What is it that makes the difference and what is it buyers look for?
Let’s start with asking what a brand is.
The term was first used for the mark seared onto animals with a hot `branding’ iron with different designs for different farmers so buyers knew who the meat was from and the quality they could expect.
That concept, a set of widely known qualities and characteristics, translates perfectly into the motoring market where some manufacturers have cleverly taken their normal cars and developed them into a separate brand.
The brand becomes a sort of shorthand for a car’s identity, what sort of experience it will give the driver. It’s about building an image and providing a more focused, intense experience for the customer than they would get in a mainstream model.
But if there is one fundamental factor in making a brand work it is this. Having built up that set of expectations in a buyer’s mind it has to be delivered because credibility is an absolute.
Some do it brilliantly well; think of what BMW has done with its MINI range or what Fiat is starting to do with Abarth, Citroen its DS range, Audi with the RS badged cars and many others.
Others don’t fare quite so well. It is perhaps not kind to bring up Fiat’s attempts of several years ago to revive the Lancia name and who now remembers the Daimler cars coming out of the Jaguar factory or Vanden Plas?
Building a brand takes much more than just sticking another badge on a base model.
What are the identities and images of some of today’s well-known brands derived from mainstream models?
Well, this is slightly subjective but we think most would agree with the following descriptions.
- Audi RS: high performance oriented with high power engines, sportier suspension settings and racier interior.
- BMW M Series: A rival for Audi RS cars with much the same formula.
- DS. More extrovertly styled and with more refined interiors trimmed in nicer materials than the Citroen cars they are built from, more of a couture car. Fitting really given that the name is a contraction of the French word `Deesse’ which means Goddess!
- Abarth: Racing driver and motorcyclist Carlo Abarth began tuning and building cars in the 1950s and adopted the scorpion badge as the emblem because, like the creature itself, his cars were small but had a sting in the tail. Being light and agile they ran rings around more powerful rivals.
That DNA is very evident in today’s Abarths which pack quite a punch in versions of mainstream Fiats such as the 500 or 124 Spyder.
- MINI: Say `Mini’ to anyone and it will almost certainly conjure up a thought of a fun, cheeky little car from the swinging ‘60s. Today’s MINIs are hardly little but they still have a fun character with their styling and the way they drive and have a `feel good’ factor.
They may be small but these brands are a fast growing part of the market and attracting a lot of buyers.
Take DS for example; in 2015 it registered 8,614 cars here and 15,898 last year, almost twice as much. Part of that growth was down to new versions but there is still a lot of organic growth as the message gets around.
Abarth came to the UK market in 2008 and has seen strong year on year growth ever since. Last year sales jumped 45 per cent, from 2,743 in 2015 to 3,996 in 2016 as it became the third fastest growing name in the new car market last year, behind only Jaguar and Infiniti, Nissan’s luxury brand.
Despite that, their exclusivity remains because DS takes just 0.3 per cent of the overall new car market and Abarth 0.15.
Not big numbers but special cars.
An Abarth spokesman summed up what its buyers look for and what the company provides, saying: “Performance, style and individuality are key purchase drivers. Our customers are likely to enjoy driving and appreciate the performance and handling of our products.
“They also appreciate the iconic styling of the 595 in particular and that by choosing Abarth they may feel that they are opting perhaps, for a more discerning, rather than ‘mainstream’, choice.”
DS 3 Performance.
This little car more than lives up to its name because its 1.6 turbo pushes out around 200 bhp which in a light car makes for a lot of fun. Forget about torque or power curves, it accelerates from very low revs and just keeps going. You will run out of usable road space long before it runs out of puff.
It has a quick steering ratio, a torsen diff to control what otherwise could be a hysterical amount of torque steer on a 200 bhp front wheel drive car like this and it is set up to be as responsive as a go kart.
It looks as well as it goes, riding on 18 inch gloss black alloys with the Brembo brakes visible through them, has a contrasting black roof to the base colour, a little spoiler and big bore tailpipes.
The inside is a nice place to be, from the sports seats holding you in place when you are driving it as it should be driven, the carbon-look trim, nifty instruments, alloy pedals and so on.
It’s a small car that puts a big smile on your face.
The Audi TT RS is effectively a small supercar. The latest TT is a beautiful machine with one of the nicest, most sophisticated interiors of any car in its class but the real attraction of this RS version is its performance.
There is almost 400 bhp from its growling engine, enough for a sub 4.0 second 0 to 60 time, and its suspension, steering and four wheel drive system gives it the grip, handling and driver involvement to match.
It is a much more sports focused version of the standard TT and compares against cars like the Jaguar F-TYPE or Porsche 718. Many say it is like a cheaper and more practical Audi R8 supercar…
A small car with a big heart, the 595 perhaps is not as quick or as powerful as some rivals but most independent road testers agree that it beats them all hands down in terms of appeal, charm and value.
It has the advantage of the chic styling of the car it’s based on, the Fiat 500, but gets the full sports body tweaks with a lot of features designed to give it better aerodynamic performance.
The Abarth certainly looks the part on the outside and the interior has a lot of special detailing too which lift it a long way from the Fiat.
Available with states of tune from around 140 to 180 bhp the 595 goes as well as you could want on our roads, it grips and handles well and is engaging to drive.
Some rivals are faster, bigger and ride better but for a market where buyers want above all to feel special in, and be entrained by, their car many who have bought them, and those who have not, now appreciate why that scorpion badge is so appropriate.