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More Insight Into Mazda’s Prospects

July 30, 2013 by Matt

2014 Mazda 3 Red

In a recent feature, Car and Driver provides some analysis of an issue that provoked some pondering a little over a year ago: Why, in spite of a stellar lineup of cars, does Mazda still struggle to find lasting success compared to its rivals?

In my post, I speculated:

[A] glance at Mazda’s output—the 3, 6, RX-8, MX-5, CX-7, CX-9 and Tribute, among others—reveals vehicles that are almost always a joy to drive, but in terms of mass-market appeal, are a little out-of-step with mainstream tastes. They’re not boring transportation appliances, and as much as we enthusiasts would consider that a selling point, the hard truth is that much of the buying public is looking for the anonymous beige box to tote them around, never breaking down and getting 30 mpg and playing their MP3s via Bluetooth.

And while I’ve no doubt that’s part of the problem, C&D shines light on some additional albatrosses around Mazda’s neck, among them a temporarily favorable yen-to-dollar exchange rate putting the automaker in a precarious position from a pricing standpoint, vehicles that are well-sized for the American market but not ideal from a global perspective and a separation from corporate partner Ford that eliminates economies of scale facilitated by platform engineering.

By my count, between them, the CX-5 and 6 have three C&D comparo wins and the CX-5 notched another victory in the latest issue of Motor Trend. That kind of success in such a short span of time is absolutely unheard of for automakers other than media darlings like BMW and Audi, and contributes to the feeling of mystification among car buffs. We ask ourselves: “If the German performance marques leverage critical success into sales figures, why can’t Mazda?” But as C&D points out, the equation for a downmarket (though no less dynamically excellent) automaker is a bit more…nuanced.

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Acura’s Meadering Road

June 10, 2013 by Matt

2014 Acura RLX Silver Nose Front Headlights

In his latest column, a comprehensive rating of automotive brand image “hotness,” Peter De Lorenzo takes particular aim at Acura’s persistent inability to focus their brand:

Acura design is an oxymoron. These cars blend into the woodwork like a gray flannel suit on an overcast day. This is supposed to be the best of Honda? It sure doesn’t look or feel like it. Instead, Acura still exists as a perennial symbol of the confusion that reigns at Honda. What are they doing? I’m not sure they know.

I couldn’t agree more. Take the somnolent nose of the 2014 RL shown above, for example. Acura big selling point is the fact that the headlights feature LEDs. That’s all fine and good, but there are two fatal flaws in that line of advertising:

  1. Audi’s been putting LEDs in their headlights for years, maybe not as the primary source of illumination, but it’s profoundly old news, and
  2. The last luxury car to use its headlight design as a selling point was the ghastly ’01-’06 Infiniti Q45, and then only because the car’s design had absolutely no other redeeming qualities. Touting such a tiny detail is hardly what I’d call putting your best foot forward, design-wise.

2007 Acura TL Type-S Blue

If the latest RL and especially the mercifully defunct ZDX are examples of Acura’s worse design examples, what’s one of the better ones, and a possible clue as to what Acura’s design direction should be? The ’04’-08 TL (shown above). I see these on my commute all the time and they never fail to catch my eye. The styling is crisp, tailored, aggressive and cohesive. The whole car has an arrow-like flow from nose to tail, and the flanks are adorned with unique channels tying together the side markers and door handles. With the contemporary TSX, it exemplified a high period in Acura’s styling history; before and after the mid-2000s their designs were and are mind-numbingly bland.

For better or worse, the attractiveness of the automaker’s vehicles seems to have a direct correlation with their quality as drivers’ cars; more than that, the more focused the design effort, the sharper Acura’s marketing outlook seems to be as well. Honda’s luxury marque has so much to offer; here’s hoping their reflect on their own history and draw lessons from the times when their cars were better received.

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On Jaguar’s Search for a Sporting Identity

May 21, 2013 by Matt

2014 Jaguar F-Type Black Rear

In a recent column, Peter De Lorenzo skewers Jaguar’s latest marketing efforts:

The stewards of Jaguar have decided that they will use the launch of the F-Type to reinvent the brand so as to appeal to a whole new hipper audience. In the process of doing so they will turn the brand into a recurring joke, with “baddest ass badboys” thrown in for good measure.

It’s an insult to the brand’s legacy and a rank insult to anyone who might even be remotely interested in checking the F-Type out.

I’d take it even further, though, and conjecture the British automaker’s recent hit-and-miss attempts to reposition themselves in the marketplace extend past the veneer of marketing, down into the realm of production development. Marketers, after all, although they influence engineers and designers, can only work with what they’re given.

