Niche benders

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In the latest model, Mercedes has added another element into the mix with a station-wagon variant that it dubs a Shooting Brake.

Probably the most controversial crossover in recent years has been the BMW X6, which attempts to blend an SUV with attributes of a luxury car and a sports car.

The X6 was heavily criticised when it was launched in 2008, with journalists questioning why it even existed, as because it was neither a serious four-wheel-drive nor a genuine coupe or sports car, and its low roof design and four-seat layout compromised its ability to be a family car.

But customers have proven critics wrong, as the German car maker has sold more than 140,000 examples in the last five years, has a new third-generation under development and recently added a second model along the same line in the smaller X4.

More importantly, it has forced its direct rivals to copy the swoopy-roofed SUV, with both Mercedes-Benz and Audi showcasing similar vehicles at this month’s Beijing Auto Show.

Mercedes-Benz has taken a familiar route with its Coupe Concept,  previewing an upcoming production version that will be dubbed MLC and based on the popular ML-Class, while Audi is aiming to trade more on the heritage and heroism of its TT sports coupe and expand the range with a high-riding, five-door version.

With an increasing global appetite for SUVs of all shapes and sizes, it seems there are very few boundaries that cannot be crossed, now and into the future.

‘‘Everyone is just looking for that product to differentiate themselves. We’re all doing it,’’ Ford’s global head of design, Moray Callum, told Drive recently at the New York International Auto Show.

‘‘That’s what the customers are asking for too. I think it’s gone far enough, and then someone will come out with something else.

‘‘Everyone is looking to differentiate themselves from the competition and fill an unknown need for people.’’

The proliferation of niche models is a direct result of car makers developing a smaller, more flexible set of platforms that can underpin a wider variety of models.

That essentially means the basic structure can be stretched in a number of ways to create smaller or larger vehicles using common components and with similar levels of integral safety, even though they might use different engines, have either front, all or rear-wheel-drive transmissions and sit either low to the ground or on jacked-up suspension.

And it seems as though the cross-pollination of vehicle types will not abate any time soon.

What the next niche-busting segment will be is not obvious at the moment, but BMW’s senior vice-president of product management, Hildegard Wortmann, says the company will continue to explore more genre-bending opportunities.

‘‘None of us have the golden clue as to what is the next big segment in terms of volume. I think everything is existing [at the moment],’’ she told Drive.

‘‘But within the segments, you see interesting developments. For example, look at the 3-Series GT, compared with a 3-Series Touring. It’s quite a different concept, but within the same family.

‘‘It allows people who’ve gone for a Touring for several car purchases to go for something that also has a lot of space [and] offers a lot of functionality, but [has] a different concept and something new.

‘‘People are seeking new stuff. They’re looking for new innovations.’’

Audi’s board member in charge of technical development, Dr Ulrich Hackenberg, says the motivation for once conservative car makers such as Audi and its rivals in BMW and Mercedes, to create a series of unconventional spin-off models and make them financially viable, is more than just about increasing their sales volumes and overall profit.

‘‘It is very important,’’ Hackenberg says.

‘‘We have to form the emotion of our customers. We have to give some inputs and see the reaction.

‘‘We have to create the brand, and design has a very important effect on the brand.

‘‘It’s important to bring the design language forward to show our customers that Audi is moving.’’

The niche-busting trend is not just taking its hold on mainstream brands, but is leaching into high-end luxury and focused sports car brands too, with Bentley confirming its first SUV will be released in 2016 and the likes of Lamborghini and even Rolls-Royce about to cross a demarcation line with their own versions of an uber off-roader.

Jaguar, too, has shown that it intends to develop a compact SUV as part of a new range of small cars, even though the British brand is joined at the hip with off-roading specialist Land Rover.

If ever there was a case study highlighting how important it is to offer a diverse range of vehicles in the 21st century, look no further than Porsche. The iconic German sports car brand was on the brink of folding in the mid-1990s with just two models, the front-engined 968 and its iconic 911. Now, as part of the gigantic Volkswagen Group, it is riding a wave of success with more than 40 variants available within six distinct model lines.

With its new compact SUV, the Macan, hitting showrooms this year, the company expects to exceed its target of selling more than 200,000 cars a year for the first time before it had originally planned in 2018.

Porsche sold a record 162,145 cars in 2013 and, with reports claiming it makes an average of $28,000 profit on every car it produces, its success accounted for one-fifth of the VW Group’s operating profit last year.

With big growth opportunities, particularly in China, Porsche promises there is more to come.

‘‘We now have the most diverse line-up in our 65-year-old history,’’ says the company’s head of sales and marketing, Bernhard Maier.

‘‘We’ve shown in the past that we are very successful with our derivative strategy for the 911.

‘‘We have a number of different types and models in the range, so why wouldn’t that be applicable toother models as well?’’

‘‘There is more to come, and more is possible,’’ he says.

Time will tell just how far car makers are willing to stretch the boundaries. Who knows? We might end up in a world dominated by mutated SUVs, where normal will be the new niche.


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