Let us return to the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class sedan, proof that at least one traditional European luxury automaker has learned the lessons taught by South Korean car companies Hyundai and Kia.
●In a world where 2 percent of the population controls most of the world’s wealth, you cannot expand market share by catering exclusively to that 2 percent.
●The Asian notion of “face” is universally human. It is the same as “representing” in urban America. It simply means that we want our externalities — grooming, clothing, cars and housing — to depict our better versions of ourselves.
In practical retail terms, that often means we want more than we can afford at the moment — not because we’re greedy. It’s just that most of us have higher opinions of ourselves than our often stagnant incomes can support. We may be able to afford only economy or mid-priced cars, but that does not mean we want something poorly built, or stripped of every option many of us have come to regard as standard, or necessary for the safest operation of an automobile.
●The car company that routinely exceeds our consumer expectations, and does it by respecting our pocketbooks and “face” — our essential sense of dignity — is the car company most of us will support and help grow. Need proof? Look at the rapid North American growth of Hyundai and Kia since those companies arrived on these shores in the mid-1980s.
It is not an accident. It is not because Hyundai and Kia sell cheaply made or poorly built goods. It is quite the opposite. Both companies routinely overdeliver in terms of exterior and interior styling, performance, reliability, and safety. Together, they have redefined luxury, giving us for a lower price what too many traditional manufacturers of luxury cars feel the need to sell as high-priced options.
Luxury is accessible at Hyundai and Kia. It is standard equipment. Mercedes-Benz seems to have learned that with the introduction of its 2014 CLA250 sedan, a car priced, including options, a tad north of $36,000 — not inexpensive, but a heck of a lot better than the $47,000 BMW 328d (diesel) I drove a week earlier.
That BMW came with $7,000 in mostly performance options but lacked everything else I’ve come to expect in a $47,000 car — heated front seats, onboard navigation, high-definition backup camera, a lane-departure warning system and blind-spot monitoring. I was and remain shocked, especially because I can get all those options on a Mercedes CLA250 for a bit more than $36,000, and because I can get those things on a perfectly reliable and enjoyable Kia Optima for even less.
Ah, I hear the chorus of “driver enthusiast” voices rising: “You can’t compare a CLA250 or Kia Optima with anything BMW, maker of ‘the ultimate driving machine.’ ” To which I respond with a passionate “BALONEY!”
I average 40,000 miles annually behind the wheel on roads foreign and domestic. That experience has taught me there is nothing “ultimate” about a car that offers as expensively priced optional equipment stuff I need as standard for safer driving. Performance? It is a figment of “car guy” imagination. The simple truth is, on a road such as Interstate 87 in the northeastern United States, I could go to heaven, hell or jail in a CLA250 just as easily as I could in any BMW. The only difference is that, because the CLA250 comes with so much more affordable advanced electronic safety equipment, I would have received more warning to change my driving behavior.
None of this is to suggest that vehicle manufacturers or consumers should completely eschew their love of horsepower or ever-increasing amounts of torque. Instead, it is a plea for balance and common sense.
For example, why not offer as standard equipment things such as lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring and high-definition backup cameras — things that make driving safer? Why not price as expensive options more horsepower, more torque?
And if Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and Kia can give us perfectly reliable, well-outfitted, wonderfully enjoyable automobiles at reasonable prices, why does BMW still feel the need to sell as expensively priced options the exact same things that Mercedes offers at a lower price on its new CLA250, or equipment that Hyundai and Kia frequently convey as standard?
Does “prestige” now equal “stupid”?