I thought this story was fitting with some of the BS that Mercedes and BMW are coming up with...
The perils of prestige
Why shouldn't VW and Kia go after upscale buyers when names like Mercedes and Lexus lose their elitist cachet?
By Dan Neil
January 28, 2004
Academia's timber mills are turning out a great many woody opuses about luxury and its discontents. Robert Frank's book "Luxury Fever" (2000) argues that our consumerist culture creates a kind of unquenchable thirst for more of everything, a thirst that drives the middle class into ever deeper debt and darker spiritual terrain. Needless to say, professor Frank can suck the air out of just about any cocktail party.
On the sunny side of the lux-lit street is University of Florida professor James Twitchell. In "Living It Up: Our Love Affair With Luxury" (2002), Twitchell sees luxury not as the toxic bait of capitalism but the balm of humanity. Love of luxury is a universal human impulse that transcends barriers of ideology, politics and geography, says Twitchell. Humans are neurologically hard-wired to crave luxury.
In other words, the hunting and gathering of BMWs are a biological imperative.
Unfortunately, as fast as those books can come out, they are eclipsed by events on the ground — or at the mall. I would argue that we now live in a post-luxury culture. Particularly in the automobile market, the code that consumers have long relied on to convey meaning about a high-end product and the person who buys it — the nameplate, the brand name, the designer label — is no longer operative.
This month, Volkswagen will begin selling a car for $100,000 — the Phaeton W12 — and the hapless South Korean carmaker Kia will step into the ring with Lexus via the Kia Amanti. I've spent a couple of weeks with those vehicles, and the experience has left me questioning the semiotics of luxury. What is luxury? And can it be bought at any price?
The sand started shifting with the rise of entry-level luxury cars in 1982, when General Motors introduced the Cadillac Cimarron — pronounced Cim-moron by the guys back in the garage. Then-GM boss Roger Smith approved a goofy marketing scenario that took an undistinguished Chevy Cavalier with a 1.8-liter engine and slapped the proud Cadillac badge on it. The resulting car's skunk density was so massive as to threaten the fabric of time and space.
The next year, Mercedes-Benz launched the 190E "Baby Benz" — the diminutive was not at all complimentary.
The Cimarron and the 190E were early and inept efforts to create what Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske call a "mass-tige" product. In last year's "Trading Up," the authors define "mass-tige" — an ugly neologism formed by combining "mass" and "prestige" — as a class of consumer products that, with their aura of prestige, command a price premium over conventional products but still undercut true luxury products. The authors offer the example of Coach leather goods, still attainably priced, yet well below couture like Gucci.
The Cimarron and the 190E were followed by the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, BMW's 318i, the Jaguar X class, the Lexus ES300 and the Land Rover Freelander, as manufacturers foraged for sales volume in an increasingly competitive global market.
Entry-level luxury cars are often very good products that benefit from the company's engineering resources and global network of suppliers. Prestige, however, has less to do with the technical and functional than with the emotional and psychic. A prestigious brand sets the owner apart with a kind of glamorous otherness — I am more successful than you, more discerning than you.
Yet, currently any hillbilly with a phone number and $325 a month can lease a Mercedes-Benz.
In the U.S. last year, Mercedes-Benz, a division of DaimlerChrysler — the conjoined name alone makes purists cringe — sold about 218,000 cars and trucks, including everything from $26,000 C-Class coupes to $150,000 super-sedans. And while the glow of the company's more exotic offerings — like the $400,000, 200-mph SLR — casts a covetable light on Mercedes' cheaper products, the sheer numbers of cars on the road subverts their brand's elitist cachet.
Marketing mandarins speak in terms of how far a brand can be stretched before it loses its meaning. We will see. The prestigious German firms are all rumored to be bringing even smaller, cheaper cars to America: Audi with the A3, BMW with the 2 Series and Mercedes with the A Class.
So far, it appears easier for a brand to stretch down-market than up. VW Group, BMW and Ford had to go off the reservation to enter the super-luxury market. Each dusted off a splendidly shabby British marque — Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin, respectively — to create emotional value in their exotic six-figure products.
There was a time, before multinational consolidations made a hash of everything, when car brands could be associated with a kind of mission statement, a metaphysical reality, an essence. Saabs were bohemian chic, with strange yet endearing styling and practicality, full of soulful Nordic nuance. Porsches were race-bred sports cars, fast and unforgiving. Pontiacs were baroque fantasias of Detroit iron.
But such pretty identities could not be sustained in the profit-hungry global car business. Today, Saab (owned by GM) is preparing to launch the 9-2, a re-skinned version of the Subaru WRX, one of its GM corporate cousins. Porsche builds a 5,800-pound Cayenne SUV on a shared platform with the VW Toureg. Pontiac sells a GTO built by Holden in Australia.
