majority of consumers wants (as opposed on your brand identity) your product range will start to look more like other car makers who are doing the same thing. Much the same happened in the computer industry over the last 25 years.

  • avatar

    Your branding ideal seems a bit convoluted and myopic.  Very companies keep trucking forward with the exact same product offerings year in and year out with no change.  And if they do stubbornly adhere to the “only one product forever” logic they tend to get bought out when their existing owners realize they don’t know how to grow the business. Or worse, these firms go out of business when others steal market share from their solitary product offering. 

    The ideal “Coca-Cola” brand is rare and requires many factors to come together; and it rarely works in companies dealing with higher-margin customized goods. Of course, Coca-Cola Corporation also sells fruit drinks and bottled water, so they know better than to stick with a single product under some attempt to preserve their identity.

    This leads into my next concern that you’re mixing the notion of a company name, division name, and product name into one term called “brand.”  If the company name is a brand, then by your logic P&G is one of the weakest brands since they don’t have a single product focus.  And then you could say that Philips Healthcare is a weak divisional brand since the name Philips is often synonymous with light bulbs.  And at the product level, do you want everything to be like a Milky Way bar, never to change for your entire lifetime?

    Is Whirlpool a company or is it a brand?  Should the child-brand to Whirlpool Corporation, Jenn-Air, then only sell their Pro-Style “brand” of commercial ranges? They allege to cater only to professionals with only the highest grade equipment, but with over 25 range variations it’s clear some of them aren’t professional grade.   And of course Jenn-Air started out making industrial fans – are you saying this quality-brand should have just stuck with fans?

    If the 911 were ever sold with a 4 cylinder turbo and was front-wheel drive (Chrysler/Maserati?), then I’m certain that there is serious brand abuse going on. But Porsche as a company diversifying its products is not brand abuse. As long as investment bankers in their 50’s pine for a Porsche, then the brand is fulfilling its purpose. Just because the third wife of the investment banker wants a Cayenne hardly means the brand is damaged.

    • 0 avatar

      holydonut +1: Like P&G, Beiersdorf AG (which makes Nivea skincare products) is also another great example where the product is the brand rather than the company. The same could be the case for the Porsche 911 or BMWs M division products.
      Also, let’s not forget that we are also mainly talking about US domestic brand perception here as Mercedes and BMW provide a full line of vehicles to their home market in Europe (including hatchbacks and taxis). It should also be noted that Mercedes as a corporation makes more money from its truck division than its cars – so maybe the answer to the question “what is a Mercedes?” is an 18 wheeler?

    • 0 avatar

      How soon we forget ‘new‘ Coke. It is in the nature of corporations to shoot themselves in the foot from time to time.

  • avatar

    OOOh, so that’s the mobile site. I thought TTAC just streamlined their front page to “streamline” their readership even more.
    I think Volvo has done a fair job of maintaining brand identity. It doesn’t sell any more, but it’s pretty well maintained.

  • avatar

    Other than the Mazda Tribute and elimination of a manual transmission for the Mazda 5 in 2010, Mazda is brand-focused and ascendant.

    • 0 avatar
      Richard Chen

      Mazda5 for MY2010 still has the 5 speed on the available on the base Sport, and there have been some reports of rare MY2009 5-speed Tourings leaving the factory and escaping across the Pacific. The JDM Premacy, OTOH…

  • avatar

    Audi is definitely heading up. Anybody remember the Avus supercar concept from the early ’90s? The brand was incapable of supporting a car like that then. Now it’s successor, the R8, is a full production model that will stay in the lineup. It’s not some “look what we can do” limited run special like the LFA that has no viability outside of the collector market. To anyone that still says Audi is a lower tier brand when compared to BMW or Mercedes, I give you the R8 V10, and the A8L W12.

    i think BMW is making too many new models, too fast. They are chasing the “a BMW for every driveway” method that was disasterous for Mercedes. Instead of a 140i M or whatever it would be called, there’s a 540hp pig ugly coupe/truck that weighs a million pounds. Very ultimate driving machine, guys.

    Acura is a complete disaster. They were pushing upmarket as of 5 minutes ago, now they want to go back to their cheap, entry level roots. Their commercials are more about what their NAV systems can do than the actual cars. Acura has become so obsessed with buttons and technology that they’ve forgotten how to design an interior. Unless there are some sweeping changes made, Acura will fade to Saab like irrelevance in the market.

