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April 03, 2006

Coupe (Marketing) Runneth Overboard

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Last year Mercedes-Benz introduced a swoopily-styled four-door sedan, model CLS, that company marketers insisted was a coupe! A four-door coupe, as a matter of fact. And the first of its kind no less, according to accounts in automobile magazines.

Mercedes is being silly.

A coupe traditionally is a two-door car with "close-coupled" seating if it has front and rear seats (Detroit also used to market "business coupes" that had only a front seat). Coupes were less roomy and had sportier styling than two-door sedans.

The Mercedes CLS 500 Coupe -- the official name for one variant -- has four doors and its only coupe-like attribute is a low roofline to the rear that gives the passenger compartment a cramped, but sporty, look.

Moreover it's not even the first of its kind, from my perspective. Let's look at some evidence:


Mercedes CLS 500.jpg
Mercedes-Benz CLS 500 Coupe.
This four-door sedan is supposed to be a "coupe."

Dodge Charger - 1999 Det Show.jpg
Dodge Charger show car at 1999 Detroit Auto Show.
This car also has four doors, a low roofline to the rear and it considerably pre-dates the CLS.

Dodge Charger 99 show - open doors.jpg
The Charger with its doors opened.

Pontiac Grand Prix 2004.jpg
Pontiac Grand Prix, 2004.
This car also has a low roof and four doors. Plus, it beat the CLS to production by a few years.


So the whole thing's a marketing ploy that makes the longstanding car-term "coupe" meaningless should Mercedes succeed in getting everyday folks to call the CLS a coupe.

The car itself was controversial because of its styling when introduced, but on the street it has proved to be an eye-grabber. I haven't given the styling a great deal of thought, but my impressions have been favorable -- except for that criminally misguided name.



posted by Donald at April 3, 2006


I don't mind the styling on the latest batch of cars from Mercedes, but they look a lot like Buicks. Given where GM is going (in a handbasket), I gotta wonder if Mercedes has really picked a winner here. Of course, I say this as somebody who thought Mercedes was the smartest car company in the world back in the 1980s for emphasizing "brand" over "innovation" in their styling. I mean, I thought it was clever to stick with a look that says "I am a car for rich guys. I have very good engineering and considerable comfort. I don't need to be flashy; I'm not trying to be au courant." Granted, BMW eventually ate their lunch, but that was with fairly strongly "branded" styling of their own.

Granted, what do I know?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 3, 2006 09:04 PM

Hm. I think Mercedes is making a mistake here. You have to keep in mind who their audience is. Does a car with this much "styling" really belong out on the parking lot with a Rolls? It looks more like the BMW crowd, which, if that's their target market, would make sense. But my question is this: where do they go from here once they set off down this flamboyant path? Again, remember who their customer base is.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 4, 2006 07:45 AM

At least Mercedes has a resonably decent image compared to some other luxury brands. I see a BMW and think "25-year-old former frat boy who just got a big bonus"; I see a Porsche and think "recently divorced middle-aged man who wears thick gold chains"; I see a Range Rover and think "clinically brain-dead trophy wife"; I see a Cadillac Escalade and think "the repo man's one step behind."
Mercedes, in contrast, exudes an image of quality without gaudiness, a car for people who care about performance and engineering.

Posted by: Peter on April 4, 2006 03:48 PM

Friedrich -- Mercedes didn't fare well under Schrempp in the quality-control department and perhaps styling: that doubtless cost them sales this past year or so. The styling director back in the glory days you refer to (Bruno Sacco) retired long enough ago that the current crop of cars was done under other hands. But it can be hard to say where the styling director's influence ends and the CEO's begins when it comes to appearance. (Management, at a minimum, has to sign off on new designs.)

What will be interesting is the impact of new boss Dieter Zetsche who managed Chrysler's turnaround. Cleaning up quality control is an engineering/production thing. But styling is less tangible. It's unlikely that he'll bring in any of the Auburn Hills crew who have been so successful of late -- they're just too American for creating a German car, aren't they? (Still, that iconic German body on the Audi TT sports car was designed by an American, wasn't it?)

Charlton -- Mercedes has done some other odd stuff lately. Think of those sports cars with the long snouts tipped by the three-point star: I don't much like 'em. Nevertheless, the general styling scene evolves. At any given era there's a characteristic "look" -- think late 1970s when Ford and other makers were aping Mercedes' rectangular styling -- and there's a lot of pressure to keep the product line looking "fresh." As noted above, the ball's in Zetsche's court.

Peter -- Cute characterizations.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 4, 2006 06:12 PM

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