Six premium car brands that struggled to make an impact

Graham Hope

02 Oct 2021

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The posh cars that found tempting buyers out of BMWs and Mercs is hard work

The arrival of Genesis on the UK market as a fully-fledged luxury car brand in its own right is one of the more interesting developments in recent times. The cars we’ve seen so far look good, and with Hyundai’s millions behind the project, it has a fighting chance of success – but it will be fascinating to see if buyers respond positively.



 



Because launching an upscale brand can be a real challenge in the badge-obsessed car market, where there are so many desirable established names. The product, marketing, timing and positioning all have to be perfectly executed, or failure beckons. History is sprinkled with examples of new premium propositions that failed to take off – here we take a look at six brands that found the going tougher than expected.

 

Merkur

 

Take a quick glance at the picture below. It’s a Ford Sierra, right? Nope, it’s not. And that probably tells you all you need to know about the blue oval’s ill-fated foray into the upper echelons of the American market between 1985 and 1989. This car was actually marketed as the Merkur XR4Ti, as Ford created a new brand to try to capitalise on the States’ growing appetite for sporty premium European cars. But the idea never really took off, for reasons that now seem rather obvious in hindsight. Firstly, the base car – the Sierra – simply wasn’t a premium product, even in this guise. Plus selling the vehicle at existing dealers diminished any idea of uniqueness. The name, too, was confusing – Merkur is the German word for Mercury, which was another of Ford’s brands at the time. Even though the car itself was perfectly acceptable, the whole exercise demonstrated that you can’t magic prestige and desirability out of thin air.



 

 


Infiniti

 

In recent times, Infiniti’s failure in Europe is possibly the most glaring example of just how difficult it can be to establish a premium brand. Nissan announced its upmarket arm was pulling out in 2019, after years of struggling to carve a relevant niche for itself, saying the cost of electrifying the fleet to reduce average emissions meant continuing just wasn’t viable. Dismal sales were at the heart of this, and there were multiple reasons to blame, including mismanagement at Nissan’s highest level, designs that heavily split opinion and an ageing line-up of cars. But perhaps the biggest factor was a failure to establish what Infiniti actually represented. There was vague talk of it being pitched as a tech leader, but often its ‘breakthroughs’ – such as the variable compression engine – made little impact on the public as the benefits weren’t made clear. 



 



DS

 

In theory, the idea behind DS should ensure appeal – the focus on Parisian luxury offers a genuine point of differentiation from the ever-dominant German manufacturers, and the success of couture brands such as Chanel and Christian Dior demonstrates there is an appetite for high-end French products globally. However, although there are parts of the world where DS is making inroads, it’s been an uphill battle here in the UK, where it sold a paltry 2379 cars last year – giving it a meagre market share of 0.15 per cent. Six years since splitting from Citroen, that has to be considered disappointing. Delivering a luxury sales and service experience is key to the brand’s ethos – it is “seeing the best results in places we have stores” according to UK boss Jules Tilstone. But despite some interesting designs and plans, it still seems a long road ahead for DS.



 



Sterling

 

There’s a rich history of Brits that tried and failed to crack America – just ask Robbie Williams and Anthony Joshua. To that you can add Sterling, a concoction of Austin Rover Cars of North America which was deemed to convey sufficient English allure and pedigree for an assault on the US market. It didn’t. The idea was to use the Sterling badge to sell Rover cars in the States, and the first to hit showrooms in 1987 was the 825, essentially a Rover 800, which itself was very closely related to the Honda Legend. Despite an initially warmish reception, the UK-built 825 quickly acquired a reputation for dismal build quality and sales fell off a cliff to the extent that the car was pulled from sale in 1990 and the Sterling adventure was over before it started. The lesson? If you’re going to launch a premium brand, it’s essential to get the product right.



 



Amati / Efini / Xedos

 

Mazda has always relished doing things a little bit differently. But even by the Hiroshima manufacturer’s standards, the decision to launch not one but three separate luxury brands in the early 1990s was a maverick move. Amati was destined for North America and announced in 1991 – a seemingly logical step for ambitious Mazda, which had noted how rival firms Honda, Toyota and Nissan had made an impact with Acura, Lexus and Infiniti respectively. Four new models were planned, but by 1992 Amati was dead before a single model had hit the road – deemed too costly an exercise for Mazda with sales falling and the Japanese economy struggling. Also launched in 1991, and lasting a bit longer – six years to be precise – was Efini, which targeted the home market of Japan. The strategy of selling more polished rebadged Mazdas didn’t seem like a recipe for long-term success, although Efini did deliver one unique car, the MS-8 – a sleek saloon marked out by pillarless doors. A third brand, Xedos, was launched in Europe in 1992, and produced the Xedos 6 and 9 saloons. But they remained a rare sight on UK roads, cursed by their relative anonymity compared to more familiar German offerings. Credit to Mazda for its ambition, but in hindsight it’s not hard to see why all three efforst failed to make much of an impact.



 






Alpheon

 

Take a bow if you have ever heard of Alpheon. This General Motors brand was launched in Korea in 2010, with a backstory that was extremely complicated, even by car industry standards. Essentially, GM decided it wanted to introduce a large upmarket saloon in Korea, and a version of the posh Buick LaCrosse – a Lexus ES rival in the US that was based on the Vauxhall Insignia – was the chosen car. But Buick had no presence in Korea, so it couldn’t be sold as a Buick. GM did have three other brands on sale there, though, but none was suitable – Daewoo was on its way out, and Chevrolet and Cadillac were inappropriate for a rebadged Buick. Solution? Invent a new marque! Enter Alpheon, a kind of flagship Daewoo for want of a better label. The brand’s look and strategy was created in only three months, and given such a short gestation it was no surprise Alpheon proved relatively short-lived, as it disappeared in 2015, having offered only one model. A perfect example of the peculiarities of car branding, particularly at the premium end of the market.



 

 

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Graham Hope

02 Oct 2021