The BIG Teutonic Polyfilla exercise
Swearing that he has never seen anything quite like it, Iain P W Robertson attempts to amortise the marketing and cost implications of niche motor manufacturing, a speciality field that is now the German carmakers’ remit.
Having just received the publicity materials for the latest BMW 4-Series Gran Coupe, I have to state that I amazed that any car company can afford, in today’s friable market, to introduce yet another slight variation on a theme and justify its existence by factoring in a virtual repeat of every snippet of information accorded to the several other models based on the identically engineered platform….and then charge more for it…and breathe!
Audi is playing the same oddball game. So is Mercedes-Benz. In fact, in the latter case, the E-Class Coupe is actually a C-Class possessing a slightly swoopier body but sold for an extra heftier premium. It is not the only ‘rip-off’ sin it perpetrates. As for the former, can you truly spot the difference between the standard A4 four-door saloon and its A5 coupe-like counterpart, apart from the bottom-line invoice value, which is meaningless anyway, because, by the time you have made the car even moderately well-equipped and worth living with, a £30k bottom-line has escalated to nearer to £50k?
Harking back briefly to BMW, the company split its 3-Series into both Threes and Fours last year, as if the 3-Series was just not enough. Okay. It added a couple of extra trim louvres and new badges but it was hardly a major new model introduction. Yet, a price differential occurred, with the Four becoming slightly costlier than the Three, for what is basically the same car.
However, while I am not suggesting for one minute that a car company cannot alter its approach to meet changing market demands, remember that BMW has stated in its past and not so long ago that it is a determined ‘rear-wheel-drive’ carmaker (producing cars for enthusiastic drivers)…with a possible deviation to 4WD, for some specific markets, such as Scandinavia, Switzerland and the northernmost parts of North America, because it did not want ski fanatics to be slithering around woefully, on ice-covered roads, at the controls of rear-driven Beemers that would not be capable of ferrying them to the slopes in the first place. BMW joined the ranks of Audi (Quattro), as did Merc.
However, the same successful Bavarian giant has also split its 1-Series into both Ones and Twos, thereby filling even more niches and pursuing the same ideal as enabled by the split of the Threes. Having staked its (false) historical claim on Mini (or MINI, in ‘shouting’ BMW-speak), highlighting to owners around the world of this marketing phenomenon that its origins lay not with Alex Issigonis and a pub-drawn serviette but, rather, in its natural (new and more recent) home of downtown Munich, the new 1-Series will share the front-wheel-drive platform of the new MINI, thus turning its back on its much-publicised rear-wheel-drive stance.
Why all the fuss about rear-drive? Well, BMW has stated heavily that front-drive just does not have the same dynamic balance feasible with rear and it has pooh-poohed every market entrant possessing front-wheel-drive for absolute decades. Oh, of course, BMW’s Mini, which is so bloody large it ought to be called MAXI, has reserves of handling and roadholding and steering and braking and ride comfort that are so unquestionably magnificent that it ‘leads the rest of the world’…well, I can tell you that MINI does not. In fact, its ride comfort is non-existent, its steering is far too vague, its suspension is not resilient enough and, while I can agree that grip levels are good, the overall imbalance that has been engineered into the MINI is painful.
Why do people buy them? Because BMW’s marketing prowess is now so heavy-handed that it makes Ford’s marketing look lily-livered and weak at the knees. The German brands have built up an impenetrable Teutonic image of exceptional build quality, inherent safety and innate desirability that the poor old punter is forced into believing all the guff. What he does not see are the internal ‘recalls’ and warranty issues galore that arise from engineering standards that should not be quite as celebrated as they are.
When you look at the world-wide sales figures, which brands are on top of the pile? The German brands, headed up by the all-conquering Volkswagen Group that owns Audi and Seat (which is tipped to make a successful bid for Alfa Romeo ownership in the not too distant). Even my own little Skoda is VW-owned and, at the other end of the scale, pop the bonnets of a Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti and you will spot the more-than-occasional VW roundel. Bear in mind that such fripperies might lead to a similar situation for Ducati motorbikes (also part of the family) and you will understand the might of the corporation.
Mind you, at least VeeDub made a decent fist of its several, near-identical models. At least it managed to differentiate between the VW Golf, Audi A3, VW Beetle, Skoda Octavia, Audi TT, VW Touran, Seat Leon, Seat Altea, VW Jetta/Bora and other variants, all of which shared the same Golf platform, while possessing individual characters and model badges. BMW cannot lay claim to that.
Although it was BLMC, the UK state-owned combine that clumped together Austin, Morris, Wolseley, Riley, MG and Van den Plas (as well as Rover, Daimler and Jaguar) to produce what became known as ‘badge-engineered’ models that ruled the sales charts of the 1960s and 1970s, BMW is doing virtually the same thing within its own brand. The exception is that it is not jokily obvious but it is cynically obscure.
What I fail to comprehend in a collapsed market is how the German brands have managed to keep their heads above water so succinctly, despite niche-filling all the time, since the economic collapse of 2008. Perhaps they have the mix right? Yet, justifying the costs by simply passing them onto the consumer says a lot more about us. Will we really just buy something because we have believed the power of the advertising and marketing? Can we really be that stupid? It appears that we do and we can but it is all Polyfilla at the end of the day.