    I think trouble is brewing at Lexus as well. The most reliable brand in the world has made some really shitty cars lately. The GS AWD was so piss poor at launch that CR wouldn’t recommend it. A 550i Sport with some problems is at least partially excusable. A shop queen Lexus though? Who wants that? What reason does it have to even exist?

    Infiniti is still struggling, but I think they are on their way up. The 2011 M looks like a car that will finally be able to stand on its own merits, rather than be just the poor man’s BMW. I hope their push into Europe leads to more refinement in their products.

  • avatar

    Depends what you mean by “sullied”.
    If the definition of an “unsullied” Auto company is one that, by way of founder/employees, forges ahead with a vision/product  irregardless of customer/critic feedback, perhaps VW’s Bugatti is one, and most kit car builders would be others.
    A manufacturer who would probably fail that “unsullied” test is Subaru.  For years they brought over quirky cars that delighted Rally enthusiasts and street racers.  Now, after extensive surveys of their customers, Subaru’s building vehicles meeting the survey requests.  Result: while enthusiasts lambaste Subaru for “loosing their vision”, Subaru sales skyrocket.
    BTW, one can still have the “quirky Subaru” by having a tuner shop install mods.

  • avatar

    The Porsche Panamera…I’ll leave it that.  It use to be there were cars you wanted to keep, cars you adored, Datsun’s 240z,  the first gen RX-7,  the “simpler” 911s, but like they say “you can’t ever go home again.”  Except  for the super exotics, what car can you see keeping for years to eventually pass to your kid?  Who is making cars right now that stir up passion Infiniti, Lexus, Mazda, GM?  I think along the way when cars became “products” instead of ‘cars’ the magic was erased, marketing types and bean counters had their way, focus groups and opinion makers (remember the Pontiac Aztek?) finished off any excitement left.  I can’t see any brand today in ascension, they’re just pumping out “product,” the flavor of the month.  Ironically the only car that stirs up passion for me is the Factory Five coupe, but that’s a whole different story.

    • 0 avatar

      I was flabbergasted at the 4 door 911 look alike until I drove the Panamera Turbo and was amazed at how well it handled and how fast it could go.  Even on a short autox it was quite incredible – made the M5 and AMG feel down right pedestrian.

      • 0 avatar

        I saw a turbo last weekend, in person (atleast in black) it’s alot better looking than it is in pictures (usually doesn’t work that way).  And judging by the smile on the man’s face as he shot past I would say he was enjoying the driving experience as well.

  • avatar

    The car industry is in a state of flux as is the needs of consumers.  The general reliability of cars is probably better than ever, but the pickiness of consumers is too.  Now with the internet any problem can get widely disseminated making it seem worse than it is sometimes.
    Probably over the next 5 years the real needs of the current car owning public will be fleshed out and companies will have a target to work toward.  Right now many of the old targets are moribund.
    Currently cars need more features, and gizmos than ever, yet in this economy they need to be inexpensive to maintain sales numbers of the past.  A more complex high tech product cheaper than ever is hard to do.  You need to very finely focus your features and potential buyer’s needs to pull it off.  Plus run your company very effeciently.  Things will shake out.
    I know I need to purchase a car within the next year or two yet don’t even know what I would want.  Little that appeals to me is anywhere near affordable.  Other products leave me cold completely as they seem dreamed up for some needs I don’t have.  Like most consumers if I can get exactly what I want I will pay more (though I cannot pay Ferrari money).  If something meets my basic needs I would settle if the cost is low enough.  Yet the curve between those two extremes just doesn’t seem to have a point that makes sense to me to land on.  Seems lots of car enthusiasts I know have the same feelings if they only have average or slightly above income.
    An old example of what I mean, one that doesn’t apply really anymore, but illustrates my point.  Old muscle cars in their day.  They were pretty, offered some real speed (though not exotic performance), were satisfying for their purpose in the mid 60’s yet only cost a bit more than your average car.  There is no cheap speed anymore.  There is some incredible speed at rather high prices.  Plus for use in surburban traffic jams on daily interstate commutes the speed doesn’t really do anything for you.  So muscle car marketing makes no sense now, but it illustrates something that very much did in its day.

