Academia's timber mills are turning out a great many woody opuses about luxury and its discontents. Robert Frank's book "Luxury Fever" (2000) argues that our consumerist culture creates a kind of unquenchable thirst for more of everything, a thirst that drives the middle class into ever deeper debt and darker spiritual terrain. Needless to say, professor Frank can suck the air out of just about any cocktail party.
On the sunny side of the lux-lit street is University of Florida professor James Twitchell. In "Living It Up: Our Love Affair With Luxury" (2002), Twitchell sees luxury not as the toxic bait of capitalism but the balm of humanity. Love of luxury is a universal human impulse that transcends barriers of ideology, politics and geography, says Twitchell. Humans are neurologically hard-wired to crave luxury.
In other words, the hunting and gathering of BMWs are a biological imperative.
Unfortunately, as fast as those books can come out, they are eclipsed by events on the ground -- or at the mall. I would argue that we now live in a post-luxury culture. Particularly in the automobile market, the code that consumers have long relied on to convey meaning about a high-end product and the person who buys it -- the nameplate, the brand name, the designer label -- is no longer operative.
This month, Volkswagen will begin selling a car for $100,000 -- the Phaeton W12 -- and the hapless South Korean carmaker Kia will step into the ring with Lexus via the Kia Amanti. I've spent a couple of weeks with those vehicles, and the experience has left me questioning the semiotics of luxury. What is luxury? And can it be bought at any price?
The sand started shifting with the rise of entry-level luxury cars in 1982, when General Motors introduced the Cadillac Cimarron -- pronounced Cim-moron by the guys back in the garage. Then-GM boss Roger Smith approved a goofy marketing scenario that took an undistinguished Chevy Cavalier with a 1.8-liter engine and slapped the proud Cadillac badge on it. The resulting car's skunk density was so massive as to threaten the fabric of time and space.
The next year, Mercedes-Benz launched the 190E "Baby Benz" -- the diminutive was not at all complimentary.
The Cimarron and the 190E were early and inept efforts to create what Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske call a "mass-tige" product. In last year's "Trading Up," the authors define "mass-tige" -- an ugly neologism formed by combining "mass" and "prestige" -- as a class of consumer products that, with their aura of prestige, command a price premium over conventional products but still undercut true luxury products. The authors offer the example of Coach leather goods, still attainably priced, yet well below couture like Gucci.
The Cimarron and the 190E were followed by the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, BMW's 318i, the Jaguar X class, the Lexus ES300 and the Land Rover Freelander, as manufacturers foraged for sales volume in an increasingly competitive global market.
Entry-level luxury cars are often very good products that benefit from the company's engineering resources and global network of suppliers. Prestige, however, has less to do with the technical and functional than with the emotional and psychic. A prestigious brand sets the owner apart with a kind of glamorous otherness -- I am more successful than you, more discerning than you.
Yet, currently any hillbilly with a phone number and $325 a month can lease a Mercedes-Benz.
In the U.S. last year, Mercedes-Benz, a division of DaimlerChrysler -- the conjoined name alone makes purists cringe -- sold about 218,000 cars and trucks, including everything from $26,000 C-Class coupes to $150,000 super-sedans. And while the glow of the company's more exotic offerings -- like the $400,000, 200-mph SLR -- casts a covetable light on Mercedes' cheaper products, the sheer numbers of cars on the road subverts their brand's elitist cachet.
Marketing mandarins speak in terms of how far a brand can be stretched before it loses its meaning. We will see. The prestigious German firms are all rumored to be bringing even smaller, cheaper cars to America: Audi with the A3, BMW with the 2 Series and Mercedes with the A Class.
So far, it appears easier for a brand to stretch down-market than up. VW Group, BMW and Ford had to go off the reservation to enter the super-luxury market. Each dusted off a splendidly shabby British marque -- Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin, respectively -- to create emotional value in their exotic six-figure products.
There was a time, before multinational consolidations made a hash of everything, when car brands could be associated with a kind of mission statement, a metaphysical reality, an essence. Saabs were bohemian chic, with strange yet endearing styling and practicality, full of soulful Nordic nuance. Porsches were race-bred sports cars, fast and unforgiving. Pontiacs were baroque fantasias of Detroit iron.