Sunday, October 02, 2005

Inside Our Advertising (*) Mail

by Tom Bozzo

Upon opening the mailbox yesterday afternoon, I knew that the biggish silver envelope was going to be car marketing. Suzanne's car turned three a couple months ago, and just in case we were itching to replace it, we were bombarded with brochures and encouraging letters from its manufacturer making sure we knew how wonderful and envy-inspiring their latest lineup is. As it happens, the car is paid off and like its much less well-loved (by me) predecessor — a Saturn — we plan to hold onto it for an arbitrarily long time. (**)

I was a little surprised to take a closer look and see the Mercedes three-pointed star on the envelope, and that the piece was addressed to Suzanne. Mercedes may only be trying to sell the S-class to masters of the universe, but the E-class, it turns out, is another matter.

What further caught my attention was that in addition to alerting her to a lease deal on the E350 sedan, it also contained a pre-approved automobile financing offer. This was not from the class of purveyors of home equity line-of-credit spam, but rather from Mercedes-Benz Credit (whose imperative to move metal may have reduced them to the highbrow equivalent of HELOC spammers, but anyway). But it was the amount of the pre-approval that was the eye-opener: Suzanne was pre-approved to lease or finance a Mercedes of her choice up to $62,000.

A few problems:
  1. While Suzanne works, she does not work in the market for a salary. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought zero cash income usually trumped good credit.
  2. Rising house prices have pulled a few fancy cars into our neighborhood, but keeping up with the Joneses in the automobile department is very much not the prevailing mode of our neighborhood, or even (by and large) our ZIP Code.
  3. Of the two of us, Suzanne is the much less comfortable one with the display of conspicuous consumption that a $62,000 Mercedes embodies.
  4. All the same, if my car fell into a sinkhole tomorrow, the Civic Hybrid would probably top my shopping list.
  5. Plus, while the rest of the Regent St. corridor was turning itself into the Big Ten's biggest drunk tank yesterday morning, I was at an area cycling shop looking at some gear to extend the season for bike commuting, which I've been enjoying quite a bit.
  6. Last, outside the world of credit modeling, while we wouldn't exactly have to live in such a car, we might need to use it to hunt small mammals for the resulting household budget to work out.
I also see this as something of a bellwether. When Wal-Mart sales come in below expectations, the main rah-rah rationalization is that the Wal-Mart clientele is moving up to Target, and on up the line until the super-rich are adding personal toilet paper weavers to their household payrolls.

In the automotive world, there are a variety of ultra-luxury brands, some of which have struggled through the bust years and some of which haven't, but collectively they hardly dent the market for "mass luxury" cars. Mercedes is notionally at the top of that heap. So when Mercedes is reduced to grubbing for sales through direct mail, the first conclusion that passes the test of Occam's Razor is that the working rich — the group, after the super-rich, best positioned to benefit from Bushism — are retrenching or worse. Uh-oh.

(*) In my line of work, the J-word is verboten.

(**) John's impending arrival was the pretext for replacing the Saturn with a not-too-large wagon.
Careful with the riding to work! ;-)
My bike has had an, ahem, ergonomic seat.
Our Saturn became the commuting car when the second kid came along (I graduated to a Subaru, like everyone else in the Northeast).

I wanted to love the Saturn, with its 40mpg. But, not so much. I'm not a car nut by any stretch of the imagination, but it's hard to love a small car that handles like a truck, you know?
Agreed, Phantom. I also found that the Saturn's basic layout was much better suited for Suzanne and other people of short stature. For instance, even with the passenger seat all the way back, the way my legs had to fold led me to call the passenger airbag the "kneecapper" (at least on her '96, the airbag cover was affixed to the front of the dashboard).

Bottom line is that with Civics and Corollas making 40 MPG plus having some modicum of power, handling, and refinement, GM sadly just let Saturn eat the dust of the makes it was supposed to have competed with.
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