A relentless stream of new AMGs have been splurging out of Mercedes’ tame tuning offshoot over the past few years. Rather than being overjoyed at the advent of yet more quad-piped German über-rods, it’s got me thinking. Are the likes of Mercedes, BMW and Audi taking a scattergun to their S, AMG and M badges and just firing them at anything that moves? I reckon they might be.
Recently, Mercedes announced that its largest and most carbuncular SUV, the GL-Class would be blessed with the AMG treatment. That follows the release of the madcap G 63 AMG, based on the pensionable G-Wagen, a car which continually evades the corporate guillotine despite its advanced vintage. A truly unhinged V12-powered G 65 AMG is also waiting in the wings – proof that the Germans do have a sense of humour after all.
Then there was the news at this year’s Geneva Motor Show, that the forthcoming A-Class would spawn a proper AMG version to frighten off the Audi RS3. And lets not forget the R 63 AMG of 2006 – a disparate blend of luxury MPV and V8-powered 503bhp thrust. What’s that? Prefer your hot-rod in small roadster guise? Step forward, SLK 55 AMG. And SL, CL, C-Class, ML-Class, S-Class, E-Class – all available with a sinister torque monster under the bonnet and those three letters on the bootlid.
They’ll keep coming too. The news hailing from Mercedes’ special ops division in Affalterbach is that AMG will significantly ramp up production over the next few years, with ambitions to build 30,000 cars per year by 2017, according to recent press reports.
Mercedes isn’t the only one at it. Now Audi is plastering SUVs with their ‘S’ branding. The SQ5 TDI is by all accounts a pretty good specimen of its genre. That being the rather niche high performance diesel SUV genre, since you’re asking. But this all begs the question – how thinly can you stretch your brand equity before it becomes a meaningless shadow of its former self?
And over to you, BMW. The purveyors of The Ultimate Driving Machine spilled a tin of M badges onto the X5 production line, but still decided to put the heroically pointless X5 M on sale. The same thing happened with the X6, and BMW gave birth to the Ultimate Posing Machine, the X6 M. Has it damaged the M brand irretrievably? Well it’s irritated the purists, riled a few motoring journalists – but aside from the pant-wettingly obscene depreciation these monsters suffer, no one seems too worried. Least of all BMW.
Yet both cars are about as far from the original and iconic E30 M3′s mission statement as it’s possible to be. Somewhere along the way, the ‘M’ moniker stopped standing for Motorsport and instead developed the unmistakable whiff of Money. More of it than sense that is.
And so what, you might say. Well on the one hand, it’s great that manufacturers have found a way to keep building these things in ever swelling numbers, rather than giving in to the legislators. Clever start-stop and cylinder shut-down technology mean that a 5.5-litre Biturbo V8 can deliver the kind of mpg that you’d expect of something with half the power a few years back. That’s progress. So is increasing production volumes in an automotive industry where wobbling demand make economies of scale essential for survival. Manufacturers need to keep inventing ways to grab new customers – and that’s why Merc is giving everything from crossover to convertible, family saloon to supercar, the AMG treatment.
The problem lies in brand dilution. Whilst Mercedes, Audi and BMW know they can splatter monster power SUVs with their performance branding and get away with it, the ‘specialness’ gets eroded when they become two-a-penny. The halo-effect so often used as a marketing tool to shift boggo C-Classes begins to diminish.
AMG used to have a rare, bespoke flavour 45 years ago when it started as a niche tuner, fashioning Q-cars in the form of tweaked 6.3-litre 300SELs. Likewise BMW’s Motorsport sub-brand, born out of the M1 supercar and then properly commercialised with the E30 M3 – a car which boasted a bona fide touring car pedigree. In those days, the AMG or M badges were a mark of an engineering-led philosophy. That’s a strong foundation to underpin a performance sub-brand. Marketing isn’t.
What’s the answer then? How do you find new customers without damaging exclusivity?
Well actually, it doesn’t matter. Mercedes, Audi and BMW can milk AMG, S and M for all they’re worth, because there’s always the weapons grade stuff to satisfy the punters who want something more exclusive. The Black Series brand is AMG turned up to 11 – and it’s spawned some great cars, which are good enough – and pricey enough – to ensure relative rarity. Similarly, Audi’s RS brand has stepped in where the UR Quattro left off, fulfilling the wet dreams of Vorsprung Durch Technik fetishists. BMW may be swimming against the tide with the ‘M Performance’ range – a kind of Fisher Price ‘my first M car’ affair – but still, early signs are that the cars are good, and it leaves the M badge for the proper stuff.
Devotees of S and M – and AMG will benefit too, in theory. The more new cars that get the performance sub-brand treatment, the greater the supply trickling down onto the second-hand market. Simple fag packet economics would have it that supply of pre-thrashed high performance metal will increase and prices will therefore plummet. That’s surely good news for the fiscally challenged petrolhead. In that case, milk them for all they’re worth I say.