  • avatar

    Ascendant:  Subaru and Mazda.  Maybe Ford and Suzuki in the long run.
    PS – PLEASE bring back the old site format.  This one is a hot mess.

  • avatar

    My last couple of Hondas have not been very well put together. My latest, an ’03 Accord has had a lot of trouble. Before that an ’96 Civic that was a POS. The last good Honda I had was ’90 Civic. Great little car.
    What I have noticed is that the problem cars were all assembled in North America (Accord in the US, Civic in Canada).
    It just seems that North America can simply not build cars, whther the D3, or Japanese transplants, etc. Maybe we North Americans simply can not pay attention for an entire 8hr shift. I dunno.
    So I have started looking at VIN’s, and will only consider it if it is built in Japan.

    • 0 avatar

      As far as reliability and assembly quality, the best car I have owned was built in Japan. So was the worst. The US assembled ones (transplant x 2, D3 x 1) have been in-between as far as reliability and assembly quality. My experience has not been that location of the plant makes that much of a difference, although my Japan-built Civic was better put together than my Ohio-built Accord. My Japan-built Nissan about the same as the Tennessee-built Nissan. The Nagoya, Japan built Mitsubishi was the least reliable and had some issues of material quality and assembly.

  • avatar

    Almost everybody’s “lost the plot” at one time or another, it depends on how long, how far and how deep your wanderings have gone.  Jaguar for example now seems to be back on track as far as understanding what a Jaguar is, most people who aren’t enthusiasts have totally forgotten the X-type.  GM on the other hand doesn’t know WTF any of their brands stand for.   There are different levels of being “lost” and every brand has had it happen to them in one way or another.  Mercedes trying to build an A-Class makes more sense that buying Chrysler to work your way into the lower priced range of North America.

  • avatar

    In practice, does anyone really care about the rest of the model portfolio if there is one model that pleases? For instance, if I could get my TSX diesel 5-spd wagon, I wouldn’t give a crap about any ugly TLs or cute-utes. Likewise if I could get a BMW 1-series diesel 5-door hatch, I wouldn’t care about the rest of the ugly and pointless yuppie mobiles.

    • 0 avatar

      I have to agree ,  we now download one or two songs and care less about the band that played them …. or going to a restaurants only for the one dish you like   

  • avatar

    Land Rover….time was when they made no-excuses back of the beyond transport for where excuses meant dire consequences.  Now they make boulevard SUVs with just the faintest whiff of off-road competence.

    • 0 avatar


      The Disco 4 is one of the most competent off road vehicles you can buy this side of a Unimog.

    • 0 avatar

      I can assure you that Land Rover is still making competent off-road vehicles. Even in 19″ wheel trim, they will traverse terrain that you wouldn’t have thought possible. This includes the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport as well as the more utilitarian looking LR3 and now LR4. Just search YouTube for LR3 and Range Rover and watch some of the clips of them at ungodly angles, demonstrating wheel travel, incline traversal, etc.

      I know first-hand from owning an LR3 what they will do. I have logged a number of hours with a Land Rover Experience instructor off-road (in completely stock trim (read: 19″ wheels), save the addition of a factory winch option). They are crazy capable off-road in stock trim. Even more so with smaller wheels and more aggressive tires.

      The Range Rover Sport is simply a less roomy LR3 (same ladder frame/unibody combo). It is just as capable off-road as the LR3. Land Rover has a ton of history, cache, off-road cred, and brand purity. The LR2, while competent off-road, is not in the same league as its brethren. It doesn’t damage the brand though in the same way as a Cayenne does for Porsche.

      Anyhow, as much as I admire the vehicles from them, I’d never buy another due to horrible gas mileage and reliability. That is the reality that they are facing today from other past owners. That kind of rep is the one that has damaged the brand. I really don’t see them lasting much longer. The only way out would be to go to aluminum space frame construction, get hell-bent on keeping the rest of the weight down, and get reliability out of the toilet. At least Audi/VW reliability has improved greatly. LR can’t say the same.

    • 0 avatar

      Stewart – from where did you get the impression that Land Rovers aren’t supremely capable off-road vehicles? Their uniqueness lies in that they have the engineering expertise to uniquely combine a luxurious on-road driving experience with second-to-none all-terrain capabilities. In fact, three of the four current models will out-perform all of their predecessors dating back to the beginning.  From the most stock wheel articulation to the most advanced traction systems on the market, they’re as good as it gets off-road without modifaction.

