So which would you rather have: a Mercedes-Benz or a Hyundai?

This isn't as ridiculous a question as it seems. If you have $26,500, a rather middling sum for an automobile these days, you can have the bottom-of-the-line Benz, the C230 Kompressor coupe with a supercharged 2.3-liter inline four; or you can have the high-end Hyundai, the XG350 sedan with a 3.5-liter V6, and about a thousand dollars left over. Of course, Mercedes being Mercedes, you can easily add another ten grand to the price, while the Hyundai is stuffed with everything in every conceivable Korean parts bin, but still, it's possible to buy either of these cars for a price well short of thirty K.

Some will ask, "What in the world is Hyundai doing, trying to compete with the likes of Mercedes?" Better they should ask, "What in the world is Mercedes-Benz doing, trying to compete with the likes of Hyundai?" The house that Gottlieb Daimler built used to have a slogan: Das Beste oder Nichts. "The best, or nothing." I find it hard to believe that anyone at DaimlerChrysler AG actually thinks it's possible to deliver Das Beste at this price point. Is raw market share worth that much? The whole idea of Mercedes-Benz, all these years, has been to deliver an automobile with high precision and prodigious technological smarts, suitable for the most advanced driving tasks (and, by extension, the most advanced drivers) in the world. None of these characteristics can be said to come cheaply.

And it's not just DaimlerChrysler pulling this sort of stunt. Jaguar is currently selling a low-end (well, low for Jaguar, anyway) four-door sedan called the X-type, which is basically the European Ford Mondeo fitted out with all-wheel drive and some Jaguar-specific bits under the hood and in the suspension. Its styling is vaguely reminiscent of older Jags, and its handling has been tuned to be as Jaglike as possible. Prices start at barely $30,000, though as with the Benz, it's easy to spend a third again as much by checking off expensive options. And I suppose that it's unfair to complain about obvious parts-bin engineering: Sir William Lyons built his first cars with workaday components from British blandmobiles. But still, if a car with a Jaguar badge is more easily attainable than, say, a Pontiac Bonneville, something is a trifle askew.

And there is precedent for my discomfort. Automobile magazine (March 2002) did a comparison of the very same Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai models mentioned above, and writer Don Sherman minced no words:

"Sprinkling silver stars too liberally throughout the market will sap this brand's prestige surely and inevitably."

Mr Sherman is also old enough to remember Packard, once among the highest of high-end American cars, which moved downmarket in the early Thirties in an effort to survive the Depression. In 1942, the demands of World War II had put everyone's car production on ice, but when the war ended, Packard, staring into a seller's market for the first time in a decade and a half, inexplicably decided to keep selling medium-priced sedans alongside its luxury models. Across town, Cadillac, the primary competition, had had a separate "budget" brand LaSalle which was put to rest after 1940 and not revived after the war. The bottom-end '46 Packard Clipper sold for $1680 list, not much more than low-line Buicks or Oldsmobiles, while the cheapest Cadillac that year was a smidgen over $2000. That year, Packard outsold Cadillac, but in the years to follow, Cadillac would pull ahead, both in sales figures and in profitability, and by 1952, when the postwar buying frenzy was all but forgotten, Packard was running at barely half its plant capacity. New president James J. Nance decided to spin off the mid-priced Packards into a separate brand and concentrate on luxury cars, and he might have pulled it off had it not been for an ill-fated merger with Studebaker, which had major problems of its own. The last actual Packards (and Clippers, the new make) appeared for 1956; the brand limped along for two years with rebadged Studebakers, then expired. Nance, who had seen it coming, had already bailed out.

I'm not saying either Mercedes-Benz or Jaguar is anywhere near actual death throes right this minute. But if there's anything at all to this brand-equity stuff, both of them have pissed away a whole lot of prestige. And DaimlerChrysler, says editor Peter M. DeLorenzo, has made it worse by introducing the new superexpensive Maybach:

"What DaimlerChrysler is saying with the Maybach is that after a century of building automobiles and building the Mercedes-Benz brand into one of the most famous and most recognizable brands in the world, they're willing to squander that accrued brand interest (or what's left of it after their recent missteps) by creating an instant brand disconnect in their own house. What they're saying now is that the Mercedes-Benz is not the best car they know how to build anymore - this other car is."

So much for Das Beste oder Nichts. Maybe it's time I test-drove that Hyundai.

The Vent

1 July 2002

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 Copyright © 2002 by Charles G. Hill