In the beginning, we all understood the Audi TT: hot little sports car, convertible or hardtop, with the coupe having two little jump seats al la Porsche's 911, and the roadster being a pure two-seater.
So what do we make of the four-door TT Offroad concept Audi showed recently at the Beijing auto show?
The Allroad Shooting Brake concept Audi showed in January at the Detroit show?
The TT Sportback concept Audi showed at the Paris auto show last fall?
The TT, in its third generation, is apparently to become a brand unto itself. TT four-door, TT station wagon, tall TT for the cottage. TT for this, TT for that, TT for every buyer under the sun.
This all seems a bit nutty. But this is what the Big Three German auto makers have come to.
By last count, Audi offered 52 different models, though not all of them in Canada. Just most. In Canada, we have the Audi A3, A4, A4 allroad, A5, A6, A7, A8, R8, RS 5, RS 7, S3, S3, S4, S5, S6, S7, S8, a couple of different TTs and we haven't even touched on the truck lineup – the Q3, and Q5, and Q7 and so on. Add in options, and packages and derivatives, and the complexities of Audi's line are enormous.
No Audi dealer showroom, in fact, has the space to carry one of each model. In the future, all Audi dealers will no doubt turn to full-size virtual imaging, the likes of which is already on display at Audi's Piccadilly showroom in London.
Audi is not alone. There was a time not when Mercedes-Benz was simply the E-Class, the S-Class, the SL and a few other bits and pieces. In Canada today, Mercedes offers everything from the middle market B-Class ($33,500 to start) to the road-eating SLS AMG GT roadster ($224,200) and more. And trucks. Lots and lots of trucks – ML-Class, GL-Class, Sprinter …
Likewise for BMW. The various "Series" in Canada go from 2 to 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, along with the electrified cars in the i brand, ActiveHybrids, Alpinas, the screaming M models. Then, like the other big Germans, there are the trucks. BMW has the X this and X that and X whatnot. BMW makes a staggering array of options available – or you can just get a BMW Individual model custom made, right down to the stitching on the seats and the exclusive colour of the paint.
This out-of-control model growth is not going to stop, either. Because it works. Audi has seen its global sales jump by a staggering 42 per cent over the last decade, primarily due to an explosion of offerings. Audi has almost tripled the number of models offered since 2001, in fact.
DesRosiers Automotive Consultants reports that as Canadians have seen more Audi models, so have Audi Canada's sales taken off – almost quadrupling since 2000 (to 24,514 last year). Meantime, Mercedes and BMW brand sales have nearly tripled (to 33,928 and 32,805, respectively) over the same period. Audi, Merc and Bimmer have gone down, up and around the marketplace into seemingly every nook and cranny with every conceivable type of car and truck; buyers jumped on board with both feet.
But you can be excused for being confused – and imagine what it's like to be a salesperson for any of the big Germans, with all these different models and body styles spinning around in your head? It's now utterly impossible for any single sales rep to be fluent about the full Audi, BMW and Mercedes lines. Thank God for rich and detailed databases designed to arm sales reps with the tools needed to guide shoppers through a staggeringly complex purchase process.
You might also rightly wonder if Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are steadily working to becoming mainstream brands, abandoning exclusivity in favour of growth and profit. If a premium vehicle is also an exclusive one, what's so special about a BMW or a Mercedes when both are nearly as common as Subarus in Canada (Subaru Canada's sale hit 42,035 in 2014)? At what point does premium become everyday and ho-hum?
No one can answer this. But what the Germans will insist is that that even cars with middle-class prices – like the B-Class – have "premium-ness" embedded in their essence. You can be forgiven for wondering what magic formula allows Audi, BMW and Mercedes to build a $35,000 car or truck that is so vastly superior to a $35,000 Ford or Chevy. The big Germans are smart, but they are not Dumbledore – they are not magicians.
Here's what is certain: the current big German formula works. Audi, for instance, just announced that its January-April sales were up 5.2 per cent to 591,050. Sales surged 36.6 per cent in Canada to 3,219 cars. Audi, the profit engine of the Volkswagen Group, aims to increase its model range to 60 vehicles by 2020 while maintaining a per-vehicle profit margin of 8-10 per cent. Audi's 1.3 billion euro operating profit amounted to nearly half of the VW Group's earnings in the first quarter.
The story at BMW and Daimler was the same – fantastic profits, fat sales margins. The more-models-is-better strategy is working, and well.
The question is, for how much longer? Audi, BMW and Mercedes together in 2015 will sell more than six million vehicles – perhaps collectively 100,000 or thereabouts in Canada. When will the marketplace become saturated with Audis, BMWs and Mercs? When will buyers turn to something else that offers the exclusivity that the premium brands used to have?
Or is premium the new mainstream?
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