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A big burden for luxury European cars - Over There

Kevin Hackett
May 1, 2009
Epcp_0905_01_z+kevin_hackett+writer Photo 1/1   |   A big burden for luxury European cars - Over There

An End To Irrelevance
You've got to feel for the car manufacturers at the moment. I don't mean the likes of GM, a company that's been churning out substandard crap for years and is now facing a nuclear winter because customers are fed up with the product and credit is more difficult to come by than Osama Bin Laden's postal address. I mean manufacturers like Bentley, Aston Martin, Audi, Jaguar, and so many others like them.

These are European companies that are building the best cars in their collective histories; companies that have experienced phenomenal, unprecedented growth in recent times. They're stuck between a rock and a hard place, aren't they? As I write this, the Geneva motor show is a month away. Impoverished, cash-strapped, these purveyors of luxurious chariots are gearing up to unveil the models they've been working on for the past three years and you can almost feel the weight, the burden on their shoulders.

They're teetering on the edge of collapse, some of them. Yet they can't be seen to be standing still. They must march on with the demeanor of evangelist preachers, telling the world that they're confident in the product and the market. The PR spin doctors are busy writing press releases that portray an industry in its prime, not in the grips of recession.

The speed with which things have happened in the financial world has taken most of us by complete surprise. Only a short while ago I was feeling pretty upbeat about it all, thinking we might have to do little more than tighten our belts for a few months. But at the end of last year it was as though everything had fallen over the edge of a cliff.

So, with car manufacturers having already spent many years and many millions of dollars developing new and facelifted models, they cannot simply shelve their launches until times are good again. These new cars must be brought to market and maybe, just maybe, they can tempt those of sufficient means to reach into their pockets.

And those pockets, in many instances, will need to be seriously deep. At Geneva, Aston will have unveiled the drop-top DBS Volante and the mental V12 Vantage, as well as showcasing the Rapide and the re-launched Lagonda brand. Bentley will have taken the covers off its "Extreme" Continental, billed as the fastest, most powerful production car it's ever built-and one that runs on bio-fuel, no less.

Jaguar will have displayed its new M5 beater, the fabulous XF-R, and Audi its V10 R8. The list is endless and it's easy to see why. The fact is that these companies have been riding the crest of a wave for too long and the fall, the crash into an ocean of deep despair, has been more swift than even the most pessimistic analyst could have predicted.

When the boards were convened and the development programs for all these sexy new cars were signed off, rubber-stamped and approved, times had never been better. Now these companies look ridiculous, but it's hardly their fault now, is it? Like steering an ocean-going super tanker, changes of direction in the motor industry are necessarily slow.

Aston and the others cannot simply react to market conditions with some sort of 50 mpg town car in a matter of months. These companies are what they are and, so long as the murky world of finance straightens itself out soon, they'll just about scrape through with bloodied noses and a much reduced head count.

The result from all this onward movement, seemingly flying in the face of adversity, will undoubtedly be a confused marketplace. The headlines will be dominated by luxury brands announcing big, expensive toys that suddenly seem totally irrelevant to today's world.

We journalists are starting to feel the pinch too, and not just because magazines have had their already-tight budgets slashed. Until recently, all I had to do to get a car parked outside my house for a week with a tank full of fuel was to make a quick call. Now we're being asked to go and physically collect cars to save on delivery costs. New car launches are still being held but getting on the invite list may involve you giving up a kidney.

The thing is, I've never been even slightly interested in small, frugal motor cars built for the urban environment. I love expensive, powerful, sexy cars. And this puts writers like me in an unenviable predicament. We're watching the industry that we love, the industry that provides us with a living, going down the toilet and there's nothing we can do about it.

So we'll keep bringing you stories about cars that make no sense whatsoever. We'll keep enthralling you with descriptions about how these fabulous, wondrous European machines feel and sound from behind the wheel. We'll do this every month, selflessly, for as long as the companies that design and build our dreams have some sort of life-force keeping them propped up. And we'll keep doing this because the world would be an even sadder place without them.

It's not all doom and gloom here in Europe, however. Speaking with a friend who works at Lotus earlier this very day, she was remarkably happy about the company she works for. She reckons that Lotus, being a niche manufacturer with an engineering arm that's always in strong demand, is perfectly placed to weather the storm, and she's probably right.

Perhaps as a result of all this paring back to the bones, we'll be left with Bentleys, Porsches, Audis, Astons et al, that are leaner, not only as companies, but also as products. Lightweight sports cars are the best sports cars, not only for our wallets but for the planet, and the thought of an Audi RS6 or Bentley Continental that doesn't weigh two tons is an appealing one on many levels. Is the age of excess over? I for one sincerely hope so.

By Kevin Hackett
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