Entry level luxury cars, like Audi A3 or Mercedes Benz CLA, all have one thing in common: the promise of luxury ownership at non-luxury prices. But does this new crop of enter-level luxury cars, with barrier-to-entry so low a grocery bagger could afford one, have the potential to damage the brand?
Cheapen the brand image
Growing up in the 90's as a poor kid on welfare, brands like Mercedes, Lexus and BMW were aspirational brands. Brands so foreign to my town I only saw them in buff books at Wal-Mart. I envied these brands, but more so I envied the people who were lucky enough to own them. They didn't have to wait in lines at the local church for peanut butter. Their kids didn't get their new school clothes from a Goodwill. Sure, my family loved me to death and we were rich in our own way, but as a kid who loved cars, I envied the guy driving a new 750iL.
When I wasn't dreaming of Countachs and Testarossas, it was a Lexus or BMW I frolicked with late at night not sugarplums. I used to say, when I made it big I would return to this small town in a new Lexus for my mom.
While $249 lease deals may put cars like the ATS in the reach of everyday people, I can't but feel like it diminishes the perception of the brand. If the janitor at my high school had been driving a new 3-Series, I wouldn't have felt the same way about BMW as I did.
For me a big part of the allure of luxury cars was that for the most part they were unattainable. I would never date the prom queen, which in a way made her that much more desirable. Forbidden (unaffordable) fruit.
But were these brands even luxury to begin with?
A friend of mine pointed out to me that many of the cars I considered luxurious automotive brands as a child were nothing more than common vehicles doing very ordinary things in other countries like serving as taxis or daily drivers for everyday middle class people. He raises a good point.
Had we (America) been brainwashed from early on to see brands like Mercedes as luxury, while their vehicles served as taxis or economy cars in Europe and South America?
If so, does that mean this new segment, cars like CLA, is just geographical normalization? Was it time for America to wake up and realize these were everyday cars for everyday people?
But what is the allure of a car that (mostly) anyone can afford? Looks, performance, safety...OK, you've made your point. You know my late grandfather, who lived on a farm much of his life, had a saying that I think is very appropriate here:
If you move the sweets from the shelf to the counter you'll attract rats.
I'm not saying that new buyers in this segment will be rats, but you'll get a mix of new people that well, aren't what I would consider brand ambassadors.
Many will argue this entry-luxury is a great move. The lower price point will attract younger buyers and non-traditional buyers. Why buy a fully-loaded Fusion when you can have a new Mercedes Benz! It brings new buyers into the brand at an earlier age. Today's CLA owner is tomorrow's E-Class owner. And at the end of the day it moves more cars and (hopefully) generates more profit, which is after all the goal of the car business.
Automakers build cars to make money, period.
But when guy who hocks lotion at the mall kiosk pulls up in a new CLA it's hard for me, a poor kid who once aspired to own a Mercedes Benz, to feel the same special feeling I once had.
In this game of monkey-see, monkey-do entry-level-luxury I just hope automakers find a way to retain the same allure that made this poor kid reach, fight and find success the same way those cars did so many years ago.