20 September 2007

The Death of the Devil-May-Care Sedan

Tradition is important in Germany and no manufacturer of automobiles has a longer history then Mercedes-Benz.

Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz were pioneers of internal combustion vehicles over 100 years ago. Mercedes-Benz innovations are in wide use today, including such things as fuel injection, safety-cage construction, antilock brakes, and air bags.

For many years traditional labour-intensive production and quality control techniques were the norm for German luxury automobile manufacturing. Production cost was high, volume was low, and the resultant exclusivity and quality justified high prices. Then the world changed.

Today, Japanese luxury cars – trucks, SUV's and crossovers – are common lingo in the American lexicon and are mainstays of the U.S. vehicle landscape but in the 1970's or even the early 1980's, the phrase “Japanese luxury cars” would have been considered the ultimate oxymoron.

You can blame it on the microchip...

When the Japanese moved into the luxury field, they made their cars in brand-new factories using the latest computer-automation technologies for design, construction, and inspection. They were unencumbered by a tradition of white-gloved inspectors. Indeed, if the Japanese could be said to have had a tradition in automaking, it was a tradition of use of technology. The result was that the Japanese luxury cars were built to the same quality standards are were the German, but at a lower cost. Japanese sales rose; German sales dropped.

You can blame it on the oil crises of the 1970's and recession of the early 1980s...

Consumers were clamouring for small, inexpensive fuel sippers, and U.S. and European automakers had little to offer in that department. With those crises behind them, the U.S. enjoyed a booming economy and a skyrocketing stock market, both of which led to the emergence of a young generation of affluent up-and-comers, who became known as yuppies.
Their tastes in cars shifted from utilitarian and thrifty to luxury and performance. In fact, the BMW 3-Series seemed to become the official yuppie car.

Indeed, sales of BMW along with Mercedes-Benz and Audi soared as they captured the fancy of the growing number of Americans who could afford more upscale transportation. Japanese automakers, by then firmly entrenched in the U.S. marketplace, took note of the changing buying patterns and began developing vehicle for this new buyer group. However, they found, because they had come from more humble roots of small, inexpensive and, in some cases, spartan vehicles, they opted to form new nameplates with their own car lines and own dealerships to sell their new luxury cars.

Honda pioneered the way with Acura; Toyota launched Lexus and Nissan gave birth to Infiniti shortly thereafter. Initially, critics pooh-poohed the notion of Japanese luxury cars, a phrase no longer an oxymoron.

Almost overnight, Honda's new Acura nameplate became a success, quickly surpassing sales of Mercedes-Benz and BMW vehicles. In its first full year of sales in 1987, Acura had total sales of 109,000 cars. Of those, the flagship Acura Legend sedan accounted for 55,000 sales and the rest were of the smaller Integra, Honda’s insurance policy in case the Legend flopped.

By 1990, Acura was selling 138,000 vehicles, including 54,000 Legends. That same year, Mercedes sold 78,000 cars; BMW and Lexus each sold 64,000. Despite a strong start, Acura hit some bumps in the road. Toyota and Infiniti launched their own luxury marques, waking up German automakers, especially Mercedes-Benz, who countered in kind with new models and new pricing.

And this is where it all got fucked up.

By 1991, Lexus had become the No. 1 selling luxury import, selling more than 70,000 cars a year, more than Mercedes or BMW. After that, it was record after record set – every month and every year higher than the previous one – and milestone after milestone set – the first half-million, million than 2 million Lexus models sold.

By 2000, a year after its 10th anniversary, Toyota's Lexus had become the best-selling luxury nameplate in America.

The Germans had no choice now but to compete with these Japanese motherfuckers and their microchips and computerised luxury cars.

The days of the German money-no-object luxury sedan were over; the sun had set on Camelot Stuttgart.

And this is why in 2007 a Lexus looks like a Mercedes and a BMW looks like fucking Acura. The Germans wound up copying their own copies!

There is simply no comparing the devil-may-care German luxury cars made before the dawn of the microchip and the Japanese luxury car. For better or for worse, the Japs changed everything... and don't get me started on SUV's.

Do you understand how inherently wrong it is for Mercedes-Benz to have no choice but to make and market their own SUV just to compete? Same goes for BMW and Porsche; I've said it before, Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Porsche must be rolling in his grave right now. Porsche makes fast, sleek sports cars; race cars, not lumbering, gas guzzling trucks!!!

There is something to be said for the beauty and the pitfalls of the free market and competition and when it comes to luxury cars, something only the Germans (and sometimes the Brits) can do well. They're being forced to compete with their own Frankensteinian clones; they're being buried in the very market they invented!

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