With the new F-Type, Jaguar’s (ambitiously) stated benchmark is the Porsche 911, and yet the car weighs 400 lbs more than a base 911 and sports no manual transmission option, at least initially. Sure, they may load the car up with enough power to dust the German sports car in a straight line, but nowadays your average high-performance luxury sedan from Mercedes and Audi can accomplish that feat—the differences lies in the dynamics. That’s what makes a car distinctive; what gives it personality, character, and over time, what builds a brand image. The F-Type, regrettably, seems to take a page from the retro-themed BMW Z8 playbook in that it tries to be all things to all people—luxury cruiser and tire-smoking sports car—and ends up not being very good at either of them. Not only that, but its design is far too backward-looking in light of the successful launch of the XF and XJ luxury sedans, whose design ushered in new themes for Jaguar and had the opportunity to help position the brand as a design leader, a British Audi, if you will—if they had maintained that forward-looking styling direction.

But…the F-Type is a step backward design-wise, and its powerplant and chassis philosophy reflect a lack of focus on the part of its manufacturer. In light of that, perhaps the marketers are simply making the best of a less-than-ideal situation.

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5 Cars That Dropped in Weight
and Were the Better For It

May 8, 2013 by Matt

Call it The Car Diet Hall of Fame. The automotive win-win scenario, losing poundage benefits every performance metric, from acceleration and braking to handling and fuel economy. The only conceivable downside, besides the potential for a loss of interior space, is the surrender of protective bulk attenuating the force of a collision, but careful engineering can mitigate that disadvantage almost entirely.

Adding weight, more features, more space, more heft seems to be the path of least resistance when it comes to car development. The following, then, represent somewhat anomalous engineering solutions; they’re the exceptions, and deserve to be recognized as such:

1993 Mazda RX-7 RX7 FD Red

1993-1995 Mazda RX-7. Its explosive performance was as much a result of its 255 hp twin-turbo rotary engine as its 2,850 lb curb weight, a figure the wizards at Mazda managed to pare down by 100 lbs compared to the previous generation.

Lexus LS400 UCF20

1994-1997 Lexus LS400. Already covered in our “Underrated Lookers” series, Lexus was able to trim the original LS400’s weight by 200 lbs for the follow-up, down to a remarkable (especially nowadays) 3,600 lbs. Its lighter weight directly contributed to a Car and Driver comparo victory over such lofty competition as the BMW E38 and Mercedes W124 E-Class.

2014 New Mazda 6 Six Red

2014-present Mazda 6. When I first got wind that a new 6 was forthcoming, as much a fan as I am of the looks and execution, I was nervous about its performance vis-a-vis its competition, since I thought a 145 hp 4-cylinder would be the only engine available with a manual transmission option. Turns out not only was my worry unfounded—the new 6 weighs in at a very trim 3,100 lbs, making it easier for the supposed engine’s meager power to move around—the 189 hp engine is the lowest output available, and that with a 6-speed manual option to boot. Looks, handling, weight, power: Win-win-win-win.

1987 1988 Ford Thunderbird T-bird Tbird Turbo Coupe Super

9th-Generation Ford Thunderbird. The 8th generation really represented the initial downsizing after the brutish land yacht wasteland of the ’70s, but the 9th generation was arguably when the Thunderbird finally found its newer, smaller footing, appropriating the very serviceable Fox chassis from the contemporary Mustang and the clean aero styling from the Taurus. The newer, smaller package holds a lot of appeal.

1996 Lotus Elise Silver

Lotus Elise. Singlehandedly responsible for the renaissance of the moribund brand, the Elise’s back-to-basics philosophy is almost entirely built around its featherlight, sub-2,000 lb weight. 500 more pounds and it would have been a non-starter, and Lotus would most likely be dead.

Given that cars that undergo a diet are almost universally praised for their dynamic qualities, while the additional space (if present) and features of the outgoing cars are rarely missed, it’s surprising that more automakers don’t prioritize light weight.

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and Were the Better For It

A Collection of Cars That Were Debadged…
By Their Manufacturers

April 5, 2013 by Matt

In the automotive world, the ultimate badge of shame is the lack of one applied by the factory. The following are a few examples of cars effectively disowned by their manufacturers while they still remained in production.

Pontiac Aztek Yellow Rear

Pontiac Aztek. The modern byword for complete automotive failure, it appears Pontiac had an inkling that the Aztek’s reception would be…less than favorable almost as soon as it hit showrooms, and quietly downsized its badging. The car’s name is still present, but only in non-contrasting body colors, and the trunklid bears the smallest logo imaginable. I wonder if they repurposed the keychains from the Pontiac gift store in order to create the emblems?

