Merc’s dilemma: It’s not turning heads anymore
“A B C D Chaida Mainu, Vadi Biddi Chaida Mainu
CTV bhi Chaida Mainu, LCD Bhi Chaida Mainu
Laal Mercedes Chaidi Mainu, Laal Qila Bhi Chaida Mainu”
And so goes the title track of Dibakar Banerjee’s 2008 hit Oye Lucky Lucky Oye.
A rather unconnected sentiment that it marked the peak of Mercedes Benz’s popularity in India. A time when it had absolutely captured the imagination of the upwardly mobile in the country. When owning a Mercedes, a red one not necessarily, was everybody’s dream.
If a similar song were to be written today, it perhaps would have a BMW or Audi in place of Mercedes. Since 2008, the story has been how much the firm has gone into the background as its two bitter German rivals BMW and Audi have taken centrestage (see table).
All this while, there is nothing in particular that Mercedes has done wrong. Infact, its biggest mistake is that initially it did precious and reacted only when the writing was clearly on the wall. And the reaction too was not the sucker punch one would have expected but a desperate brownian movement–one incoherent launch following another. In effect, it ceded ground and BMW seized the imagination of the masses with its aggression and strong design language.
There are a dozen anecdotes that maybe cited to justify how the three pointed star has fallen from the pedestal but I would pick the recent one. A premium car’s appeal is almost always in its exclusivity and nowhere is it better demolished in the number of stares it receives…what we normally refer to as the drool factor. A head turner.
Driving a CLS class in Delhi turns as many heads as a Volvo XC60 SUV. Well, both are premium car makers allright…but one costs almost half as much as the other. And therein is the reason why Merc is no longer what it used to be…the benchmark in luxury cars in India….Or for that matter anywhere else in the world.
You may get all the technology that you want for a price….and all the performance as well….But man is a social animal…and quite vain at that. So he wants the appreciative stares of his friends or the jealousy of his enemies. A premium car has to get him that.
In the early part of the decade, a Mercedes used to do just that. Your friend would cosy up to you in the hope that he would get a ride in it. Or if he is your dear friend, then you would lend the car to him for the greatest date of his life. Your enemies, for if you are able to afford a Merc you would have many, would seethe and rant at you and it would make you feel good. All because of a car…but it is no ordinary car.
It remains an extraordinary car. All Mercedes cars are built to last and age with dignity. Almost like old wine. Infact, at times an old Merc is a lot more desirable than a new one….for all the experience on the road. A Merc in 2004 would turn heads, be it in Jhansi or in Peddar Road. It symbolised your coming of age, your prestige, success.
Now that vantage position is gone. Partly,. because people have had too much success. A Merc is no longer exclusive. At Rs 25 lakh, and available on EMIs, it is no longer inaccessible. But most of all, it does not look any different…from Rs 25 lakh to Rs 90 lakh….its part of the same family….plain, vanilla, boring.
Only the AMGs inspire awe now. And they cost upwards of Rs 1 crore. Hence the exclusivity. But thats a tough ask for a firm that has done everything right for over 100 years. It is only paying the price of being old. Capable and old and its tragic.
This is not supposed to be an obituary of Merc. Far from it, there is much more life left in it than we see. There is an A class and B class in the offing. And a compact SUV too. They will be refined, well made, tough, and capable….and cost less as well. But it is a game that others are playing too. And somehow, they have a better sense of what consumers want. Or maybe, this generation has botched ideas of what is premium.
As I realised with the white CLS, so it must be for those who buy it as well. 3.5 litre V6 engine, over 300 horsepower and yet fewer people look at it. It is refined, obedient, and surprisingly fuel efficient too. And yet it is not the toast of the town. What you see is what you get and somehow, a Merc does not look as swashbuckling anymore. Somehow you know deep down that Ambani is not dreaming of a Merc or a Maybach anymore.
That he has moved on. And so have you. The way a car looks says a lot more than what it can do. It is superficial, but so is life. Unfortunately. And Merc loses out in this game to a BMW and Audi.
For not thinking ahead and investing in a small SUV. For not keeping their cards close to their chest and playing at will. For thinking way too straight on roads that are slippery and crooked. A Merc for the fathers and uncles…..a Merc for a generation that has gone by.
Maybe a dramatic shift is needed. Who will give us that….the consumers or the company?