American seems to be obsessed with small cars these days. Not American consumers, mind you, but policy makers and executives at the companies who must bend to their will. First, we had General Motors and Fiat-Chrysler rushing small cars to market as part of their argument for federal assistance earlier this year. Ford has a few of them coming in response both to high fuel prices and new fuel economy rules. Not to be outdone, Daimler AG CEO Dieter Zetsche says Mercedes may export some small cars to the U.S. Luxury buyers still want luxury, he told the Wall Street Journal, but some may want to make a less ostentatious, low-carbon dioxide statement.
This is wrong on so many levels. The article says that the Mercedes compacts will take on the Audi A3, BMW 1-series and BMW’s Mini Cooper brand. As for the A3 and 1-series, yes the Baby Benz will take them on, battling for all 12,000 cars worth of sales that the two models have sold this year. That’s right. Audi has sold about 2,900 copies of the A3, one-tenth the sales of its A4 sedan. The 1-series has done a bit better, selling almost 9,500 cars. That pales next to 3-series sales of 75,500 cars. Even if Mercedes gets a piece of that compact luxury biz, it will be small potatoes. As if Mercedes needs another model that sells fewer than 10,000 cars a year. The company has about half a dozen or so right now. By the way, Mercedes once shelved plans to bring its small B-class (pictured above) to the U.S. because of currency problems. Well, the dollar is still pretty weak. That will make the car either expensive to buy for consumers or profit-challenged.
And what about taking on Mini? The brand has sold almost 40,000 cars through October and just keeps growing. But it has everyone fooled. First of all, the brand has an incredibly unique image that blends modern technology of BMW’s vaunted engineering with the British styling and heritage of its past. And it is quirky. Mini stands alone unlike any brand in the car market as accessible exclusivity, though not traditional luxury. Will its buyers look at a Baby Benz? I doubt it. One BMW marketer once told me that in their research, they found that Mini owners view BMW owners the way most people view Ferrari owners. Loosely translated from the original profane description, Mini owners seem them as men with more money than confidence. I doubt Mini owners will see the Mercedes brand any differently.
I’ll give you one more practical reason why small cars won’t sell as fuel savers or as a green statement. Take a four-cylinder Chevrolet Malibu. It gets 26 miles per gallon combined and costs $1,526 a year to fuel up. A compact Chevy Cobalt gets 27 mpg and costs $1,482 a year at the pump. Who will sacrifice the passenger space of a Malibu to save $44 a year in gas? Answer: The buyer who can’t afford the Malibu.
Translate that to the luxury market where buyers are less concerned about gasoline prices, and there is even less incentive to go small. As for the low carbon statement, that won’t wash either. By the time Mercedes gets its compacts to the U.S., there will be Chevy Volts, plug-in Priuses, Fisker plug-in hybrids, Tesla electric sedans and plenty more expensive greenery for well-to-do do-gooders. Isn’t this idea just a wee bit silly?