Hyundai Genesis Silver

Hyundai Genesis. This one’s somewhat unfortunate, since by all accounts the Genesis is a very nice car, and pleasing (or at least not offensive) to look at as well. Conscious that potential buyers might harbor concerns about brand cachet, its manufacturer designed the car with an unadorned grille and hood, as shown above. Here’s an idea, Hyundai: Why not create a new luxury marque and release the car under that brand? It’s not like it’s never been done before, and would give you the opportunity to, you know, actually seem proud of the worthy car you’ve created?

1995 Buick Skylark Grille

Buick Skylark. Between its angular grille (which paid homage to that of the 1940’s Buick Special), and its overwrought, late-’90s-Pontiac-ish plastic body cladding, the 1992-1995 Skylark was hardly a looker. It had the potential to be attractive, but Buick seemed to take all its designers’ worst ideas and combine them on one car. Initially released with a badge, after a year or two the emblem was removed from the grille, the prominence of which made the design decision very obvious. The Skylark underwent a full refresh for 1996 and the result looked much more normal…if more forgettable. So it goes.

Kia Amanti Gray

Kia Amanti. Like the Genesis above, this is another case of an economy car automaker attempting to go upmarket, but worried (somewhat justifiably) customers would cringe at the idea of driving a “luxury Kia.” So off came the badge, leaving other drivers to wonder exactly what kind of car was filling their rearview mirrors. As for the Amanti itself, other than styling that slavishly aped that of the W210 and W211 Mercedes E-Class sedans, Kia’s first crack at an entry-level luxury car was merely serviceable.

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By Their Manufacturers

Just When They Got It Right…
The Pontiac G8

February 22, 2013 by Matt

Pontiac G8 GXP Silver

Pontiac should’ve built the G8 20 years before it arrived at dealerships in 2009. Instead, it lasted two whole model years and was axed along with the entire brand.

The GM marque’s cars’ bark was always worse than their bite. Notorious for ages for being festooned with sporty-looking plastic side cladding, amped-up interior trimmings and yet being decidedly lackluster to drive, Pontiacs arguably represented all that was wrong about GM’s approach to performance cars. Sure, they may have had big engines and moved respectably well in a straight line, but the automaker’s lineup—cars like the Grand Am and later G6, Bonneville and Grand Prix—were all built on FWD platforms shared with cars from other GM divisions. In addition to wrong-wheel-drive, conspicuous in their absence were the option of a stickshift paired with the cars’ higher-end engine choices as well as any semblance of being fun to drive.

Pontiac G8 GXP Silver

A truly easy formula to master, after years of trying to convince the buying public, with varying degrees of success, that what matters vis-a-vis performance is the appearance of it, in the G8, Pontiac finally, finally had its first true sports sedan. And then killed it.

Pontiac G8 Engine Motor V8

A rebadged version of the Holden Commodore (a front-engined, RWD sports sedan produced for years by GM’s Australian arm), the top-of-the-line G8 GXP was available with a 6-speed manual gearbox bolted to a 415-hp iteration of the Corvette’s LS3 6.2l pushrod V8. The car’s 4.6-second sprint to 60 and excellent road manners belied its 3,950-lb weight. After years of trying to compete with the likes of BMW and Audi on a superficial level, Pontiac finally had a sedan with the engine, driveline and chassis chops to take them on. Was it really that hard?

Pontiac G8 GXP Interior Inside Console Cockpit Dash Dashboard

Even the interior is well laid-out and largely fluff-free. Coupled with the handsome, tailored, linebacker-ish exterior, the G8 was nothing less than the realization, in the flesh, of 30+ years of Pontiac marketing promises.

As for its demise, who’s to blame? GM has a history of misguided and shortsighted product development decisions, so it could well have been the penny-pinchers in upper management deciding that the perfect car for Pontiac really wasn’t worth it from a cost/benefit perspective. The more likely explanation is simply the fact that the G8 came out in 2009 in the throes of the recent economic downturn, when the Big 3 were holding their respective fire sales and axing anything and everything they could in order to remain solvent. Thus when Pontiac was selected for the block, the G8 was simply collateral damage. Shame.

Who knows; perhaps lightning does strike twice and GM will “get it” once more… But at the moment that’s too much to hope for.

