Sam Skelton tackles the burning question of what defines a premium car.
Defining a premium vehicle used to be easy. Not only was it a product from a well-respected manufacturer of large and prestigious products, but the car itself would tend to be larger and more expensive than the norm. Small executive cars such as BMW’s 3 Series changed all that – they demonstrated that a premium brand can be extended downward with – provided the car met the brand’s core values – little detriment to the overall image of the marque. Now, there seems to be little to link the various premium brands around the world – what, say, links a Cadillac to a BMW? An Infiniti to a Jaguar or a Mercedes? Or a Lexus to an Audi? Answer: Quality materials. Advanced technological thinking. Dealer service that makes the customer want more. Coherent design language. And – in most cases – brand pedigree.
An easy way to strengthen the image the road cars have earned is to go racing, and to remind the purchasing public of victories past. It is no coincidence that Jaguar’s Project Seven strongly resembles the D-Type; it’s a deliberate reminder of their heritage and a clearly defined link between the past and present. Audi, Mercedes, and BMW have all competed in the 24 Heures du Mans – and this heritage is what the Japanese premium marques are currently lacking. One wonders, perhaps, whether this was behind Infiniti’s decision to become the principal sponsor for the Red Bull Racing F1 team (formerly the Jaguar team) for the 2013 season!
A key factor for many premium brands is the development of a core design language applicable to all models – note the traditional BMW Hofmeister kink or the reintroduction of Jaguar’s sharp rectangular grille. Taking the Jaguar theme further, their saloons have traditionally looked like four door sportscars – and there are hints of XK in the XF and XJ. Retro is to be avoided – a wiser way to acknowledge brand history is to play it up. Volvo’s Concept Coupe is a very clear P1800 evocation, and yet remains totally contemporary. If that car were to be built and marketed properly – with quality materials and a perception of traditional Volvo solidity, it would certainly meet all the design criteria necessary for a premium product in 2013.
Many companies such as Mercedes have tried to expand the definition of premium by filling every niche in the market. The problem here is, however, that Mercedes’ range is now so unclear and includes so many different models that few buyers know exactly what they want. Any traditional definition of a premium vehicle must include “brand exclusivity” and a confused and extensive range only diminishes this. FIAT Group has an apparently ideal solution; brand pairing. Alfa Romeo and Maserati; different target sectors but with an interlinked product strategy. There’s clear potential for Jaguar to revive Rover in a similar manner, to tackle the premium B/C-segments, leaving Jaguar to focus the D-segment, E-segment, F-segment, and sportscars. This would maintain the premium image of both marques; by avoiding the Mercedes issue of niches to over-emphasise the marque’s brandwidth whilst maintaining a low average CO2 level for the company.
Toyota have shown that a premium car needn’t have a premium badge if it can be different in a more unusual way. By pioneering the use of hybrid technology Toyota have set themselves apart with the Prius, and that car’s reputation demonstrates the effect which advanced technology can have on a vehicle’s image. It gets better too, for fans of XJ-sized saloons. Petrol/electric hybrids such as Tesla’s new Model S are reputedly just as quick and feel just as effortless as the multi-cylindered behemoths of yesteryear. It’d benefit the USA and China – as nations in which a larger car is still a status symbol, the concept of sustainable and eco-friendly performance enables marques to retain F-segment cars without impacting upon their average emissions targets. And with teams such as Audi campaigning hybrid cars in motorsport – the R18 e-tron taking first and second at last year’s Le Mans – this desire to integrate hybrid technology into a brand’s heritage demonstrates the importance hybrids are to play in the future of premium motoring.
The point about China is worth expanding. The Chinese market for premium vehicles is expanding at over 36% per annum, and even Bentley have designed the new Flying Spur with the Chinese market in mind. The definition of a premium vehicle in 2013 and beyond has to include “Chinese appeal”, for that is where the future of the premium sector lies.
We also need to touch upon the dealership experience. If potential customers are made to feel at home, given all the information and put under no pressure, or if returning customers can buy their third or fourth car from the man who sold him the first, then they will feel far more at ease with the brand and is more likely to ameliorate it mentally. The customer will also have more confidence in both the product and the after-sales service of the dealership (which must also be excellent). A recent Bloomberg article highlighted the effect of automotive customer service in China – recommendations boost a brand’s image, and treating the customer like a prince ensures this.
So what best defines a premium product in 2013, and what should manufacturers consider as aims for the future? A rationalised model range with minimal overlap, a distinct design theme, and for the car to be at the forefront of technology. Motorsport pedigree is a welcome bonus. The dealer experience also needs to be second to none, and staff should remain constant. The needs of the Chinese market should also be borne in mind ideally, as this is where the industry needs to focus in the coming years.
Are we perhaps getting it wrong, though? A recent Autocar article suggests that the up and coming young professionals of today appear disinterested in car ownership. With car clubs and car sharing becoming ever more popular, could the future of premium be so humble as a personal Dacia Sandero?