So which would you rather have: a Mercedes-Benz or a Hyundai?

This isn't as ridiculous a question as it seems. If you have $26,500, a rather middling sum for an automobile these days, you can have the bottom-of-the-line Benz, the C230 Kompressor coupe with a supercharged 2.3-liter inline four; or you can have the high-end Hyundai, the XG350 sedan with a 3.5-liter V6, and about a thousand dollars left over. Of course, Mercedes being Mercedes, you can easily add another ten grand to the price, while the Hyundai is stuffed with everything in every conceivable Korean parts bin, but still, it's possible to buy either of these cars for a price well short of thirty K.

Some will ask, "What in the world is Hyundai doing, trying to compete with the likes of Mercedes?" Better they should ask, "What in the world is Mercedes-Benz doing, trying to compete with the likes of Hyundai?" The house that Gottlieb Daimler built used to have a slogan: Das Beste oder Nichts. "The best, or nothing." I find it hard to believe that anyone at DaimlerChrysler AG actually thinks it's possible to deliver Das Beste at this price point. Is raw market share worth that much? The whole idea of Mercedes-Benz, all these years, has been to deliver an automobile with high precision and prodigious technological smarts, suitable for the most advanced driving tasks (and, by extension, the most advanced drivers) in the world. None of these characteristics can be said to come cheaply.

And it's not just DaimlerChrysler pulling this sort of stunt. Jaguar is currently selling a low-end (well, low for Jaguar, anyway) four-door sedan called the X-type, which is basically the European Ford Mondeo fitted out with all-wheel drive and some Jaguar-specific bits under the hood and in the suspension. Its styling is vaguely reminiscent of older Jags, and its handling has been tuned to be as Jaglike as possible. Prices start at barely $30,000, though as with the Benz, it's easy to spend a third again as much by checking off expensive options. And I suppose that it's unfair to complain about obvious parts-bin engineering: Sir William Lyons built his first cars with workaday components from British blandmobiles. But still, if a car with a Jaguar badge is more easily attainable than, say, a Pontiac Bonneville, something is a trifle askew.

And there is precedent for my discomfort. Automobile magazine (March 2002) did a comparison of the very same Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai models mentioned above, and writer Don Sherman minced no words:

"Sprinkling silver stars too liberally throughout the market will sap this brand's prestige surely and inevitably."

Mr Sherman is also old enough to remember Packard, once among the highest of high-end American cars, which moved downmarket in the early Thirties in an effort to survive the Depression. In 1942, the demands of World War II had