It used to be so easy – German-built good; made in Japan bad. But these days, cars are learning to keep their owner’s secrets
So, what you driving these days?” It’s an innocuous question, and one that’s posed with blood-cooling regularity. At face value, it’s just a dull, conversational opener. No one’s actually interested in what you drive, and if they wanted a more stimulating chat they’d ask you something more left-field: “Ever eaten ostrich?” “What do you think about the BNP?” “Are you allergic to latex?”
The reason people ask about cars is because the question is loaded. What they are really asking is: “How much do you earn?” “Are you on the way up, or is your business heading south?” We are all hog-tied by tedious social taboos which mean we have to ask boring questions with dopey looks on our faces. But it’s the only way to get a straight answer.
Traditionally, the answer would fall into a strict hierarchy. Anything German (Mercedes, Audi, BMW) meant things were looking up. Anything French or Italian (Peugeot, Citroën, Renault, Fiat, etc) meant you had aspirations but not the wage package to back it up – berets on a budget. A Ford revealed you were financially astute. British stated that your commercial affairs were on the way to A&E. And admitting to a car from the Far East (Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai) was, of course, social suicide.
Today, however, the answer tells you nothing. Take Mercedes-Benz. It used to be known for its luxurious four-door saloons and was the preserve of well-padded Euro executives wielding burnished briefcases. That’s still true, but now it also makes cars that appeal to the harassed school-run mum (the £14,290 A-Class) all the way up to a wallet-tingling two-seat sports car (the £346,000 SLR McLaren). Between these two is a host of saloons, coupes, estates and SUVs: 15 model lines in total. Plump for just one of these – say, the mid-range E-Class – and you’ll find more than 50 variants on offer. If you are indecisive, buying a car will take you to the brink. It’s a long way from Henry Ford’s Model T when you could have it “in any colour as long as it’s black”.
Sliding a key fob with Mercedes’ famous three-pronged star across the bar now raises more questions than it answers. A survey carried out more than a decade ago found that Mercedes owners prefer to reverse their cars up their driveways and park facing the road – so that passing neighbours could appreciate their success. Today there’d be little point.
What about Volkswagen? VW used to conjure up a rust-pocked campervan or knackered Beetle. It meant cardigans, egg-stained ties and a well-used library card. Now you could be driving a cheap-as-chips city runaround (the £7,110 Fox), an über-luxurious VIP-transporter (the £75,230 Phaeton), an all-conquering 4×4 Touareg (£30,325) or even a sleek and stealthy Scirocco speedster (£19,660). And look at Volvo. The word itself used to be a byword for tarmac tedium. Now the Swedes have injected a large shot of espresso into its line-up. Their trendy new C30 will set anyone’s pulse racing.
At the last count Audi offered 674 model permutations across its range. Too many? Not according to Audi’s product affairs manager, Robin Davies. “We don’t see this as being a negative,” he says. “We believe it’s not the extent of the range that’s available, but the calibre of that range that defines a premium brand. After all, Cartier offers a very wide range of watches…” To underline this, Audi will be unveiling its new baby at the motorshow in Geneva next week. The German masters have boiled down all they stand for to create the A1 – a compact, upscale hatchback, selling for about £13,000. Unmistakably Audi, but in a highly concentrated form.
At a time when many retailers are moving towards specialisation, car makers seemed to have dropped their door policies and are letting anyone in. Even Aston Martin, the epitome of hand-built British sports cars, is currently at work on a £20,000 city car called the Cygnet (based on the brake-challenged Toyota iQ) due to be launched at the end of this year. And that’s not really very 007; it’s more 0.07.