Avoidable Contact #142: Using the “Chicken Corner” strategy to save new-car enthusiasm

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AC Maserati Grecale Trofeo lead
Stellantis

My Maserati does fifty-seven point four… I lost my five-star Uber driver rating, I don’t need it no more. Not exactly rock-star material, is it? But the cargo-space measurement of a Maserati Levante is probably more important to its livery-and-live-laugh-love customer base than its top speed. For the record, 57.4 cubic feet of space with the rear seats down isn’t exactly a rock-star result, as the Honda CR-V provides 79.6 cubic feet.

The Levante’s relative paucity of carrying capacity hasn’t stopped people from buying it, any more than the relatively tame acceleration of the old Maserati Merak cost it any customers among the smart set almost 50 years ago. Back then, the firm had a four-car lineup: Merak for the entry-level, Bora for speed, Khamsin for comfort, Quattroporte for business. Three of the four were gorgeous, at least. Today, Maserati has a three-car lineup, consisting of Ghibli and Quattroporte sedans plus the Levante SUV. There are two additional vehicles arriving soon: the MC20 supercar and the new Grecale cute-ute. Naturally, the latter will be far more common out on the roads than the former.

Why, exactly, does a manufacturer once known for rip-snorting sports coupes now spend most of its time building what amounts to gold-plated RAV4s? The same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: because that’s where the money is. Part of it is no doubt the magnetic appeal of Boomer buying power; in 1975, the Summer-of-Love crowd was willing to sit on the ground in a supercar, but now they’d like to sit up high in a station wagon. (Can’t blame them. It takes me longer to get into my Radical than it took Matlock to get into his Crown Vic.) Perhaps another part of it is the general loss of starch that seems to afflict America in general nowadays. We spend an inordinate amount of time wondering if things are safe. The media spends an equally inordinate amount of time reassuring us that certain desirable outcomes and ideas are “the safest” or “the most safe in history” and so on. Not to reach too deep into the sci-fi basket here, but modern adult Americans have become exactly like Pierson’s Puppeteers in pretty much all aspects, from our love of stirring up conflict elsewhere to a fear of sharp corners on furniture. It’s neither admirable nor inspiring. Were John A. Shedd a modern American, he would have written:

A ship in harbor is safe, but … alright, let’s leave the ship in harbor and have it be the safest and most secure ship in history, that would be great, I have a hard stop at 6 p.m. so we need to make sure we get this scrum-Zoom finished by then, OK? Can I get consensus on this?

Even if this were still an age of wooden ships and iron men, however, we might nevertheless see an unpleasant abundance of sport-utes in showrooms today, for the same reason everyone from Acura to Sterling once offered hatchbacks on their mainstream cars. I call it the “Chicken Corner Theory,” and it goes something like this. Chicken Corner was an intersection in Columbus, Ohio, where there were no fewer than five chicken restaurants. Why? It’s simple, really.

For every mold-breaking entrepreneur like Elon Musk, there are a thousand corporate drones in leadership positions who prefer to “compete” on very small differences. That’s why the best place to put a new chicken restaurant is right across the street from an existing chicken restaurant. You already know that chicken customers are visiting that intersection. Instead of hoping they will come to a different intersection, a strategy with both elevated reward potential and elevated risk, why not just meet the customers where they already are? All you have to do then is make your chicken slightly cheaper, or slightly better, and reap the benefits accordingly. And that is why the history of the automotive industry in America goes something like this:

0. Business as usual, with most top-selling products being close to indistinguishable from each other.
1. Someone introduces a “segment-buster” like the Caravan/Voyager, four-door Explorer, RAV4, something like that.
2. Everyone scrambles to introduce something essentially identical to the segment buster.
3. Return to Step Zero.

It is also why the vast majority of cars in America were hatchbacks for a while; the original Accord was a hatchback. (The original Civic was not a hatchback, but rather a hatchback-shaped “sedan” with a vertical trunklid, something that has always amused me.) Nissan’s decision to supply the first Stanza as a sedan shortly after introducing it as a hatchback was the sign of a sea change back to trunks, so to speak. In the ’90s everyone scrambled to get a four-door, body-on-frame SUV out the door, sometimes resorting to the kind of shameless badge-engineering that brought us the Honda Passport and Acura SLX, which were Isuzus in all but grille.

Those original Hondas-by-Isuzu sold pretty well and satisfied a lot of customers, most of whom had no idea they weren’t driving a “real Honda.” The same was true of the Ford Courier, which was a Mazda pickup pretending to be a Ford, and the Mazda B4000, which was a Ford pickup pretending to be a Mazda. Interestingly enough, a similar switcheroo happened between GM and Isuzu. The Chevy LUV was an Isuzu P’UP, and the current Isuzu trucks in Thailand and elsewhere are very similar to our Chevrolet Colorado. In both cases, this badge-engineering made a lot of sense, because the domestics had no idea how to build a small truck in 1975, but in 2022 they are arguably better at building all kinds of pickups than the Japanese ever were. The Chicken Corner Theory applied in all cases. Ford went to Mazda’s intersection in 1975, and Mazda went to Ford’s intersection 30 years later.

