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(Bloomberg) -- In four days of driving, the new Mercedes GLC300 Coupe incites a common refrain: “That thing is sexy; what is it?”
This from a self-identified “car guy” outside a fishing shop in upstate New York, though variations emerged from all types of folks. At gas stations, stoplights, and even in brownstone Brooklyn during a dodgy parallel-park, curious passersby invariably gaped at the strange, buggy Benz. I’ve driven six-figure, carbon-veined sports cars that turned fewer heads.
So what’s the answer? What is this machine? It’s a master class in curb appeal. A cure for SUV fatigue. The latest entry in a strange genus of automobilia that makes little sense, but lots and lots of money.
The GLC Coupe joins Mercedes’s larger GLE Coupe and BMW’s X4 and X6 in a burgeoning class of vehicles that have the height and weight of an SUV, but the shape of a sports coupe. They don’t drive quite as well as their lower-slung siblings, and they don’t haul as much as their full-sized twins. These rigs are the vehicular equivalent of Tim Tebow—not particularly great at anything, but boy, is he athletic.
“[Buyers are] really drawn to the vehicle, based off of exterior styling and the image of the car,” said Keith Edwards, a Mercedes product manager for the GLC line. “A coupe, at the end of the day, is about showing off.”
Bayerische Motoren Werke AG calls these Teutonic moon rovers “sports activity coupes”—SACs, if you’re into acronyms. It’s an SUV with a little less “U.” BMW started this segment-within-a-segment in 2009, when it chopped the booty off its X5 and rolled out the X6. In 2014, it followed with the X4, the coupe-fied version of its smaller X3 SUV. Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz got in the game the following year with its GLE Coupe and released its smaller, cheaper GLC Coupe in January.
Hustling the machine along a sinuous interstate, I get the appeal. It’s an exercise that is equal parts Mad Max and Star Trek. With its height and hunched stance, the rig seems ready for a race through the desert. Yet its squat haunches and wide tires arc the big machine through corners with futuristic grace. The body hardly leans, despite its elevation, the steering is tight and the cockpit, with its click-wheel entertainment controls and jet-engine vents, is the spaceship trim standard on all Mercedi these days.
The small, slanted window in back is a constant reminder that it’s not an SUV—at least not quite. The GLC Coupe can still be had with a trailer hitch good for hauling up to 3,000 pounds.
Even so, our fearless pooch Woodrow just didn’t get it. Sure, as a teenage Lab he’s a bit of a dim bulb. But plopped into the way-back with the tail-gate open, his head cleared the roof-line. His crinkled eyebrows asked: “How is this going to work?” Sure, the back seats lie flat, but that’s where the kids and the gear go.
However, this, too, syncs with the intent of the vehicle. These machines embody consumption at its most conspicuous—vehicles for customers who want to drive a hulking SUV but don’t want anyone to think they need one. The Costco crowd need not apply. The dogs will have to wait for their walkers.
“I look at these things as almost presaging SUV fatigue,” said Bill Visnic, editorial director at the Society of Automotive Engineers. “It is sort of irrational, but irrationality is kind of a big part of it.”
And then there are the specs. The new GLC Coupe will get up to 60 miles per hour in 6.4 seconds, not one tic faster than the standard GLC SUV. Meanwhile, it offers 13 percent less space and has a starting sticker price 10 percent higher.
The size-to-cost discrepancy is even starker in the BMW line. The X4 and X6 each have one-fifth less space than the X3 and X5 and the get-in cost can be as much as 19 percent higher. BMW says its X4 and X6 buyers tend to be couples, whereas those buying their SUV siblings have families. Mercedes, meanwhile, says its elevated coupes draw a slightly younger and more affluent customer.
It's a form of young love and, as such, predictably expensive. These SACs are money machines. They are cranked out on the same assembly lines as their SUV counterparts, using the same platforms and parts for the most part. Only the styling, skin, some tuning and extras are different.
In short, most of the price premium is pure profit.
Buyers are willing to pay up further, according to Mercedes, eager to add such expensive extras as sport packages and bigger wheels. Mercedes doesn’t detail sales by model variant but said the coupes have been a great success and a useful tool for conquering customers from other brands. “You’re basically working with a high household income and a very trend-setting crowd,” Edwards said. “They’re certainly in the hands of the right customers in the right places.”
The hybrid body type first hit the draft table in the heady days of the mid-2000s when BMW sketched its X6. The final product rolled out in 2009, during the depths of the recession. Realizing the extravagance of the vehicle and sub-prime timing, BMW put little marketing momentum behind it, according to Product Manger Alanna Tracey-Bahri. The hips and raked roof were messaging enough, it turns out.
"It seems silly, but it was the right time to meet that demand.” BMW now sells one X6 for every seven or so X5s and the sporty trucks haven't hurt its traditional SUV business a bit. “It has one of the most amazing life cycles,” Tracey-Bahri said. Next year, BMW will roll out an all-new model, the X2, a sports coupe iteration of its smallest SUV, the X1.
As I loaded up my fishing gear and goosed the car down a knobby dirt road, I wanted a little more space for rod cases and other paraphranelia. When I hit the interstate and zoomed back to Brooklyn—dogless—I wanted the car to squat a little closer to the ground. Still, when I stopped for gas, I once again became an unwitting Mercedes salesman.
Here’s the dirty secret in the auto industry, one clearly illustrated by the so-called SAC: Car customers aren’t all that rational. Sure, they know what they should buy, but the best laid plans of deep internet research are quickly trumped by what speaks to them from the show floor. It's animal spirits manifest in horsepower. What else explains the millions of proud F-150 owners who never need to haul a thing, let alone 5,000 pounds? Or the legions of casual stop-and-go commuters sitting in machines that can zip to 60 in three seconds? Despite all the autonomous driving algorithms buzzing in the dashboard, buying a car is still an emotional transaction.
Mercedes says a huge portion of its SUV coupe customers go into dealerships with the intent of buying something else entirely—something bigger, something less “expressive.” Then they see the Mad Max version of a sports car and ask: “What is that?”
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