The notion of blurred lines does not only apply to a certain morally ambiguous pop hit that took over the airwaves last year.
No, it applies to Australia’s new vehicle market as well. Specifically in the area of luxury cars, the definition of which is an arbitrary concept to even those who aspire to it.
It is hard to recall a time where the gap between ‘premium’ and ‘mainstream’ vehicles has been slimmer. The divide between fancy European brands and an everyman approximation from Australia or Japan has been reduced to what seems at times a crack in the drywall.
As more humble brands increasingly seek to lift their wares into a new ‘premium’ stratosphere by fitting them with cutting-edge multimedia and active safety technology, not to mention premium materials, the so-called luxury brands are locked in a race to the bottom, or at least a scrabble to meet the mainstream halfway down the summit.
After all, we live in a time where you can buy an Audi A3 or Mercedes-Benz A-Class for the same as a high-end Mazda3 — the latter, albeit, featuring more power and equipment. And don’t even get me started on the segment-straddling Volkswagen Golf. I suspect many of you may have heard enough already.
And it’s easy to see why the Germans, most notably, are doing this. The premium small-car segment has grown this year by 34 per cent, with the A3, A-Class and 1 Series all up by double digits.
The more cars that join this space, the more they seem to power growth from existing segment stalwarts through an increased general awareness of the market. Crucially for these brands, once they lure you into a base car, they have every chance of upgrading you once you progress from lower management to upper.
A 30-year old A3 buyer is every chance to have an A4 at 35 and an A5 at 40. Does having entry models like this cheapen the brand as a whole? Does a future front-drive BMW 1 Series bring the brand down a peg? That’s a question for another time, but an interesting one…
On a macro level, in a new vehicle market where sales this year are as flat as a pancake laid across a field in Holland, nigh-on every premium brand has seen its sales spike. This trend does not so much go against the grain as it does tear up the green and re-plant it.
Now this is hardly news. Nor is the fact that Hyundai is gearing up to launch a $60k sedan called the Genesis that offers almost everything a fancy German or Italian equivalent priced three-times as high does, beside stroke you right in the ego.
And sit in the cabin of a Mazda6 Atenza and tell me it doesn’t feel ‘premium’. And that’s just one example of many.
But this all does lead to a bigger question: in an age where luxury car-makers are coming down to the mainstream and the mainstream is striving to break a mould, what exactly is it that makes a ‘premium’ car premium?
And is there such a thing in truth, or does it exist only in the minds of the image-conscious?
If it isn’t merely spec and tech, and if there’s no monopoly on sharp design, then what exactly are so many Australians forking out for beyond a nice badge on the bonnet?
Well first of all, it’s important to remember that for many people, buying a car is anything but rational.
Status, pride and other such intangibles are front and centre here. Would you buy a flagship $35k Mazda or Hyundai with all the fruit, or an Audi with a sparse equipment list by comparison but with four rings on the bonnet?
But why, then, does this image exist in the first place? Why do people dream of owning a car from certain brands, hang the consequences and hang the logic of it? It’s a hard to question to answer.
But did you know that every button on a Mercedes-Benz dashboard is calibrated to respond with a precise, consistent Newton force? Or that even a heavy character can do full body press-ups on the frame of an A-Class’s open door without shifting it even a millimetre? Or that even the cheapest Benz has illuminated and chromed door-handles inside the cabin?
What about the nifty fold out screen in an Audi A3 that rises like a phoenix from the ashes of the dashboard, or the way its ashtray closes in complete silence? What about the way a Benz, BMW or Audi’s window switches click into place? Small details, sure, but vital.
Little details like this paint a wider picture. On a per-sale basis, premium brands put those in the mainstream in the shade when it comes to their R&D spend.
“There is amazing investment in technology and it’s tangible,” says BMW Australia general manager of corporate communications Lenore Fletcher. Be it BMW’s i cars, Audi’s e-tron or Mercedes’ AMG division and S-Class, an investment in the high-end rubs off down the line.
“Faced with a choice do you buy a brand you know and admire and has more prestige with another brand? If all things are equal and the price difference is negligible, you’ll go for that,” said Mercedes-Benz Australia Pacific senior manager of communications David McCarthy.
“It’s the quality of the assembly, the vehicle technology, the safety and it’s how people perceive the brand. Mazda is an incredibly strong brand but not a premium brand.”
For Audi, it’s a lifestyle thing. Owning even a base A1 gives you access to the Audi ‘community’, opportunities with the company’s tie-ins to numerous artistic ventures, pride in its Le Mans success, the barista in its dealerships.
The Ingolstadt marque has spent $50 million in recent times facelifting its dealers, after all.
“As a brand what we try and do is offer customer delight in every area we can as soon as they walk into showroom,” says Audi Australia’s senior product communications executive Shaun Cleary.
Lexus, also, has set the bar particularly high when it comes to servicing with a difference.
Look, is it all guff? Perhaps. But it doesn’t alter the fact that this image is precisely what people are buying into. Truth be told, badge cred and image is king, and rightly so. Us car enthusiasts, of all people, should empathise with someone who takes a romantic angle on their car purchase.
But enough about what I think: what do you reckon? Is a base German or Lexus hatch the pick over a similarly priced but better equipped and faster Volkswagen or Mazda? Chances are many of you have faced such a choice.