Is the four-door coupé already out of road, or is it just crossing over?
Automotive niches interest me because they represent the closest thing manufacturers come to risk taking. Take the four-door coupé segment for example. I’ve puzzled over this sector’s viability ever since Mercedes-Benz introduced the CLS-Class a decade ago. After all, it hasn’t necessarily set the automotive world alight, has it? Apart from Mercedes, who have we got? Audi has the A7, BMW the 6-Series Gran coupé, Porsche offers the Panamera and VW the CC. That’s pretty much your lot. Common strand? Yes, they all hail from German manufacturers, which does add up to a somewhat one-dimensional bandwagon.
Of course the reasons for this aren’t very hard to discern. The German auto giants have the financial, engineering and manufacturing scale to co-develop these variants alongside their more mainstream offerings. Their vast size, purchasing power and profitability allow them to absorb the cyclical nature of these model’s sales arcs, because after all, we’re talking fashion items; prone to fall out of favour if the wind changes direction. Volume-wise, reliable figures are difficult to establish globally, but certainly across Europe and the United States combined, average yearly volumes have bobbed along for the past four years at around 24,500 for the A7, 22,000 per annum for the CLS; with the combined 6-Series range dragging its heels at around 15,400 PA. These are not big numbers, but for the prestige marques, they represent volume (and profitability) worth having.
On the other hand, for pretenders like JLR, Lexus/Infiniti and FCA, the cost and risk associated with such niche entrants are simply too daunting to contemplate. JLR would undoubtedly argue that with their current Jaguar range, they offer coupé-esque saloons anyway. For everyone else, such ephemera is simply not to be countenanced; especially when mere survival is at stake.
Yet with the segment only a decade old, the end looks to be already in sight, with the coupé crossover set to take its place. In one of the broadest shifts in car design since the post-war era, the shape of the cars we are driving is reverting to something akin to a pre-war silhouette. In an increasingly threatening world travelling at a much reduced pace, security, stature and the aura of go-anywhere capability have become key selling points. Design studios across the industry are now awash with crossover concepts and the consensus is clear – this is the direction the market is taking. Because whether it’s driven by consumer demand or simple expediency on the part of manufacturers is largely academic. This is what you’re getting.
The business case for them is compelling. Crossovers are easily and cheaply spun-off equivalent platforms; commanding higher premiums and profits. They appeal across gender lines to a global market, unlike coupés which remain very much a first world phenomenon. The more successful these crossover’s are, the more manufacturers are emboldened to enter the market. The more variants become available, the more successful the sector becomes. So the wheel turns.
Daimler’s CEO, Dieter Zetsche told Car magazine earlier this year; “Our assessment is that we will see even higher growth in SUV sales in the years ahead – and that view is in line with the wider industry… We are going through every segment we offer and looking to see if we can offer a more rugged model and a more coupé-like version. This is not the end of our SUV expansion at all.”
The motor industry has always adopted the path of least resistance and having toyed with 4-door coupés have established they’re not the solution they were seeking. Yes, they will continue to be produced in the short-term, but it’s possible we’ve already reached peak coupé. Tellingly, the recent decision by Daimler to cancel the Shooting Brake variant of the next generation CLS owing to poor sales of the current model demonstrates just how finely balanced matters have become.
Meanwhile, in the coupé crossover, Mercedes-Benz are certain they’ve found the next big thing and will be hell bent convincing customers likewise. It’s unlikely they’ll struggle. So if it’s creativity or innovation you’re seeking, you’ll find it here, amid the industry’s new North star. Who of us thought when BMW introduced the X6 back in 2008 that it would herald such a shift? I certainly wouldn’t bet against it now.
Car sales data sourced via Goodcarbadcar.net/Left-lane.com