      Now I know some purists don’t prefer the element of luxury offered in all current U.S. models, but it’s wrong to say that luxury mitigates the vehicles’ off-road competence.

  • avatar

    In 90s Subaru  lead WRC. Now Ford competes with Cintroen. So did Subaru lost focus? Yes.  Focus beats Impreza.

  • avatar
    Oregon Sage

    Actually I pretty much expect to find the same type of product at my Ford dealer as I did 30 years ago.  It is a ‘big tent’ brand, but still a recognizable collection of daily driver cars and trucks, with a little performance (Mustang, SVO, etc) thrown in.
    Where the Ford Motor Company has failed is with the Mercury and Lincoln brands.  As a now well to do shopper, fifty-something years old, from a Ford ‘family’ I should be a natural Lincoln shopper, or at least Mercury, but the Germans are more likely to get my money if I buy upscale. In fact BMW already does when I buy 2 wheels.
    As for Mercury, my early-50s Oldsmobile is a better expression of a near luxury American car than anything on a Mercury  dealer’s lot. I did buy a first generation Sable instead of a Taurus because I prefered the styling, but that is the last time I’ve seen even that much reason to shop Mercury.

  • avatar

    The latest Buicks and Cadillacs are nice cars, irrespective of listening to Susan Docherty blather about them (I’m reading ‘Detroit Auto Scene’ right now and cannot take any more of it!) and your local GM dealer being somewhat less than pleasant.
    The reality is that while Nissan’s revamped design theme is better than what they had earlier this decade, I’m not paying $28K sticker for a loaded Altima 2.5SL.  Sorry.  Also, Acuras are competent and I think the design theme will soften to you over time, but I want a car, not a rolling computer map (NAV) system or ‘Zagat’s guide.’
    Mercedes and BMW inherently lose all their appeal if they sell too many cars in the US.  Jaguar’s new (and smaller) product line has a stronger brand identity.  If Audi can broaden their appeal but not produce two dozen product lines, they’ll continue to be in strong shape, especially considering that they have a large corporate parent, unlike BMW.  “Independent” brands have an advantage at brand identity, but not when the management is messing up.
    Mitsubishi doesn’t have much of a brand image and their latest website revamp does a poor job of featuring the full product line.  Oops.

  • avatar

    I think Mercedes is in flux, but is infinitely more fixable than GM. Their quality is slowly approving, the new C is a credible entry, the new E is a bit off but also pretty decent.
    Porsche is completely losing the plot and will soon be an upscale Seat/Skoda/VW/Audi. The 911 will live on just like the Vette does at GM. But I won’t be surprised if it shares the R8/Gallardo platform.
    The problem with the brand management system is that they are managed individually – so they keep trying to compete internally to have complete line-ups instead of segmenting the market appropriately.

  • avatar

    I think educatordan has it right – they all get off track sometimes.   It’s a question of how often, and for how long.
    Which do I covet?   Well , really only Honda.
    Which are dead to me?  Obviously Saturn and Pontiac.   All of Chrysler except Jeep is dead to me.   Porsche.   Mitsubishi.
    Which are not on my radar?  Or only occasionally make a blip on my radar?    Saab, Volvo,  Audi, BMW, VW, Suzuki.

  • avatar

    I have to say, I think Hyundai wins this prize.  What other car company has made all the right moves, and no really bad ones, for over 20 years running.  From a very dismal start in North America (the Excel, which didn’t, and the Pony, which was fit only to be taken out behind the barn and shot), they have consistently improved the looks, performance and reliability of the economy models.  And they have resisted the temptation to let the Accent and Elantra bloat.  Instead they moved upmarket by adding models, doing so in measured steps that gave them credibility (as opposed to the Kia Amanti which was way too much of a reach, and nobody believed the charade).  They have also avoided building caricature SUV’s (Sequoia, Armada) and pickups just for the sake of having one (Ridgeline).  I suppose the Tiburon was a bit of a dead end but the Genesis coupe has picked up that slack.

  • avatar

    Also what about little Lotus? They’ve always made cars that are true to the brand…

  • avatar

    I’d say Subaru still stands for something.  Everying sold Six Stars on the grille has AWD, a  Boxer engine and a reasonable expectation of reaching 200k+ with proper care and feeding.
    Yes the 1st gen Tribeca was beat hard with the ugly stick, but beyond the “flying vagina” sheet metal it was a competent CUV. Everyone will make a Fiero, Aztec or Edsel every once in a while.