In each case, the brand ideal — a shared notion of what it stands for, where it comes from, what it says about the buyer — takes a beating.
Overall, branding grows increasingly notional, increasingly delusional. GM tells you the new Pontiac GTO is heir to the napalm-burning muscle cars of the '60s and you — depending on the softness of your skull — accept it, ignoring the evidence of your own eyes. Understand that the Holden-built GTO is a very fine car. However, it is only a GTO to the extent you are willing to believe it is a GTO.
The aggregate effect is that consumers grow increasingly suspicious of the car market's designer labels. What's a Ford? What's a Jaguar? Is my Saab a Subaru, or is it the other way around? I have aspired to own a Mercedes all my life. Now Clem at the carwash has one?
But I come to bury brands, not to praise them, and with good reason. Even the most callow Hollywood type understands that the prestige an automotive purchase supposedly conveys is just bourgeoisie baloney. No mature person truly believes he is more than his neighbor because he drives a BMW Z4 — he might be faster but not better. The corruption of brand denudes such self-deception.
This leaves us where the Buddha might have wanted, where we regard automobiles more purely as machines and less as lifestyle accessories, weighing their content and performance against cost, and leveraging all against our needs and not our neediness.
Which brings me to the new Volkswagen Phaeton and the Kia Amanti.
The $100,000, dozen-cylinder Phaeton W12 draws a bead on VW's traditional customers and shoots wildly over their heads. The nameplate, which built a humpbacked empire with the Beetle and many other funky and servile vehicles, is now aiming for precisely the same executives who buy luxury saloons from Audi and BMW.
And take a moment to savor the luscious lunacy of naming the car "Phaeton," a fusty French word from the coach-built era describing a large and fast touring car. Lah-tee-dah.
Who would spend 100 large on a VW? It remains to be seen, but apparently VW's futurists think they are out there. I haven't driven the W12, but I have driven the V8-powered Phaeton and it is a stunning automobile, a mighty dreadnaught with 325-horsepower, all-wheel-drive, six-speed transmission and 18-way power adjustable driver seats. The entire car seems driven by a kind of supernumerary excess.
Dripping in chrome and wood and studded with every convenience feature in VW Group's considerable larder (heated steering wheel and air-conditioned seats), the Phaeton is every inch a luxury car in the sense that it offers luxury. But before potential buyers can enjoy it, they must part with the fiction that the brand name means anything.
Those who have trouble may want to take a screwdriver to the VW badges to pry them off.
While the screwdriver is out, you may want to look at the Kia Amanti. This is a very different case from the Phaeton, though still instructive. Kia, a South Korean corporate holding of Hyundai, is up to its eyeballs in debt and up to its ankles in quality, rating dead last in J.D. Power's vehicle dependability study in 2003.
So, naturally, it is launching a Toyota Avalon-sized entry-luxury car in the United States, and the resemblance is purely deliberate. Like Toyota's overachieving Avalon, and many Toyotas before it, the 2004 Amanti offers a slew of amenities as standard features at a cut-rate price.
Our test Amanti was priced at $28,810, including delivery, and came kitted out with leather upholstery and very convincing faux wood trim; dual-zone climate control; power windows (with the anti-pinch safety feature); heated exterior mirror with reverse tilt-down; sunroof; heated seats; tilt steering; and keyless-remote entry.
On the mechanical side, the front-wheel-drive Amanti is powered by a 3.5-liter, 200-horsepower V6 and equipped with a five-speed automatic with manual shift and four-wheel discs with anti-lock brake assist, electronic brake force distribution, traction control and (optional) stability control systems.
Sitting in the parking lot, the Amanti seems to pose little threat to its entry-luxury competitors. The styling is a risible pastiche of luxury cues, from the fluted hood contours behind the headlamps (copied from Jaguar), to the four oval lamps (Mercedes), to the overall proportions (Buick).
Inside, the engine sounds a little hoarse and thrashy under full load, but the cabin ambience overall has a velvety quiet about it; the few minor squiggles and rattles around the cabin are forgivable. The ride is well damped; the car's footing on its front-wishbone, rear multi-link suspension is solid and sure.
In other words, this $29,000 sedan from South Korea gets most of the luxury rhetoric right. All Kia needs is time and buyers.
With luxury car companies stooping to conquer more low-price segments and once-proud nameplates caving in on core principles, the very idea of branding — and branding as an idea — has fallen on hard times.
This makes the luxury market more porous than ever, giving companies like VW and Kia opportunities to filter up. The market has done what a screwdriver could not.
Times automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at [email protected].