Crossroads for the Four Door Coupé

Is the four-door coupé already out of road, or is it just crossing over?

2436x1552_A7_SB_Rear_light
The shape we’re in now. Image: Audi UK

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.

Eclipsed? BMW's Gran Coupe.
Eclipsed? BMW’s Gran Coupe. Image: BMW UK

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.”

I've seen the furure, brother, & it's yellow. Image via businessinsider
I’ve seen the future, brother & it’s yellow. Image: businessinsider

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

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

31 thoughts on “Crossroads for the Four Door Coupé”

  1. Another way to look at it is that the so-called ‘four-door coupé’ niche doesn’t actually exists, and consists merely of a number of slightly less practical but more luxuriously appointed spin-offs from more mainstream models. And more than the number of units sold, it’s the margin ratio that matters here – and one can easily assume it is quite significant.

    1. I am reminded of the American personal coupé market. Detroit used existing architectures to mine the niche until baroque excess exhausted the seam. Maybe it will be the same story again with coupaloons, although one would hope the Germans can at least adopt a modicum of restraint.

    2. The Japanese manufacturers used to do something similar in their home market, producing four-door hardtop variants of conventional saloons with a racier roofline and frameless side windows.

    3. Exactly, a “4-door coupe” is just a clever way to market a saloon with a less conservative design. When Citroen introduced the XM, they didn’t invent a new market niche for it and thanks to this it’s remembered as one of the most racy saloons ever built.

  2. Coupaloons (sorry) are sold on beauty, a quality that today’s metrics-led manufacturers struggle to quantify. Mercedes hit the nail quite squarely on the head with the first CLS, but their second attempt shows how hard catching the lightning in a bottle can be. No doubt the newer car came through customer clinics with more shiny gold stars, and yet its performance on the sales floor has been solid rather than stellar.

    Then again, the coupaloon waters are much more crowded than when the CLS first launched. Indeed, the handsome and realistically priced Passat CC has also failed to meet sales expectations (although that may have more to do with VW’s ill-founded hubris in the US market). The market saturated, the prospects for growth appear slim. That said, the Germans never leave sales on the table, and the niche is no doubt profitable enough if costs are contained.

    1. What do sales figures for the CLS look like?
      Also what were the sales expectations for the CC?

    2. I read somewhere that VW were hoping to shift 300,000 CCs over the life of the product, with many of the sales coming from America. It transpired that US sales were somewhat less than projected, but VW have been shifting around 1,700 a month worldwide. Not bad numbers by any stretch, but assuming the model is updated in the next year or so, the CC will still be about a third short of the projection.

    3. VW have serious issues in the US, that’s undeniable. Reliability issues and brand perception have so far made it impossible for them to fulfill their potential over there, at the top end of the market in particular.

    4. Reading on, it appears that the CC has been doing well in China, shifting 3000-4000 units a month. Perhaps the slack from the American market will have been taken up after all, although I note that sales have dropped off a cliff for the first few months of 2015.

    5. As for the Merc, CLS sales have been ticking along at around 1000 per month in Europe, with apparently no sales in China. As for the USA, I’ll keep digging. It is notable though that sales of the previous generation CLS peaked in 2004 and 2005 with just over 20,000 sales per year.

  3. The original CLS emerged during a period of unfettered expansion at Stuttgart-Unterturkheim, when Daimler were flinging money at the walls to see what would stick. Their domestic rivals had to be seen to respond, especially given the model’s early popularity. As for VW, the CC has Piech-flavoured hubris written all over it – (nice car that it is…) With Ferdi gone, I don’t see VW with their current challenges sanctioning a new one – unless of course its already signed off…

    It’s a different story now. Model lines have to pay their way. So while the margins on these vehicles are significant, the volumes are stagnating. Add in the fact that rivals are not planning to enter the market and it’s most likely QED. Now factor in the end of China’s splurge on all things European and ‘premium’, and you have a sector (if indeed it can be termed thus) ripe for oblivion. Even without China Crisis, the centre of gravity has been shifting industrywide and given America’s wholesale embrace of the high-rider, any manufacturer not planning some kind of crossover-y thing isn’t planning on sticking around for much longer.

    My take is that we’ll all have to learn to love ’em, because soon they’ll be everywhere. In all shapes, sizes and flavours. The illusion of choice once again.