Once we accept that …

* most customers want to buy pretty much the same thing as their neighbors have;
* most manufacturers want to sell pretty much the same thing as their competitors do;
* pretty much every dealer in America wants to sell a full line of vehicles from their brand, from compact cheapie to 3/4-ton truck;
* some companies are simply better at serving some corners of the market than others;

… then the next step becomes semi-obvious. Every automaker in America, from Kia to Maserati, would like to field at least two sizes of crossover/cute-ute. But not all of them are any good at building those cute-utes. Why not outsource the design and engineering of those cute-utes to companies with a demonstrated competence in those matters? As far as I can tell, nobody does crossovers quite as well, or quite as thoroughly, as Toyota. Hondas are a bit nicer to drive, Fords are a bit nicer to look at, the Porsche Macan certainly costs more. In no case, however, do I see any difference that would truly upset customers. The average Macan customer would be absolutely happy with a Porsche-badged-and-styled Lexus NX, while the average CR-V buyer would be just as content with a RAV4 sold through a Honda dealer. And while there are genuine dynamic differences between a 1975 Porsche 911 and a 1975 Maserati Merak, the differences between a Macan, the new Grecale, and a RAV4 simply cannot be all that great due to the inherent dynamic compromises of a cute-ute. The interiors are certainly different, but that’s also true of a Lexus NX versus a RAV4.

But wait, there’s more. Ask yourself: Why do people buy a Cayenne, or a Urus, or a Levante? Is it because they are cute-ute experts who have driven all the available contenders and then painstakingly selected the best vehicle to meet their distinct needs? Of course not. The Macan and Cayenne sell for the same reason the 924 and 944 used to sell: so you could tell people you own a Porsche without actually having to structure your life around a 911. I know a few Urus owners, but the only one who is in a hurry to tell people “his Lamborghini” is an SUV also happens to own a Super Trofeo race car, and he thinks it’s funny to talk about the Urus.

Here’s some reality for you: All of the big-money SUVs out there are just Halloween costumes for unpleasantly gravid five-seat unibody trucks, and they’re just about as convincing as the Mylar-and-foam Joker outfit your five-year-old wore last October. Oh, look! That 5500-pound SUV looks vaguely like something you wanted to own when you were a child! How can you not buy it? If you had a 911 Turbo on your wall as a kid, you buy a Macan. If you had a Countach on your wall, you buy a Urus. Simple as that. Why don’t these people buy the real thing? I’ve heard a million reasons/excuses, but in the end it all boils down to that mantra: safe, safer, safest. Your humble author might be the kind of deranged trash who rides a ZX-14R to work in shorts and sunglasses like David Lee Roth on the Sunset Strip, but most 50-year-olds who can afford a $200,000 vehicle have been so thoroughly tamed by our corporate hegemony that they don’t even stop to consider a sports car. They just want the face of a sports car they once loved on the station wagon they now feel compelled to purchase.

Once you realize the reality of what I’ve just told you, you’ll understand why every SUV could be a Toyota with slightly different styling inside and out. And here’s the best part: These big pigs rely on the accomplishments of their sports-car stablemates in order to have any prestige whatsoever, so the first automaker who just builds Highlanders with a sports-car face is going to have billions of dollars to spend on outrageous and astounding sports cars that will, in turn, make their SUVs look much cooler. Ask yourself a question: Why are you less interested in a Maserati SUV than you would be in a Ferrari SUV? Because Ferrari might have started out behind the Maserati brothers, but Enzo’s namesake now leads the prestige race. This is largely because Ferrari was making the 308GTB when Maserati was making Biturbos. Therefore, building super-cool sports cars today will lead to higher 5500-pound-wagon sales tomorrow, even more surely than a NASCAR win on Sunday leads to truck sales on Monday.

I don’t know what it cost to develop the Maserati Grecale, but I bet you could develop an absolutely murderous $99,999 Porsche-killer for that same money. Like an MC20 without all the fancy stuff, maybe. Five-hundred-and-five horses from a twin-turbo V-6. Lotus Exige packaging. Styling that evokes the Bora while cribbing from the Dino across the street. The whole world would go nuts for it. You wouldn’t sell that many, of course—but it would be YouTube and Instagram famous. It could revive Maserati’s brand and fortunes in true Joe-Walsh-approved fashion.

Then you put the nose of the thing on a Highlander and laugh all the way to the bank. The dealers would love it. Big profits, very few unhappy customers, no lemon-law drama. This is Chicken Corner Thinking taken all the way to its logical extreme. Everybody out there really wants a Highlander. Your humble author once had a six-speed Cayenne GTS as a company car. From time to time it would just … need … a full replacement of the center stack electronics, a procedure that took weeks to accomplish. This did not charm me. I would have been far more charmed by a 4Runner with round headlights. I can only imagine what it is like to own an Italian SUV. All the heartache of a Giulietta minus all the things that make a Giulietta great.

Alright, I saved the best for last. Those of you luxury-SUV owners who alternately scoffed and spat your way through what I just wrote … guess what? This dystopian future of upscale wagons has already come to pass. Kind of. A Urus is a Cayenne is a Q7 is a Bentayga is a Touareg. The same is largely true for the Stellantis vehicles. And they are all outfitted nose to tail by anonymous suppliers who often make the same component for a dozen differently-badged vehicles. All that’s missing is that everlasting Toyota SUV engineering. You know, the kind that has your Uber driver turning over 650K on his Highlander. So you can stop kidding yourself. With apologies to True Detective, the $100K-wagon market is a flat circle, and … you’re in the chicken corner NOW!

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