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Are SUV buyers influenced by race results in the same way sportscar buyers are? I think to succeed with an SUV, Porsche is going to have to show strength in a market sector it's never even attempted before: it's going to have to sell cars to women.

An SUV is a family car. It's a minivan, for all intents and purposes, where the male half of the buying team might push for 4-wheel-drive, or more masculine styling, or better performance as an attempt to take back some of the ground he's surrendered in the first place by agreeing to get a car that is designed to get Timmy, Amber, and their friends to soccer practice. The percentage of SUV buyers that actually do any off-roading in their cars is minuscule. Everyone tells themselves they're buying it so the wife or daughter won't get caught in the snow or mud, and that they'll be safer in a collision -- but they're really buying it because they want a minvan, a car designed to hold the whole family comfortably. I'm not knocking this decision, mind you. When a big group needs to get somewhere, an SUV is a great way to go.

But, as such, these purchases are FAMILY purchases. Mercedes (and to a lesser extent, BMW, Lincoln and Cadillac) have done a good job of adding a little bit of a status symbol touch to their offerings, but the cars remain, when you get down to it, minivans. They are the cars that can hold the whole family when the road to Grandma's beckons.

So this leaves Porsche, which has never even (to my knowledge) had a marketing program targeting women at all, now in a position where it has to convince both heads of the household (including the half that consists of Porsche's most-long-ignored buyers) that it's got something significant to offer in their market. I don't think the company is going to succeed at that.

And as for the male half of the buying teams? Well, no one would ask a guy in a Mercedes SUV why he compromised and didn't get the sedan version of a Mercedes. I mean, the more Mercedes luxury and engineering the better, right? But a Porsche is defined, in most men's minds, as an indulgence that allows you to drive something that will both get you to work, and is at the same time very much like a race car in look and feel. In my view, I can't think of anyone buying a Porsche SUV who wouldn't be troubled by questions of why he didn't get a model that can actually DRIVE LIKE A RACE CAR.

Making the point even clearer: I think Mercedes is having (or has had) a version of its SUV tuned by its AMG division for better performance. Now, what percentage of its SUV sales does Mercedes expect the tuned version to account for? I don't know, of course, but I'm willing to bet that it doesn't go into double digits.

PORSCHE HAS TO SELL THAT KIND OF A CAR EVERY SINGLE TIME IT SELLS ONE OF ITS SUVs. They've sunk $600 million into something Mercedes is pursuing (at I'm sure not a 20th of that cost) for nothing more than European car-geek bragging rights.

It boils down to this: one of the things that has (in this writer's opinion) made the 911 so successful for so long is the fact that it ONLY HOLDS TWO PEOPLE, and that it has NONE of the refinements that women buyers tend to value. In other words, its chief value as an object is that it insulates you from (not involves you in) your significant other and her world. The mythology of the Porsche is that you're wife is happy to stay out of it, and that the 22-year olds who see it on the street fantasize about getting into it.

Whether or not there's any substance to that mythology (and let me apologize to all the women out there who fit the 'male' mold I'm describing -- I know that many of you exist), it's that mythology that generally defines the Porsche in the marketplace. A Porsche is -- to put it in an unfairly blunt way -- thought of as a midlife crisis car.

So: will male buyers be satisfied with a station wagon that has a lot of power, handles great, but still announces to the world that they take their wife's and children's needs seriously enough to get an enormous car that seats eight? Well, anything is possible, I suppose. And will female buyers suddenly decide that the hitherto woman-hostile marque of Porsche is suddenly going to make them seem more sophisticated than their Lincoln-Navigator-driving suburban neighbors? Well, maybe...

But I doubt it. I think the Cayenne is a colossal corporate blunder for Porsche. It hurts Porsche's (former) brand image of a performance car company that rarely compromises and often wins big races. And I don't think it stands to gain much by offering the status of its brand name to a market that pretty much represents everything Porsches have traditionally sped away from. Mercedes, BMWs, Lincolns and Cadillacs are LUXURY cars. In American's eyes they convey STATUS. Porsche is not seen that way. I don't think there are many soccer moms out there who think a Porsche minivan in the driveway is going to show the Joneses that the Millers have 'arrived.' A BMW minivan does do that.

There. Okay. That's off my chest. I apologize, here and now, to all the proud parents of twins who love soccer and love performance cars at the same time. You are allowed to think I'm full of crap. Maybe you're right, and a tow vehicle can be as sexy and fast as the sportscar it (logically) should be towing.

We'll see.

Jack Olsen
1973 911 T sunroof coupe

[This message has been edited by JackOlsen (edited 07-03-2000).]
Old 07-03-2000, 01:22 AM
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