NYIAS: Contrary To The Axiom, Boring, Not Sexy, Is What Sells
The auto show press conference is a strange phenomenon. More often than not, it’s an executive from a foreign land, reading what is likely his third or fourth language from an obvious teleprompter, getting ready to introduce a car that we’ve all already seen at a “preveal” party. He’s typically using words like “social media,” “lifestyle,” and “aspirational,” all to describe a car that will likely sell less than twenty thousand units — if it even makes it to market.
The speeches are full of safe, non-threatening language, and normally take place in front of screens that rotate stock photos of happy multicultural families enjoying life on sunny, non-homogeneous days. The music is more Wagner than Bach, with thunderous bass and drums booming through speaker systems that even The Darkness might look at and say, “That’s a bit excessive.” And then, finally, a wall lifts and a car appears through a screen of smoke to thunderous applause from a press corps that can’t wait to rewrite the embargo materials already in their collective inbox.
So when Masahiro Moro, President and CEO of Mazda North American Operations, calmly stood next to his gorgeous new creation last week, with little fanfare or adulation, and said these words in while standing front of a black wall, accompanied only by the silence of the room, I believe he did it purposefully. Here’s what he said:
“Other companies have become quite successful by not caring if their cars are boring or not.”
Mic drop. And you know what? Moro-san is absolutely right.
To read the coverage of any auto show is to be besieged by the fantastic. We gobble up the descriptions of the high-horsepower, high-dollar machines with their heretofore unheard of statistics. Power by the thousand. Price by the million. Cars that even the mythical One Percent have to check their bank balances to see if they can swing.
Meanwhile, the new Civic Hatchback rotates largely unnoticed in the middle of the floor, not mentioned in a single “BEST OF NYIAS” recap. Same with the anniversary-edition Corolla. And yet, in its final iteration, each of one them will individually sell more than every other car introduced at NYIAS — combined.
Why? Why do “journalists” (I don’t write that word without quotes anymore) focus so much on the bombastic when it’s the boring, run-of-the-mill car that sells?
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good supercar story as much as the next guy. However, times have changed. The young people of today have a decidedly nature to them. They’re offended by mere chalk drawings. This is a generation that no longer aspires to wealth — they despise it (that is, until they acquire some of their own in the future). They don’t dream of owning a Ferrari, they dream of keeping people from being able to afford one. And as America chooses its path toward two extreme sides of the same coin in the upcoming election, one can’t help but think that the supercar will continue to lose relevance. Either increased wealth inequality will make the supercar a target for the new Bolsheviks, or a villainous upper class will be made to pay for their sins by relinquishing their possessions.
But until then, it cannot be denied that the mid-sized sedans and smallish CUVs continue to dominate the marketplace. And the brands that lead the way? Toyota and Honda? They don’t even have flashy, expensive halo cars. You can talk all you want about Acura and Lexus, but you’ve gotta drive a hundred miles or more to see a Lexus store in the majority of flyover-country states. You’ll never see an NSX on a dealer lot, unless the dealer principal himself buys one. No, it’s the Camry, Accord, Corolla, RAV4, Civic, and CR-V that rule the day.
So why do autowriters focus so heavily on the big money cars? First of all, big money cars = big money press trips. Slobber all over the Alpina B7, and maybe you’ll get a trip to Germany to drive one. Put some shiny pics of the GT-R on the front page and wait for that invite to show up in your inbox to drive one in Japan. Don’t forget, dear reader, the ultimate customer of a lot of these writers is the OEM, itself, and those writers dare not offend.
Secondly, autowriters are typically old. I’m 38, and I’d be the junior member of most autowriter associations (which I’d never fucking join in the first place). With the exception of a lot of the fine folks at Road & Track and Jalopnik, the average journosaur grew up dreaming of the Countach and the Testarossa. Unfortunately, since he’s an autowriter, he can’t afford one, so he makes up for it by driving the modern equivalent on the OEM’s dime. He’s not excited by the latest Altima. He’s a car guy, after all. So he’s not going to spend time talking about it.
We know different at TTAC. Sure, we love to drive fast, but we know that the biggest traffic here comes our reviews of cars you can actually buy. The Camaro, the Accord, the Jetta. You want to know what it’s like to drive the cars that might end up in your garage. Boring works. Boring gets you to work on time. Boring tells the neighbors that you’ve made it, but you’re sensible. Boring means you can make the payment without sweating it too hard. Even among you, the group that one writer I spoke to this week referred to as “the most loyal fanbase of any website,” the most passionate of all car fanatics on the internet, you know that boring can be exciting in its own way.
Moro-san is right that many companies have become successful by not caring if their cars are boring or not. I’m glad that he feels Mazda isn’t among them. But one couldn’t help but hear a twinge of jealousy in his voice, too. As pretty as the Mazda6 is, it doesn’t sell. Are you telling me he wouldn’t rather have the Camry’s sales figures? Please. After all, what jazz saxophonist wouldn’t trade paychecks with Kenny G? What struggling artist wouldn’t like a share of Damien Hirst’s wealth?
Like every other form of art, mainstream cars will always get their share of derision from critics, but they’ll shrug it off all the way to the bank. At the auto show, the boring cars might be relegated to the corner, but when the sales numbers come out, they will, once again, have the last laugh.
[Image: © 2016 Bark M./The Truth About Cars]
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