    Honda still makes great small to medium cars with the Fit and Civic. I agree with others that with the Ridgeline & Pilot they are bringing a knife to a gunfight.

  • avatar

    Descendent:  Hudson, Nash, Packard; for trucks Studebaker and REO.

  • avatar

    The auto industry has irrevocably changed, and a brand is whatever the market will continue to support.  If that means a sports car maker like Porsche builds a money-maker SUV to help stay alive and support its sports cars, so be it.  If it means that a company like Mercedes widens their range, fine.  I find this utter obsession about brands and the narrow view of what they should supposedly represent very odd.

  • avatar


    you sure are going out with a bang, penning articles furiously here at the end of days.

    btw, heard Range Rover is coming out with an Eddie Bauer Edition to accent their image.

  • avatar

    Gone to junk yards everyone
    When will they ever learn?
    When will they ever learn
    (to the tune of “where have all the flowers gone”)
    Robert, you forgot to mention Acura. I would so love an Integer.

    • 0 avatar

      More like “Where have all the good model names gone?” Man, what is it with the marketing departments and the monkeys they employ? I couldn’t screw it up worse if I tried. Acura lost so much brand equity by flushing away the Legend and Integra names. They, like Lexus, have always aped the German brands. No balls to run a different course. They had to go with a letters or numbers theme a la Mercedes/BMW/Audi. What kind of impact does RL make? Or TL, TSX, you name it.

      Same goes for Lincoln and their nonsense. In fact, Ford may be the worst offender. What kind of idiot does it take to drop great names in favor of MK(fill-in-your-favorite-letter-here)? And the topper is to make the letters in different sizes, for Christ’s sake. I couldn’t differentiate the different Lincoln models if I tried and I’m a car guy.
      Acura has lost the plot with their ridiculous designs of late. Who doesn’t cringe when they see that tin grin in their mirror? BMWs “chicken in every pot” line-up has a lot of people nauseated with their hideous uber hatches of Aztec proportions. Mercedes has lost a lot of credibility with their Chrysler association, quality woes, minivan-looking M-class years back, and now a shitload of SUVs that even they can’t tell apart. And the pricing – my God the pricing! Same for BMW. Anyone with any sense will wait a couple of years and snap up one for a lot less than the $80K new. And it will still look and feel brand-new. Of course, this could be said in any year over the last 30, but seems to resonate even more so in today’s economy.
      Audi is definitely on their way up. Quality has improved. Marketing and the ALMS cred has helped. They have something in the A4 that can compete with the 3-series. Still not there on power and driving feel perhaps, but ahead in other areas. Just don’t cheapen the interior. There are a few things that they have gone downhill on inside for the first time in a number of years. They still have the best looking large German sedan out there with the A8, IMO.

      BTW, a comment on the new site format here. What’s up with the editing function and the line spacing? It appears that you need to use two blank lines between paragraphs in order to get one after you submit.

  • avatar

    @JOhn Horner, about 30 posts ago

    Subaru is not doing OK. Look waht they’ve done to the Forester. It used to be the plaid flannel shirt of the world of cars. Whatever you thought of that, it was a distinctive brand, with a decent sized band of enthusiasts. They’ve turned it into a tepid generic.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      I’m judging Subaru by its success in the marketplace, not by the narrow standards of brand purists.

      Purists loved the original Ford Thunderbird, but its replacement outsold the original by a factor of four times! (21,380 for the final two seater in 1957, 92,843 for the replacement four seater in 1960). Purists will say that the 1958 re-designed ruined the car and ruined the brand.

    • 0 avatar

      Having had Soobs in the family for the last 30 years, I have to seriously disagree here.
      1) Lesbians still seem to be attracted to Imprezas. Yeah, it is weird.
      2) What’s “wrong” with the new Forester?  I always thought the old one was a touch too small; now it’s just right.  If anything, the Forester caused a problem for sizing the new Outback, since the new Forester pretty close in size to the old Outback.
      3) Subaru “fixed” the 2008 WRX by making significant upgrades for 2009.  What other car company today makes changes that significant to a car that’s been on the market for just one year?
      Subaru is a niche company in the balancing act of keeping old customers happy while attracting new ones. They may not be making all of the old loyalists totally happy, but if you tune out the din from the forums you’ll find out there are a lot of satisfied first-time Soob owners out there right now.