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The Pontiac G8

The 2013 Parade of
Automotive Super Bowl Ads

February 1, 2013 by Matt

Increasingly, companies try to create a positive buzz around their upcoming Super Bowl commercials by releasing them early on the internet via YouTube or another social media outlet. Regardless of its effectiveness as a business decision versus capitalizing on the element of surprise by withholding an ad until the actual game, the week-before unveiling allows us to take an early peek at what automakers’ marketing departments have cooked up, and gives us a glimpse into their self-image and priorities.

My favorite, naturally, is the Audi spot featured at top. It’s fun, it showcases the actual car rather than projecting an amorphous emotion and hoping we associate it with the brand, and it really does communicate Audi’s bravery (some would say irrational stubbornness) in persisting with a mechanical configuration—quattro—inherently dynamically disadvantaged compared to those of its rivals. Well done.

For their part, Mercedes released a mildly racy teaser spot for their upcoming CLA, a baby CLS attempting to mimic its big brother’s swoopy lines and curb appeal in 2/3 scale. There really is little here besides the age-old (and admittedly effective) “sex sells” tactic.

The Kia ad is a teaser as well, and it certainly takes the “most potential to be truly bizarre” prize.

The cheeseball award this year has to go to VW‘s somewhat cringe-inducing faux-Jamaican accent office guy ad, a commercial that, as mentioned above, attempts to channel what the automaker hopes is the feeling drivers experience when behind the wheel of a VW, but somehow comes up short.

And then there’s Lincoln. Hapless, floundering Lincoln’s marketing department couldn’t even come up with a fresh idea of their own, so they called in air support and enlisted the “help” of social media so owners could supply them with a premise for their spot. In general (pun intended), I like Ford the best of the Big Three, and so I have every hope in the world that Lincoln finds its footing in the midst of the cloud of global luxury marques, but after witnessing their initial attempt at crafting an original commercial, I’m somewhat less optimistic about their chances of survival, to say nothing of actually thriving.

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Automotive Super Bowl Ads

Audi and BMW:
A Tale of Two Brand Identities

November 26, 2012 by Matt

Audi BMW Corporate Logos

Over the past 14 years, the brand perception of these two German luxury automakers have followed decidedly different trajectories.

Note that I’m not talking about corporate profitability. Even as I make the case that Audi’s efforts at building and consolidating their brand image have far outstripped BMW’s, the latter remains a thoroughly successful company. I intend to focus more on brand perception, especially among nominally impartial enthusiasts like myself.

14 years ago, BMW was on a tear. Their primary lineup consisted of the E36 3-series, the sports sedan benchmark at the pinnacle of its development, the beautiful E39 5-series, arguably the best 5-series generation yet made, and the E38 7-series, a bold and powerful player in the high-end luxury sedan market. BMW’s offerings were built on the automaker’s core philosophy of RWD, highly-tuned non-turbo engines and a focus on driver involvement. Most significantly, BMW’s lineup was relatively small, and again, rested upon the automaker’s non-negotiables.

Audi, for its part, was still finding its footing, particularly in the US market. As Peter De Lorenzo summarizes in his excellent commentary on Audi’s most recent Le Mans triumph:

Audi was a perennial “second-tier” brand behind BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus in the U.S. market, struggling to break out of the continuing funk that was the direct result of the hatchet-job performed by “60 Minutes” twelve long years before that (November 1986). The totally erroneous report by the CBS news program, which accused Audi of building vehicles that suffered from unintended acceleration, nearly put the brand out of business in this country – even though it was proven to be completely false – and it lingered over the car company like a shroud of negativity.

De Lorenzo points out that the Audi’s cars were fundamentally solid, if a step behind BMW’s in terms of enthusiast appeal, but the automaker’s brand perception needed rehabilitation.

Audi set about that task in a consistent, disciplined manner, focusing on appealing design, effectively applying technology developed through the automaker’s racing efforts to their production lineup, and most importantly, making intelligent product decisions and not overextending themselves into markets out of sync with the company’s brand focus. As a result, De Lorenzo writes:

Audi is now the forward thinking brand firmly ensconced at the head table of the luxury-performance segment. Boasting technically advanced and beautifully purposeful machines inside and out, Audi production cars bristle with brilliant, innovative ideas and are executed with a relentless precision. And they are beautiful to look at as well.

Meanwhile, from an enthusiast standpoint, BMW has squandered their carefully crafted brand image with an ill-fated foray into Formula 1, as well as dubious product decisions. Among others, they released the hideous Chris Bangle-designed E65 7-series, the frumpy X3 small SUV, the confusing X6 crossover and its downright baffling performance variant the X6 M, and the awkward 5-series GT midsize hatchback. The Bavarian automaker’s market experiments with alternative propulsion have been less than confident, the excellent 335d diesel-powered sports sedan notwithstanding. And BMW has suffered a succession of comparison test losses to its rival from Ingolstadt (A6 vs. 535i and S6 vs. M5) along with a shocking victory by the new Cadillac (!) ATS over the new F30 3-series in the key categories of chassis design and handling.

