Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Inadvertant Body Doubles, Part II

I'm sorry Jaguar, but I just have to...

The new Jaguar XF (which replaces the S-Type)

The Hyundai Elantra

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Alphabet Soup Crucible

BMW just lost its lawsuit seeking to enjoin Infiniti from using the standalone letter "M" in marketing for its models, based on the rationale that Infiniti's marketing of its M35/45 dilutes the Motorsports brand at BMW (responsible for the M3, etc.).

When I first read the following on MotiveMagazine.com, I was about to write a scathing critique of BMW:

"Several months after BMW won an injunction against Nissan to prevent the Infiniti brand from badging its cars as 'M', Motor Authority is reporting that a Canadian court has ruled in the latter's favor. BMW had argued that Infiniti was peddling "inferior and more modestly priced" cars and was tarnishing the prestige of its M brand."

But after following this dead link to the Motor Authority website, and then manually searching out the real story (here, by the way), the tune changed. The fact is, this was a gross oversimplification by Motive, which really missed the point of the suit. Badging is not the issue. BMW was fine with the names M30, M35 and M45, as Infiniti has used thus far. The issue was the way Infiniti was advertising the cars, with the solitary letter M, which could be argued lends ambiguity to the message, creating the possibility of confusion with BMW's M division.

I was checking out Motive at the behest of AutoBlog, which proffered it as a new alternative to the more traditionally focused mainline print and online mags, like Car and Driver and Winding Road. This site is aimed at the tech-savvy young-un like myself, who, in AutoBlog's words, "doesn't seem to need the page turning (virtual or not)."

Well, interesting idea, but if in actuality it's run by a bunch of slackers who don't bother to actually read the stories they purport to summarize, then I say, "No, thanks."

Okay, back to the real story. While I think there is legitimate complexity to be considered in this suit, I'm still glad that BMW lost. Had they prevailed, it might have opened the door for infighting among industry players over similar model names. Sure, it might be idiotic for a brand like Lincoln to name a sedan the LS and a crossover the MKX, since this does create some confusion. But it should be up to the industry to police itself on these matters, especially since the party that often ends up "injured" by this foolishness is the unestablished brand that shot itself in the foot in the first place.

Does BMW realistically think that those pining for an M5 would have second thoughts because Infiniti has worn out the letter on its more pedestrian mid-sized sedan? To suggest that a company can lay claim to a letter is as absurd a notion as me trying to buy the rights to...a letter! At the moment, I really can't think of a better example than this.

Sure, if Infiniti made a deliberate attempt to hijack BMW's brand equity, naming one of it's products...I don't know...the M3, this complaint would be supportable in a court of law. But as it stands, BMW's claim needs more evidence that there is demonstrable benefit or harm to one party, and that just isn't forthcoming.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Mercury That Could Be

Ever since the 2nd generation Focus launched in Europe, American enthusiasts have pined for it. It's a fantastic car, with refined styling, a high-quality interior and fantastic chassis dynamics. And the ST220 version, with the same 2.5T I-5 found in the Volvo S40, gives the VW GTI a run for its money. Look at it...is that a sweet car, or what?

Anyway, Ford of Europe just came out with another pretty sweet ride that our shores will never see. The new Mondeo (you may have noticed it in the latest Bond movie) is a credible competitor to the VW Passat. While slightly smaller than the US market Fusion, its interior has a level of refinement way past anything sold in this market by the Blue Oval.

Ford tried to bring the Mondeo to the US over a decade ago, as the Contour and Mystique. But the car was a bit small inside and expensive to sell as a Ford product. The fact is, if Ford tried this ploy again, it would probably meet with similar results, as the new car is even higher quality and more expensive.

On the plus side, the new model has grown to the point that American consumers would feel comfortable inside. And that consumer is gradually getting over the notion that price must always have a direct relationship with size. Cars like the Mini Cooper and latest generation GTI are chipping away at this mentality.