  • avatar

    My gosh, dozens of comments and I’m the first to mention Morgan? They’ve been selling the classic British sports car style since 1936. The brand must be doing fine; there’s a two to three year waiting list to get one.

  • avatar
    George B

    Honda/Acura mostly lost me due to ugly styling, increased size and weight, and increasing prices.  Happy with my old Honda, but can’t find a single vehicle in the current lineup that I want to buy.  Hope they get their brands back with the next set of redesigns.
    Hyundai has made the largest gains.  Interested in the next Sonata.  The Genesis sedan appears to be a good car, but it’s just more Hyundai in size and price than I want.  A smaller sedan based on the Genesis Coupe would be a better choice for me.
    Volkswagen has attracted me in for a test drive with unique drivetrain technology.  I like the idea of the DSG transmission and diesel engine and liked the Jetta TDI better than I expected.  The new Golf front end styling looks pretty good too.  Subtract the CUVs and Volkswagen could be the fuel efficient but still desirable brand.

  • avatar

    Audi has been improving its reputation over the past 10 years.

  • avatar

    I think it’s a mistake to judge brand equity from a strictly US perspective. Yes Mercedes is the #1 Taxi provider in Germany.  That has never lowered the company’s brand chachet in the past.
    Actually the Taxi thing is part of Mercedes prestige here in Germany, as it transports two core values: Innovation and quality. Innovation, because the pre-war 260D was the world’s first Diesel passenger car and was a smash hit among Taxi companies, due to superior economy. Until the seventies no other manufacturer offered Diesel powered cars, so the market was 100% Benz and is still dominated by the brand.  Quality is a similar argument. Millions of Mercedes Diesel Taxis with mileages of 500,000 and above have helped create the legend of longevity and quality (regardless of how valid this image is with regards to Mercedes’ current products).
    Bottom line: We Germans are different. Prestige for us has a lot to do with engineering and technology, not just with leather upholstery.

  • avatar

    When mentioning “brands” then image is the operative focus versus product attributes.  When a product is mainly purchased on the basis of its functional attributes by a relatively dedicated and knowledgeable consumer it becomes something with an identity.  Once that identity is then demanded by the mass market, then the brand image begins to take form.  Once that happens the product becomes a mass marketed consumer item, volumes increase and the product begins to lose its uniqueness.  When this happens image takes over and those of us that were fans of the product attributes bemoan the fact that we have lost that uniqueness which attracted us to the product in the first place.   Recall the early introduction of cars like Saab, Porsche, Volvo and even the early VW bug.  Those that purchased these cars were unique and loyal to these brands until the brands were successful and became mass marketed.  Then the image and identy of brand became the product.
    Those brands that today still remain items sold on their product attributes alone are few because of what was previously mentioned about the cost to produce.  They will tend to be rather expensive and therefore be able to maintain some of their uniqueness.

  • avatar

    The differentiation between enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts mentioned early in the thread is important and instructive. Enthusiasts may sneer at BMW and Porsche for straying from their roots, but let’s face it…in the broader marketplace they are still megawatt brands. Similarly, Toyota is a brand revered by the A-to-B crowd, who happen to dominate the car buying population.

  • avatar
    Gary Numan

    Face it.  We have too many brands with too many carlines and with too little focus. I like competition and there are some Europe brands and carlines I’d like see here but for now, we Americans are faced with a bit of a mess.

    Too many brands are chasing one another in a “me too”  race to the bottom. Where is the product differentiation? How can they command profit when their product becomes a commodity within each carline?

  • avatar

    What company isn’t in flux? Imagine painting portraits and/or landscapes on the sidewalk for a living and being at the whim of potentially every passerby; some simply slow to bend your ear with a suggestion, all the way up to some who stand beside you to browbeat your every stroke. Then when your nearly complete, they say your canvas is too large… or someone is constantly replacing your supplies or not allowing people to sit. Begin again!

  • avatar

    My question is does it matter? – To some people maybe. but to me it’s all about the car and the brand only plays partly into that.

