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Market trends: Design is key for executives

What do Mercedes CLS and Chrysler 300C have in common? Obvious answer: they are both based on the E-class (although not the same generation of E-class, as it happens).

That answer is true, but only trivially so. What is really important is that they both use design to attract far more customers than a straightforward re-skin would normally.

The CLS, which was conceived as a low-cost extension of the E-class, is now selling more than the E-class estate and 60% as many as the E-class saloon.

However, there are no four cylinder versions of the CLS: among six and eight cylinder versions, the CLS is outselling E-class saloon.

With the Chrysler 300C, the numbers are even more stark. With more than 1,400 sales in the first half of 2006, the Chrysler is the only non-premium badged executive model to sell in measurable numbers. It outsold the Peugeot 607 8:1 and the Cadillac CTS 11:1.

Five years ago, no-one would have expected a Chrysler executive saloon to sell to anyone except Chrysler dealer principals. What sets the 300C apart is not its E-class underpinnings or its European assembly plant, it is the ‘wow’ factor. People see the car, see its price and think, “why not”.

It has more presence in the golf club car park than an alien spaceship, is packed with goodies and has dynamics that are just good enough to avoid spoiling the party.

So is the message that carmakers should spend all the money on design and forget about engineering? Life is not that simple.

As the Chrysler PT Cruiser showed, sharp design by itself can only hoover up the style-conscious for the first 12 months. Buyers then started to notice that, compared to a Focus, it was a generation off the pace dynamically.

Similarly, the Renault Mégane is now taking a pasting with sales down 30% this year. Renault blames the “unnecessarily controversial” styling, but that is only half the story. If people hated the styling, they would not have bought it when it first came out. It is just as likely that they have noticed the car is a poor drive with some perceived quality issues.

The 300C stands a reasonable chance of escaping the same fate, as the dynamics are probably good enough to last a few more years. With the CLS, dynamics are not an issue as it is the same car as the current E-Class.

#AM_ART_SPLIT# Executive segment shares 2006 YTD

The Mercedes CLS is a text-book example of developing a new niche. However the verdict is still out on the R-class which has got off to a slow start. In the USA, R-class had to be repositioned with much lower prices after a few months.

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