A gap forever unbridged

The gap between perception and reality is wide, and there are times when I think it’s growing wider yet. For the vendors of motor vehicles, it’s downright painful:

Every brand, every model, every trim level is sold to two buyers: the imaginary buyer and the real one.

The impossibly beautiful and perfect forty-year-old woman who fairly bubbles out of her Christmas-morning negligee upon spotting a red-ribboned new Lexus SUV in her driveway; the square-jawed, Vacheron-Constantin-wearing man’s man who attentively pilots his Nine Eleven down a rainy autobahn; the quartet of twenty-something models without which no Jeep Wrangler would be complete — imaginary buyers, all of them.

None of them, however, sign the checks. These people do:

Real buyers are far less interesting. They’re primarily concerned with the cheap shine of perceived prestige, the dimly understood terror of major mechanical difficulty, and the hard graft of discounted pricing.

Now: to whom is the following pitch, well, pitched?

“If you were designing a new luxury car, how would you make it stand apart from the crowd? Would you give it the most powerful V6 engine in its class? Would you create the most spacious cabin in its class? Maybe you’d offer luxury touches and a level of ingenuity that you couldn’t find anywhere else. Surely, laying claim to any one of these achievements would set you apart from today’s crowd of luxury automobiles. Imagine how special you’d be if you could claim all of them.”

The guys who design cars in their heads, or during study hall, don’t design luxury cars; they design track stars, cars with maybe a gesture or two toward creature comforts but which are primarily intended to complete a road course 3.5 seconds faster than the other guy. And they never, ever say “in its class,” unless they mean an actual racing class.

So your Real Buyers here — and this model did sell fairly well — are largely responding to poseur bait. What’s weird is that this particular line is devoted to upscale cars with plenty of go-fast bits, but the manufacturer seems to be assuming their owners are basically badge snobs. I suspect they’re hedging their bets, just in case the cynics on staff were right.

(Disclosure: I drive the very car advertised in that “luxury-car” spiel. Go figure.)


  1. Kay Dennison »

    3 January 2009 · 8:37 pm

    All I ask of my car is that it gets from point A to point B reliably and economically these days. My days of sports cars and muscle cars are gone. And the only “luxury” car I ever owned was a Chrysler New Yorker — boring as hell.

  2. Lisa Paul »

    3 January 2009 · 9:40 pm

    I drive a Prius. What does that say about me? And I drive one of the really old ones. You know the cheapies that Toyota put on the road in California just to meet the quotas of fuel efficient cars they needed to meet in order to import into our market. My car was squarely marketed at “crunchy granola ex-hippies”. Next thing you know, Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio and other Hollywood stars were driving them. So that’s what my car says about me. Yeah, that’s it. I’m a Hollywood STAR!

  3. CGHill »

    3 January 2009 · 9:44 pm

    Hey, crunchy granola ex-hippies have to get around, too. :)

    Actually, what this says most is that Toyota built those suckers to last. (I’ve only had one Toyota, a ’75 Celica GT, but I didn’t retire it until well into the 90s.)

  4. McGehee »

    4 January 2009 · 11:43 am

    Comfort, reliability and the knowledge that I can accelerate out of harm’s way faster than the idiot in the other car can close my escape route. Economy, at the time I got my current truck, was a lot less of a concern than it was this past summer and fall, but that’s the trade-off for the big-block V8 that gives me that acceleration. I also like knowing that most people see this big heavy truck and assume it has the acceleration capability of a fully-loaded 18-wheeler.

    The knowledge from first-hand experience that I can actually take this thing places most people with four-wheel-drive vehicles would never think of going — and still in two-wheel mode, at that — is a nice additional feature.

  5. unimpressed »

    4 January 2009 · 2:41 pm

    I’d wager heavily that if it weren’t for inclement weather, the vast majority of 4WD vehicles sold would never even have the front axles locked as I believe that the farthest they ever get off the pavement is into the ditch, mostly due to driver overconfidence in their improved traction during the aforementioned inclement weather. 4WD/AWD is great during instances of LOW traction as opposed to the NO traction afforded by ice, they may help the thing get going but helps not at all for slowing down.

  6. CGHill »

    4 January 2009 · 3:05 pm

    In fact, it might cost them in braking, inasmuch as 4WD/AWD inevitably adds mass, and all else being equal, greater mass is harder to slow down.

  7. McGehee »

    4 January 2009 · 10:28 pm

    My last several opportunities to drive in snow, I preferred front-wheel drive if available. I’ve never been stupid enough to drive a heavy rear-wheel drive truck on ice.

  8. xarcadia »

    5 January 2009 · 9:38 am

    Oh the sadness. I told my sister the other day that if I lived in a place that didn’t get buried under 100,000 feet of snow every winter, I would get a sedan. Unfortunately as this most recent snowstorm was a clear indication of, boy oh boy do I need my SUV. I certainly wasn’t the negligee wearing buyer though who looks seductively into the camera and says “when you turn your car on, does it return the favour”. No. I was the pain in the ass at the car dealership that they sold the car to at a discount because they just wanted me to go away!

  9. CGHill »

    5 January 2009 · 12:20 pm

    Not that I’d ever want to discourage women in lingerie from selling cars, but that was a majorly dumb ad — and for Cadillac, yet. Caddy ads need to be no more complicated than “It’s a Cadillac, dammit. And your car sucks.”

  10. unimpressed »

    5 January 2009 · 5:02 pm

    T’hell with the Caddy, the gal in the commercial turned ME on. :)

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