‘Beat the Germans’. If you ask an enthusiast what it would take for a luxury brand to gain credibility here, this would be their answer. RWD. V8s, V10s and V12s. World Class racecar handling. Sick ‘ring times. You cannot compete with the Germans without those things, and your results in the market will surely reflect that if you try...right? Not so fast.
This is a picture of the entire vehicle market in the United States, in order of October 2015 Year To Date Volume. You can pour over this data yourself at goodcarbadcar.net. I’ve taken the liberty of extracting the luxury brand-related data. What follows is a picture of luxury brand performance in the United states.
These are my takeaways from this.
The third best selling Luxury Marquee in the United States is...Buick. RWD, V8 power, excellent Handling, bespoke engines and chassis’; these are the things you cannot get from this marquee, yet they they are ahead of Lexus and handily beating Audi. If you look at their lineup, you can see it’s full of Also-rans. Every car they sell is represented somewhere else in GMs portfolio. That should be poisonous to a Luxury brand, but Buick is unlikely to face punishment for this. Between 2012 and 2014, Buick increased their presence in the market by 50k cars. They are accelerating. We can also see why there is not and likely will not be a RWD performance Buick in the line up; their position in the market is strong enough for such a product to threaten BMW, Mercedes, Audi...and Cadillac.
Acura is another poster child for the ‘See what happens when you don’t do as the Germans?’ argument. They may have failed to make a RWD V8 M5 supersedan competitor, but being right on Audi’s heels shows why they have not produced such a vehicle; no one who buys Acuras wants that from them.
Almost no one here would throw the ‘failed luxury marquee’ label at Jaguar, but we can see here they are at the bottom of the market in the US. They’re doing everything enthusiasts say are right; RWD only line up, V8 supercharged performance, excellent interior appointments, Nurburgring chassis tuning, competing with in-house tuner brands like M and AMG; all of this is aimed at giving Jaguar the credibility enthusiasts say a luxury brand needs here, but the market is currently not rewarding them for it. Their volume has been ticking up slightly though, and will probably continue after the F-Pace launch, but given that frequent enthusiast punching bag Lincoln has almost 7x their volume, they still have a long way to go.
Volvo has Comparable Volume to Range Rover and Porsche, but the sub-six figure price tag of their line up means they can’t play the low volume-high margin game like those brands can. They’re more like Jaguar with almost 5x the volume. Given that they had 86% (!) growth in volume relative to last October and the excellent XC90 launched to a great reception of buyers and reviewers alike, they probably won’t stay down here much longer. Jag needs something similar to happen with the F-Pace if they want Volvo’s volume and growth here.
You can almost cleanly see the division in business models between Luxury brands. Ones that rely on Volume (Everyone with more than 100k car volume YTD) and ones that rely on cultivating an image of exclusivity (read: Low volume and high margin). Porsche, Land Rover, Bentley, etc., make up the difference in volume by charging exorbitant prices for features. Did you know you can option out a Boxster to almost $200k? The number of folks actually shelling out that much for it are really low, but probably not zero, and each sale here is probably worth 3-4 Boxsters by itself.
We’re told over and over again that building a luxury brand means one thing and one thing only; go after the Germans. It’s a great formula for building awesome cars enthusiasts care about, but as we can see here, many in the market for a luxury car don’t really care for precise Nurburgring carving handling, RWD, and fire-breathing twin turbo V8s. Worse still; playing to the enthusiast card almost exclusively as Jaguar has done is a recipe for tiny volume and fluctuating growth, none of which you want from a luxury brand. We can see this even more clearly when we zoom in and look at the most popular mid-size luxury cars in the US;
In first place, we have an illegitimate badge-swapped FWD imposter. In 4th? Lincoln MKZ. That’s curious and critical grab in the market for a ‘failed luxury brand’ to get.