BMW’s performance benchmark the M3 is still a world-beater, demonstrating that in essentials, the automaker is still as good as it ever was, but the singular drive necessary to develop the M3 doesn’t seem to maintain itself throughout BMW’s lineup, and the brand is weakened. There’s expanding into untapped markets, and then there’s unfocused quasi-desperation, a quality BMW seems to be radiating of late. In the final analysis, as we look forward to 2013, BMW is offering less and less for enthusiasts to get excited about, and Audi’s lineup contains more and more.

The obvious response comes: Why should the corporate bean-counters at the helm of either company care what enthusiasts think? They run businesses, and if there are new opportunities, why not tap into them, brand history and consistency be damned? While that line of thinking has merit, consider the significance of branding to luxury and performance automakers in particular: In order to maintain brand image, a kind of above-the-fray certainty about product decisions must come through. A luxury or performance vehicle should sell itself, to a degree; its brand should shape popular trends, not chase them. In other words, it’s counterintuitive, but too much marketing is a sign customers aren’t beating a path to your door; they aren’t seeking you out like they should. And if nothing else, certainty was a quality BMWs exuded from their arrival here in the US market in the mid-’60s all the way through to the turn of the century. That confidence, coupled with a focus on capturing the enthusiast market, vaulted the automaker to its current place of prominence, and ever since 2000 or so BMW seems to be simply coasting on its brand capital while exploring every new market niche under the sun. No, the majority of its customers may not be enthusiasts, but many of them appreciate the opinions of enthusiasts when it comes to choosing a quality car; this is what drove the yuppie obsession with BMWs 30 years ago, and is important, I believe, for the brand’s continued appeal in the larger market. BMW needs to maintain its position as the enthusiast’s choice of luxury cars in order to sustain its brand image, and they simply cannot do that by exploring every last untapped market niche, as they seem intent on doing.

If the BMW emblem is to remain a beacon to car buffs like myself, the automaker needs to take a page from Audi’s playbook for the last 14 years: Recognize the brand’s traditional strengths and focus like a laser beam on those qualities while expanding the product line within that context, rather than distorting it out of all recognition.

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A Tale of Two Brand Identities

Should Scion Be Downsized?

July 6, 2012 by Matt

Scion Logo Trade Show Display

Car and Driver‘s Aaron Robinson grapples with this question, and leans toward the affirmative:

Scion is a brand conceived in a focus group, born in a fluorescent-lit marketing department, and wet-nursed by copious spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. It can claim no pedigree, no history. No Mr. Scion ever lived to turn his personal ambition into automobiles. When you buy a Scion, you buy into something akin to a second-year MBA’s class project on ways to penetrate the youth market by a car company that pins its fortunes almost entirely on aging baby boomers…

I have no doubt that Scion will eventually go the way of Plymouth.

Robinson touches on marketing and project development missteps by the brand, including redesigning their distinctive and successful first-generation xB econobox and tC sports coupe into anonymous, blobby shadows of their former selves. Although I agree with Robinson’s assessment on that point, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to lump in the brand with other defunct nameplates like Mercury, Saturn or even Oldsmobile and Pontiac. A primary reason for the demise of the marques listed was an utter lack of a market in comparison with their badge-engineered stablemates from the same overarching automaker (Ford, General Motors). Scion doesn’t have any internal competition at Toyota, and its mission to offer cars in the low-cost-yet-fun category is much better defined than that of Mercury or Oldsmobile, for example. There’s still a reason to keep Scion around, even if its parent company flounders somewhat in marketing its cars. Opportunity is still present, even if untapped.

Furthermore, from the perspective of an enthusiast, a multiplicity of nameplates is a welcome thing. In a day and age when brands are being euthanized right and left—Saab being the latest to kick the bucket—we should welcome diversity in contrast to an overweening corporate homogenization. Does any true car buff look forward to the prospect of a growing number of increasingly bland cars cranked out by just two or three automakers? No—more brands means more minds solving the same problems, more innovation, and more interest. That isn’t to say we should keep a brand on life support just to keep a nameplate alive in the absence of a worthy product, but in the case of Scion, compelling reasons do exist to maintain the marque, and other issues such as racing pedigree and history, although they take time, can be developed.

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