To outsiders, the auto industry is a very simple business. It's about transportation, and the auto maker with the most fuel-efficient vehicles wins.
You will get laughed out of a room suggesting that electronics companies should invest all their energies into developing modest, small-screen televisions that are easy on the electric bill, or insisting that Manolo Blahnik ignore fashion and focus instead on making plain, comfortable women's shoes. Yet, forcing auto makers to build “sensible” cars for buyers who don't want them still seems to make perfect sense to many.
Logically speaking, most consumers could be driving smaller more practical vehicles.
But across the world, and across almost all cultures, motor vehicles have the ability to do so much more than merely transport us from point A to point B. They tell the world who we are, or who we want to be, and they have the ability to impart power and prestige to their owners like few other consumer products on Earth.
Like it or not, the vehicles people choose reflect not just their income and transportation needs, but their hopes, their insecurities and their vanity. It is this emotional, illogical nature of car-purchasing behavior that auto makers try to exploit and government regulators seek to control.
An interesting test case in the battle of logic vs. emotion will take place this summer when the Hyundai Genesis goes on sale.
The South Korean auto maker says its first foray into the luxury segment will have features of a $60,000-car but be priced below $30,000. On paper, it looks astonishingly good.
Its top-line engine, an all-aluminum 4.6L V-8, will produce 368 hp and 324 lb.-ft. (439 Nm) of torque, bettering the horsepower figures of the Lexus GS, Infiniti M, Pontiac G8 and Chrysler 300 V-8s. Plus, it burns regular. The car's 5-link front and rear suspensions are touted as “the most sophisticated and refined anywhere, at any price.”
What's more, judging by the car displayed at this year's North American International Auto Show, the interior is beautifully executed, and loaded with advanced electronics and safety features.
If it were a laptop computer, or virtually any other consumer product, the Genesis' combination of features and pricing would make it a guaranteed hit. But not in the auto business.
Hyundai is hoping the car will take the luxury market by storm, just as Lexus did 20 years ago by offering a product that was fully competitive with European luxury brands at a far lower price.
But Lexus is the exception. Nissan's Infiniti brand has offered a similar value equation and not enjoyed nearly the success. Honda's Acura unit has been around longer than both and still is struggling for sales and a real identity. It took BMW 25 years to be considered a legitimate competitor to Mercedes-Benz.
The often forgotten element of the Lexus success story is its extraordinary customer service and dealer network, and the role these two played in creating a deep emotional connection between customers and the brand. They were pampered and respected like consumers have never been before, and that was a major factor in quickly establishing the brand's preeminence.
Great value and lots of features do not mean much if you are treated poorly in the dealership. Vehicle buyers may be illogical, but they are not dumb.
Drew Winter is editor-in-chief of Ward's AutoWorld.