    1. You make it sounds like the all thing was a fiasco, which would be the case had the coupaloons you mentioned been created on entirely bespoke platforms, which isn’t the case. Instead they are variants of existing models sold at a premium, with expensive options added in most cases. So more than likely they are/were the real money-spinners in their respective model lines (E-class, A6, Passat).
      Not sure I understand how the CC embodies the hubris you perceive in VW either.

    2. I can’t speak for Eóin but my reading of his comment was that to him the CC represents an unnecessary addition to the VW range which exists because Herr Piech said ‘make it so’, which he argues is another example of the arrogance which led to his downfall. Maybe it exists because Murat Günak convinced senior management they needed a swoopy saloupé to counter the coupaloons? In which case it’s Eóin’s turn to get the next round of beverages.

      As for sport utilitoupés… No comment.

    3. Nonsense. The CC is just a variant of the Passat, not another Veyron. And it quite likely makes more money per unit sold than most VWs.

    4. Of course it’s nonsense, we’re having an opinionated, speculative conversation about cars and the motor industry in the comments section of an amateur motoring blog. Anyone would think you’d just received an exorbitant invoice for analysis from Max Warburton…

    5. All I’m saying is, I’m all for a bit of Piech bashing, but it can sometimes turn into spurious arguments if one isn’t careful. And Max says hello.

  4. I don’t think coupaloons (why not Chris?) and coupovers (maybe not) can really exist in the same world. The sleek low silhouette looks good in the showroom but, when you’ve paid all that money and crammed yourself in, you suddenly realise that you’re driving along permanently in the shadow of someone’s cheapo Nissan Juke.

  5. I think it’s a nonsense sector. M-B built the CLS as a “Jaguar-fighter”, which I think was a recognition that Jag saloon buyers would never consider an E-Class for style reasons and therefore there was an opportunity to nick some sales and, I guess, hole Jaguar beneath the water. The A7 is just a way of charging more for a hatch version of the A6, Audi probably felt that the CLS had blazed the trail for it (and was probably quite grateful for making the case). The 6-Series GC is a case of “ditto”. The interesting one for me was always the VW (Passat) CC in that it made me wonder why one would bother with the ‘normal’ Passat, given that it was the same car in every way only just much nicer looking and so I wonder how many conquest sales it has ever achieved? The new Passat already has that bit of extra lustre to it, so it will be interesting to see whether VW indeed productionises a new CC.

  6. Bez sez you forgot the Aston Martin Rapide. Coupeloonsaurus Rex is stil available, albeit with a slack-jawed mega-grille.

    1. I wonder if they are still actually making them, given they have the Lagonda now? Surely one cancels out the other?

    2. I guess if they’re all sharing VH platform underpinnings then it’s not such a big deal to keep it in the range. Especially if it shares a lot of parts with the ‘standard wheelbase’ DB9. It looks like the Lagonda isn’t part of the regular model range, at least on the UK website. But they love the Rapide in France, if winning L’Automobile magazine’s readers’ award for best luxury car six years running is any indication. http://www.astonmartin.com/en/live/news/2015/06/24/aston-martin-shines-in-prestigious-l-automobile-awards

  7. For me the most difficult sales case is faced by the manufacturer that started it all, Mercedes. Back in the day, a saloon was defined by three upright boxes. But now Gorden Wagener has imposed his bent banana style language on C, S and soon the E Class, there is less clear water between saloons and coupaloons.

  8. My invoices are always reasonable, even if my arguments are not. For what’s worth – Veyron, Phaeton, CC; they’re all (in my opinion) manifestations of the same misplaced arrogance that was a hallmark of VW under big Ferdi. The only difference was one of degree. I am not saying VW shouldn’t have tried. What I am saying is they probably wouldn’t choose to do it in today’s climate.

    1. And then there are the Eos, Scirocco III and Routan: offsprings of the less engineering-obsessed (albeit brief) Pieschetsrieder/Bernhard era. I think I know which one of these two batches of the misguided I prefer.

    2. The jovial cigar smoker’s name is spelled P-I-S-C-H-E-T-S-R-I-E-D-E-R, of course.

  9. About the Passat CC: yes, it’s beautiful design with a top-fat engine (if chosen). The question is not why so few havd been sold so much as why people bought the less lovely standard car.

    1. Good question. Reduced practicality and absence of discounts are my two main guesses.

    2. Snob value is another. For similar money you could have a default A4 or one of its rivals which requires a lot less explanation down the squash courts. And it’s no accident they latterly dropped the ‘Passat’ from its name either. Image is all.

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