    I actually like it when a brand makes a really good car that doesn’t fit with the general public perceptions – because generally they make really good 2nd hand buys- Think Saab 9-2X or Pontiac GTO.

    Back in my native land I drove a skoda, the old jokes about the brand quickly stopped when they guy telling them realised that his base A4 & my Octavia both did the same job (but mine cost half) and had as many (or more) options

  • avatar

    Who loves a Honda?  Well, let’s see…we’ve got a black guy, an Asian guy, and a white guy hanging out together evidently playing some football.  Is this Madison Ave, or the real world?  It’s good to know reality has nothing to do with any of it.

  • avatar

    My question is does it matter? – To some people maybe. but to me it’s all about the car and the brand only plays partly into that.

    Colin –
    I understand your point, but I think that Brand does matter – it’s a necessary form of stereo-typing – a predictor of what you can expect from a car.   It’s true that you can wait for a model to be on the market 3 or 4 years and then read the feedback of other people’s experience, but that’s not always practical.

    Your choice of a Skoda is actually a good example of branding.  You are able to assume that a Skoda will give you all of the performance and reliability of the Audi at a lower price.

    Other examples of using brand as a predictor – BMW will give you very good performance with decent but not great reliability.  Lexus will give you great reliability but only decent performance.  Toyotas are dull and uninspiring as bricks but solid as bricks.
    Honda is a problem right now.  Hondas used to be the poor man’s BMW – good performance and good reliability.  Now the performance as faded and they are simply a reliabile  alternative to Toyota.

    It’s certainly true that you can find exceptions to every one of these generalizations, but you won’t know about the unreliable Toyota or the boring Honda until they’ve been on the market for several years.

    Branding can also be a curse – ask Buick-  maybe they’re seen as diplomat’s cars in China but here in the U.S. they’re seen as Chevy’s with bench seats and room for a wheel chair in the trunk.

  • avatar

    Did GM crash Impala into the high weeds and leave it there?

  • avatar

    I believe that Mercedes lost the brand plot a long time ago.

    Mercedes rose to prominence by building straight-forward, somewhat spartan machines that provided a stark contrast to the living rooms-on-wheels sold by Cadillac and Lincoln in the 1970s.

    A fair amount of Mercedes’ success was built on boxy, slow, but very well-made diesel models that looked like the German interpretation of a 1967 Plymouth Valiant. A Mercedes was the “anti” luxury car. Even the E- and S-Classes of the 1980s were very plain and spartan compared to American luxury cars of that time. But they wore like iron and could travel all day at 100 mph without breaking a sweat.

    Over time, virtually all brands have improved their performance, and Mercedes traded its rock-solid build quality and durability for gadgetry and gimmicks. Mercedes are still expensive, but they certainly aren’t more reliable than cheaper brands, and some of its vehicles are resting on laurels won long ago as much as a Cadillac Sedan DeVille was by 1976.

    The sale of a B-segment Mercedes in this country is not the brand’s biggest problem right now.

  • avatar

    Thank God, Mercedes does not define itself, or can not be defined, simply as a luxury car maker. Leaving trucks and buses aside, the accent still is on usability. That’s why they are used by cab drivers (still), because for them down-times are an issue.  I find that very reassuring. And every now and then they have a design that is eagerly copied (CLS, for example).
    From an US point of view Smart, A-class and B-class does not seem to make sense and may dilute the perception of a sedans-only luxury barges. But these cars are very practical and do make sense in a different environment. That’s why I’m glad Mercedes is using its money on alternative designs, instead of trying to  reanimate dead car companies.
    They would really be an trouble would they concentrate on the luxury market only, given the stiff competition now, with every car manufacturer trying to go up-market.

  • avatar

    I will disagree that a B-Class Mercedes is a nail in the coffin for them. I think that many people will have no problem with a quality-built, nicely designed small offering. Same with Audi and an A2. To me, it has no negative impact on the A8 – same with the B-Class and the S-Class. It would actually enhance the brand if they pull off excellent cars in multiple areas. They just have to be done right. I don’t think as many people really have a problem with that kind of range. They have a problem with quality issues, hideous designs and overlap. The B-Class would have no overlap issues. A VW Phateon and an A8…. well, we know how successful that was. Someone’s ego needed a check there.
    If Mazda could lose the gaping maw and bring the solid feel and interior quality of a VW, they would be even higher on that purity scale. They do have a lot going for them with the racing involvement and enthusiast bent.

