Bark’s Bites: The High Price of Value

A few weeks ago, on this very collection of ones and zeroes, I asked the question, “Why Does The Public Accept Car Reviews From People Who Can’t Drive?” I got several responses from you, the B&B, that seemed to indicate that a car’s top-end performance abilities don’t really matter to you when buying a car and that you can determine everything that you need to know about a car’s performance on a test-drive loop. Therefore, many of you suggested that whether or not a person is a good driver should not be a qualifying characteristic of an automotive journalist, because you aren’t particularly interested in ever driving your car in a way that would test its limits.
Okay. Hey, it’s your opinion, and I respect you for it. I couldn’t agree with it less, but I still respect it.
However, if the public really believes that the pointy end of a car’s limits on track or a curvy road don’t matter, then why the heck do so many people buy the performance variants of cars?

Let’s be honest here — when you’re driving down the street, and you see a particularly beautiful Mercedes-Benz, what do your eyes immediately search for? Or if you see a lovely example of a 3-Series, what’s the first thing you look at?
Think about your answer for a second while I elaborate.
The V6 Mustang had (still has?) the reputation for being a “secretary’s car” for years. But, on the road, what’s the fundamental difference between a Cyclone and the Coyote? I asked myself that same question nearly two years ago. After all, the majority of us agreed — we can’t find the difference between the two cars on public roads. There may not even really be a difference on a public road. Are we really saying that the sound of the engine is worth the extra loot? Why does Ford even make a Mustang GT when the real-world performance difference is virtually nil? Why does BMW bother with a 335i when the 328i will do just fine on the daily commute to work?
The answer to my first question is: You look for the badge. The answer to the last one? Keep reading.
Allow me to introduce you to the concept of Perceived Value. The average American has been brainwashed over the last fifty years that increased price somehow means increased value. Companies have been pricing products based on this psychological fact for decades — and it works.
I once sat next to a gentleman who was a sales rep for Brooks on a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles. He bemoaned the fact that his company’s running shoes were far superior to anything that Nike was selling, but that all of their focus groups told them that they didn’t think their shoes were any good because they didn’t cost as much as Nikes. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but the next time I bought a pair of running shoes, I decided to try out a couple of pairs of Brooks. They were so much better than the comparable Nikes that I bought two pairs — and for less than the price that Nike was selling their top-of-the-line shoe. If I had never sat next to that gentleman, I never would have even considered the Brooks. Why? Because I figured that they couldn’t be any good. They were too inexpensive! My perceived value of their shoes was extremely low.
My father paid for a good deal of my education by selling private-label health and beauty products to grocers and department stores. Often times, the formula of the private label products was identical to name brands, yet the name brands almost always outsold the private label products. Why? Because they cost more. The perceived value was greater.
So, if the EcoBoost Mustang is only around $23K, then the GT, which starts at $32K, must be better…right? Never mind that over 90 percent of the general public wouldn’t be able to tell the difference when sitting behind the wheel. The interiors are the same. The real world acceleration is the same. It costs more. It’s better. Therefore, I should buy it.
And you know what comes along with perceived value, don’t you? Perceived image. The GT will always have more cachet at Cars and Coffee than the V6. The GT3 will always draw more eyes than a regular ol’ 911. The price tag totally changes not only what the buyer thinks of a car, but also what potential buyers and casual admirers think, too. Ask the driver of any performance-variant of a car what the first two questions everybody asks them is, and you’ll get the same answer:

How fast have you taken it up to?
How much money did that thing cost you?

If you don’t give Joe Schmo an impressive answer to both questions, he’ll lose interest quickly. But if you say “145 and $171,000″ as I heard a good friend of mine say recently when asked this question, then he’ll be enraptured. Your car just became cooler because of how much it costs.
As I’ve said before, a Corvette-owning friend of mine once said that the two most popular topics of conversation at any Corvette meet were:

What types of cleaning products everyone uses
How fast the magazines say their cars can go

These guys bought Corvettes not for their capabilities, but for the Corvette image. While some may laugh and dredge up the “gold chains and chest hair” stereotype of the Vette, in most of Middle America, a Corvette of C5 vintage or newer is still a pretty damned impressive car. And if the base Corvette is cool on the streets, then wouldn’t the Z06 be even cooler? Gee, I wonder if that’s why you can now buy an automatic, non-fixed roof C7 Z06. If you’re buying an automatic Z06, the chances of you ever tracking that car are incredibly close to nil. It’s not that you couldn’t, it’s just that 95 percent of you probably have no interest in doing so. But GM was losing out on customers who wanted that image, so they made a completely silly, irrelevant version of the Z06 that totally cheapened the enthusiast’s perception of the brand. They then sat back and counted their money as nearly all of them were sold before they even arrived at dealerships.
You know why? Because enthusiasts barely even matter to manufacturers. We don’t buy cars in numbers that are even mildly significant, and when we do, we buy them used. The miniscule number of us that will ever buy a Cayman GTS just to take it to an open lapping day and drive it right down the middle of the track for twenty minutes don’t matter. Those of us who will do it more than once matter even less. These cars are made for and sold to people who never come close to the edge of the performance limits of their vehicles.
So, why does anybody buy a car with a bigger engine? Or stiffer suspension? Or wider tires? Because they like the way it makes them feel — both about their buying decisions and their public image. And, by the way, there’s absolutely, positively, nothing wrong with that.

The post Bark’s Bites: The High Price of Value appeared first on The Truth About Cars.