Still, Ford's brand image would have a tough time supporting prices like those required to sell the Euro Focus and Mondeo at a profit here. The fact is, Ford would need a clean slate to launch these cars. And as luck would have it, they pretty much have one.

What is Mercury to the American consumer? Well, I think if you ask most people, you'll hear something like, "Well, I guess it's a little more expensive than Ford." Aside from that, people really have no idea what the brand stands for.

The Sword of Damocles has been hanging over Mercury's head for a while. What's the point of this brand? people ask. Well, here's an easy answer. Suggest bringing Euro Fords to the US as Mercurys to a Ford exec and he'll probably come back at you with something like, "Well, it would be too expensive to bring it in line with US regulations." We in the business like to apply a highly technical term to this line of reasoning. It's called bullshit.

Of course General Motors got over this hurdle before Ford, and has begun importing cars from its other divisions around the globe. The Aussie Holden Commodore will be the Pontiac G8, and several Euro Opels will be joining the fun as Saturns.

The Saturn Experiment 2.0 got off to a shaky start last year, though the brand has begun to gain ground. And the real test will be in the form of the new Vue (an Opel Antara) and Astra. The former has arrived here already, with the latter set to check in shortly. These cars are true Opels, unlike the Aura which is simply a classed-up Pontiac G6. Saturn's climb out of the brand doldrums will be slow, but they have the right product, and that is the only right way to execute a brand renaissance.

So will Ford see the light? It's likely that after Saturn has completed its metamorphosis, Ford will take a look and get a severe case of margin envy. By then, though, the Mercury brand may already be 6 feet under. Ford, do yourselves a favor and make a move now, while the gettin's good.

Monday, August 6, 2007

The sky is falling!!! ...and other myths

With apologies to AutoWeek, the automotive apocolypse is not nigh. You will not have to relearn how to drive when you buy your next car. Nor will that car be so ugly that you'll have to use the back door at your country club.

I refer to the email that my friend Michelle forwarded me, in which it was proclaimed:

"This is the new Mercedes Benz SCL600."

It continued by showing pictures of the car and claiming that the really unique thing about the car was its interior:

"No steering wheel, you drive it with a joystick. No pedals either. Can you drive with a joystick? Your kids and grandkids probably can. The influence of video games in our lives has really arrived, wouldn't ya say? SCARY THOUGHT THAT NOW A 7 YEAR OLD COULD STEAL YOUR CAR AND PROBABLY DRIVE IT BETTER THAN YOU."

You've gotta love the alarmist myths that circulate by email. Just go to sites like snopes.com and you'll see how many ridiculous things people will believe.

Okay, so let's set this one straight. Yes, this car existed. No, it's not "the new Mercedes Benz SCL600". In fact this car is the F 200 Imagination concept from the Paris Motor Show back in...wait for it...1996. That's right, 11 years ago. (Thanks to Markus for finding this one.)

What's so bizarre about this is not that emails are circulating trying to scare people into thinking that the days of the steering wheel are over. It's that these pictures started resurfacing in June (according to what I've seen) in posts by "auto enthusiasts" as the SCL600. These are people who claim to actually like cars, and talk as if they know what the hell is going on. But its headlights are dead ringers for the last-gen S-Class and its grille is similar to the one on the SLK concept. This car would never be mistaken for a contemporary concept by anyone who knows anything about auto design. I think it's only fair for the people who posted these pics be punished with the sentence of having to drive around a car with an ass like this for the next year.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Wonders of Magnesium

Ugh, enough Mitsubishi! We don't care about your magnesium paddle shifters. Please don't tell me that anyone is truly being swayed by this little product attribute. Sure, BMW uses magnesium for some of its engine blocks, and this light and strong metal has some legitimate benefit in this application. Would these tiny paddles be so heavy if they were made out of another metal; would they be so weak if they were made of plastic? Simple answer: no. The new Lancer looks pretty sweet. We don't need cheap ploys to get excited about it.