Wish I Could Migrate With the Wildebeests

There’s a problem in the automotive world, and it’s not that automakers are forsaking the enthusiast driver.  In fact, one could argue that now is as good a time as any to be an enthusiast—at least on paper.

The problem is that the enthusiast options exist— but ONLY on paper, and not in tangible, glistening candy apple red reality.  Dealers don’t stock enthusiast-appeal specs and trims, because in order to make money, dealers have to appeal to the mass market and be able to close a needy, yet skittish customer by sending them home in a new car TODAY.  That means filling their lot with boring, interchangeable, beige/white/silver/grey-on-black, automatic transmission, all-wheel drive models with DVD players and oversized twenty-two-inch rims wrapped in compromised all-season tires.

If an enthusiast is interested in something better, something interesting, something like, say—an Ecoboost Mustang coupe with stick, performance pack, and non-black interior.   Or a 6-cylinder front-wheel-drive Chrysler 200 with a non-black interior, or a 1.4T Jeep Renegade with steelies, 4×4, and stick, or an absolute base-model Fiat 500X 1.4T with stick and front-drive…I could go on, but unless they’re lucky, the enthusiast will not be able to test-drive any of these examples (all of which, according to automaker websites, are obtainable).

Who is going to make the $50k leap on buying a stick Chevy SS when they’ve never had a chance to drive one?  What about the $40k leap on a BMW 228i coupe with stick (late edit: most recent R&T says BMW “lost their way” with the 228i—sounds like it’s not even an option worth considering anyway)?  The point is, it’s a tough sell to get a consumer to throw all that cash at something they can’t see or touch before they’re stuck with it.

This creates a cyclical effect, where STEP 1) makers produce a performance trim level/option package, STEP 2) dealers don’t buy it because it doesn’t suit the mainstream, STEP 3) enthusiast customers can’t see it and touch it so they don’t buy it, STEP 4) the maker stops building it, and then STEP 5) enthusiast consumers cry out that the maker doesn’t build any exciting cars.

In my mind, this cycle is what led Toyota to become the world’s top-selling automaker—after making such gems as the 2000GT and the Supra, the brand eventually shed all pretense of building anything interesting or innovative and instead focused on pushing as many keyfobs for staid, beige vehicles across dealer desks as possible.  Well, what’s wrong with that, you ask?

I’ll tell you.  Part of building and selling cars is selling the consumer on a dream about getting something—not just anything, but a great BIG something that is significantly better than what that consumer has now.  Lately, Toyota is participating in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, collaborating with Subaru on the FRS/BRZ, whispering rumors to the press about a liaison with BMW, and overall trying desperately to inject themselves with an exciting viability.  Why are they doing this?  Because they realized that if they stopped trying to excite, and innovate, and push the envelope, and showcase the dream of better-ness (all things they essentially HAD stopped doing for a while in the mid-to-late 2000’s), eventually their engineering would become dull and passé.  All of those sales numbers they took for granted were suddenly in danger of disappearing because their products were teetering on the precipice between bland and inoffensive to downright non-competitive.  If that happened, they would no longer able to offer something any better than what the consumer already owned, and even their most shameless sycophants would begin to question them.  This very thing happened recently to Honda with the 2012 Civic—a great case in point, and perhaps another indicator that helped spur Toyota to act.

Enthusiast consumers are stuck with this vicious cycle, though, for two reasons.  First is the flawed, mass perception about car-buying—that it must be as fast a process as possible.  This forces a dealer to stock exactly what the lowest common denominator would want to act on and go home with that same day.  This is a doubly destructive practice, as it often saddles that customer with something other than exactly what they want, which leads to regret or anger about the purchase, which leads to a widespread culture of consumer distrust regarding dealers.  The second reason is the politically connected National Auto Dealers Association, which ironically lobbies lawmakers to pass legislation that maintains and reinforces this flawed status quo.  A prime example is NADA’s recent effort to shut down Tesla’s direct-sales model.  I do not mean to suggest that dealers are all evil money-grubbing middlemen, but rather that their incentives are flawed.  The clever manufacturer would provide some additional incentive for dealers to push enthusiast models.  After all, in the long run, the enthusiast models (and their owners) are what burnish the brand image.

Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.  So, sadly, like Calvin says, “Life is full of precluded possibilities.”  The wildebeests might be out there, but they might as well be in Africa as close as most enthusiasts will get to them.




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