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Attack of the Clones

So they say BMWs are sporty. Mercs are comfortable. Audis are for the sophisticated lot whereas Lexus is the last word in refinement. Volvo's are safer than your average nuclear bunker while Jaguar spells class with a capital C. Different brands for different people so that everyone from Doctor Phil to Doctor Dre can be rest assured that their choice of car is true homage to their personality. All's good with the world of luxury motoring. Until you start peeling the layers.  Like when you read car magazines and realize that the BMW 5 series and 7 series are no longer the last word in handling or driving pleasure in their segments as was once taken for granted (the Jags have taken over and the Mercs and Audi's are not far behind), choosing to excel at more boring things like fuel economy, emissions and even interior comfort instead. That's when you notice that Lexus have a relatively newly formed F Sport division, which churned out the LFA and ISF but seems to be more busy churning out 'sporty' F versions of their previously un-sporty GS saloons, being the latest to ape BMW's M Sport packages for their regular cars after Audi's S Line and Mercedes AMG sport packages (whew! that was a long sentence. Don't know if you got all of it). Uninvolving handling on an Audi or Mercedes is becoming a thing of the past and even boring old Volvo have the Polestar tuning division which has just churned out a S60 mental enough to scare all except those with balls hardened in the frozen Scandinavian north.
OneShift Editorial Team
OneShift Editorial Team
28 Feb 2013

Lexus GS350 FSport. Bumpers sharp enough to slice meat on?

However on the flip side, BMW have abandoned their "Ultimate Driving Machine" tag-line for a much more flowery "Joy is BMW" and professing to the world about how they are eco and family friendly

No this is not a Volvo ad. It’s BMW

These developments on the face of it are unusual. On one hand, you have got everyone trying to ape BMW hoping to get even a smitten of their sporty pedigree but BMW themselves, have taken a virtual about turn, taking a leaf out of Merc ,Lexus's or even (gasp) Volvo’s book. It's like everybody's kind of met in the middle somewhere where luxury cars have sporty credentials and are fun to drive but don't compromise on creature comforts and to borrow a top gear term (as I often do), are polar bear hugging as well.

Which sounds good in principle you would say. All the benefits but none of the compromises. Now you can have your cake and eat it too. Maybe..

What has happened is that all of these companies have done a very good job at identifying their primary customer. This much younger customer (compared to the luxury car buyer of yesteryear) wants a comfortable, well built and eco-conscious luxury car but still wants that sporty image that in their mind separates them from the more 'boring' conformists (though buying a luxury car, especially a Teutonic one, is the most conformist thing you can do) and who doesn't entertain the belief that they could have given Schumacher a run for his money had they chosen to don a racing suit than a corporate one. Everyone excels in giving this customer exactly what he or she wants. And that’s where things get sleep inducing.

Because all the luxury car makers are essentially targeting the same person, their propositions are getting increasing similar, almost identical. Yes you have design language differentiating the cars but the way their very different brand equities of different companies use to dictate more 'technical' choices (packaging for example) has been lost. If you conducted a blind test on these cars (assuming you can drive a car blind), it would be almost impossible to identify which was which. The individuality and consequent eccentricities that came with each brand and gave it its very distinct characters, are slowly fading away, dissolving into a pool of perfection.

Which was not always the case. Flashback back to the 80s and 90s, you'll find that large BMWs (even as late as the E34 5 Series) were infamously cramped for rear legroom compared to their rivals. Hell if you wanted the ultimate driving machine, you lived with such 'inconveniences' in exchange for that steering feel and perfect weight distribution. The W124 E Class of the 90s had a ride-quality that today's W211 can only dream of (I am quoting a leading overseas car magazine here who compared them a couple of years back). Lexus would probably have had a department dedicated to eliminating that awful noise made by the internal combustion engine which spoiled the serenity of their perfectly engineered interior and anyone who mentioned the world ‘sport’ would probably have been fired. It was a purer time when both consumer knowledge and technology had only evolved so much and consequently different manufacturers made different cars with their own individual characters.

Maybe I have got it all wrong . It's probably much better that all your choices are so well rounded that you just can't go wrong with your luxury car no matter which brand tickles your fancy. I am probably a twenty-six year old dinosaur but I still feel that when you try and be good at everything, it's not so interesting and emotionally involving anymore. It's like bands. Yes U2 has been around for a million years and have been consistently good despite playing across genre's but which dyed in the wool head-banger won't choose to watch the dysfunctional Guns and Roses (if they ever got back together) over them.

Music actually gives me the perfect analogy. I consider electronics, which have played no small part in making modern cars as competent as they are, the automotive equivalent of auto-tune. Technically, on paper, auto-tune should be the best thing in the world, correcting your pitch, so that you are perfectly in tune. But give me Jim Morrison's half slurred, only vaguely coherent musings over Justin Beiber's best effort any day!

All hail the Lizard King!

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