  • avatar

    I care less about what types of vehicles a company makes and more about how those vehicles will play in their segments. Mercedes is fine with a small car so long as it plays the upscale luxury angle for instance. I’m not going to go ahead and predict that there’s a market for that though. Likewise, the Cayenne was fine for Porsche because it was fast, Porschey and well received by it’s own fans, even if I’d rather be shot in the face than take one over a 911.

    I’d also say there are plenty of product defined brands out there already, it’s only some of the larger players that have problems with this. VW, Subaru, Honda, Mini, Infinite, BMW, Mazda, Nissan, Volvo, Buick and Porsche all strike me as brands whose products  broadcast a common tactile feel and share a broadly similar niche in their respective segments.

    Chevy, Toyota, Acura, and Kia/Hyundai are the first couple of bad apple examples I can think of. Chevy and Toyota don’t put the effort in to engineer a product that is uniquely theirs, despite having the resources to do so (that’s what marketing is for I guess). Acura hesitated in it’s push away from Honda’s small is more tradition and now sells various versions of various Accords, and without a consensus between them as to how they acheive their goals (a family deathmatch is in order). Kia and Hyundai are in transition (intentionally) and can’t really be said to have an identity yet. They may get there, but it remains to be seen whether the current flagships are standing on their own or pointing to a common identity.

  • avatar

    Hyundai – From a cheap odd alternative to a real contender.
    Honda – From a mainstream player to a semi-premium car make, something like Volvo used to be.
    MB, Mitsubishi, anything that’s insolvent and anything bought by Tata

  • avatar

    Strictly from a US perspective, and excluding the exotics:
    -Strong: BMW, Mercedes, Honda, Toyota, Lexus, Porsche, Land Rover, MINI
    -Reasonable: GMC, Cadillac, Ford, Infiniti, Jeep
    -Up and coming with much potential: Audi, Hyundai, Kia
    -Mixed bag: Nissan, VW, Subaru, Scion
    -OK for its niche, but not much hope for growth (which means a slow decline and eventual death):  Mazda
    -Weak, hope for recovery: Acura, Chrysler, Dodge, Chevrolet, Volvo
    -Weak, almost hopeless:  Mercury, Lincoln, Buick, Saab, Mitsubishi, Suzuki

    We Germans are different. Prestige for us has a lot to do with engineering and technology, not just with leather upholstery.

    What happened in the US is that GM invented progressive tiered branding based upon price and features, and the other domestics followed suit, with the transplants continuing with that model as they expanded. That model continues to be the norm in the US, but it hasn’t caught on everywhere else to quite the same degree.

  • avatar

    Since this is the busiest post right now, I call on us all:
    Lift a virtual toast to Robert, without whom none of this would be possible or possible with such class.  Vaya con Dios, Robert

  • avatar

    Re: Land Rover.  There was a time when LR was the definitive true off-road vehicle.  Simple, constructed out of bridge girders and reliable hundreds of miles from the last road.   And it wasn’t much of road car, though it made a Hell of a statement there.  A friend had one with the bumper sticker, ‘Weird Load’.   After the world moved towards  boulavadier faux off-road SUVs, LR finally followed suit in the good looking body shape and the less extreme some-compromise off-road gear.   As I recall from a R&T/C&D review some years back, it still had everybody else beat short of a Hummer H1 off road.  But to compare the old LRs from the 50’s to todays’ for out back of the beyond desert and Mountains of the Moon travel…I can’t believe that the present LRs would match a zero-timed old one.   But I could be wrong.  As had been pointed out here, in an industry where mass-market and the spread-sheet rules, there is precious little place for true niche no-compromise products.  Time was, if your life was going to be on the line hundreds of miles from any help, you bought LR.   The one-ton truck masquerading as a Jeep, it was bomb-proof, simple and if it broke or you fell in the pot, you could probably limp back somehow.  KISS.  The articulation may be better, but the complexity there and everywhere else in the current vehicle comes at a cost.
    Whatever.  I don’t think I’m God.  You fish on your side of the pier, I’ll fish on mine, nobody fish in the middle.  The old LRs are on my long list of cars I wish I might have owned: it was a honest, balls to the wall Gork….and oh God, honest simple engineering is so rare these days.

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