Hello everybody and welcome to Letters to Doug, everyone’s favorite weekly column that involves writing letters to Doug.
If you’re interested in participating in Letters to Doug, here’s how it works: you send me an e-mail at Letters2Doug@gmail.com, and then I reply to your letter here on Jalopnik if it’s worthy of publication. Names will be changed to protect the letter writer, just in case you want to admit something embarrassing, like the fact that you purchased a Volkswagen Touareg.
Today’s letter comes from a reader I’ve named Geldorf, who’s asking about luxury sedans. Geldorf writes:
I am wondering as I sit on my toilet seat why isn’t the new BMW 7-Series getting the same love that Mercedes S-class got when it launched back in 2014?
I really like the new 7-series. To me it’s more of understated form of luxury than the Mercedes.
Why is it so, Doug?
An avid fan
Although Geldorf is specifically asking why the BMW 7 Series isn’t as popular as the Mercedes S-Class, I’ve decided to expand his question to include all luxury sedans. Because, folks, let’s be honest: there isn’t a luxury sedan on the market that gets as much attention or as much fame as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
So why, you might ask, is this? After all, Audi makes a highly competent luxury sedan in the A8, and BMW makes a beautifully crafted luxury sedan in the 7 Series, and Cadillac makes a fantastic rental car upgrade in the XTS. So why aren’t some of these cars as highly regarded as the Mercedes S-Class?
The reason is something I’ve decided to call pigeonholing, which is an actual term that I promise I did not just make up. Wikipedia says it means “to classify disparate entities into a small number of categories,” so named because back in the 1920s, when the word was created, you’d stick your pigeon into a hole and tell him to stay there and shut the hell up.
So how does it apply to the luxury sedan market? I’ll tell you how: because BMW, Audi, and virtually every other luxury brand is pigeonholed by the best-known car in their lineup.
I’ll give you a few examples. When someone says “BMW,” you don’t think of the 7 Series. You think of the 3 Series. You think of the sorority girl stereotype, and 240 horsepower engines, and lease deals. So in the minds of people who buy S-Classes, BMW isn’t a brand that makes luxury sedans; it’s a brand that makes small sport sedans. BMW is the 3 Series.
The same goes for all the other luxury brands. When you say “Audi,” you think A4. When you say “Lexus,” you think RX. When you say “Cadillac,” you think Escalade. And when you say “Lincoln,” you think “massive model year end incentives.”
But when you say “Mercedes,” what comes to mind? For a huge number of luxury car buyers, it’s the S-Class. The S-Class is the car Mercedes is known for; the car they’ve made longer than any other car; the car that has sat at the top of their lineup since the days of black-and-white filmmaking.
And so, for many luxury sedan buyers, the S-Class is still the car that screams “luxury sedan” more than any other automobile. And folks, let’s be clear: luxury sedan buyers don’t change their mind very easily. These are people who have been seeing the same barber since President Bush promised No New Taxes. These aren’t people who are going to make a random, sudden decision to switch from Mercedes-Benz to Audi just because the A8 “looks cool.”
Luxury sedan brand loyalty is so strong that I think it’s been the primary factor that has prevented Cadillac and Lincoln from entering the market with any serious competitor. Just think about Audi: they came out with their first full-size luxury sedan for the U.S. market in the 1990 model year. They went through three full model cycles (1990-1994, 1997-2003, and 2004-2010) with marginal sales. And only then, after more than 20 years on the market, did they finally start seeing some success with their latest and greatest A8.
And so, to answer your question, Geldorf, here’s the reason the 7 Series doesn’t get that much attention: when people see a new S-Class, they go crazy, because it’s the brand’s most famous model; the car that will set the tone for the automaker’s products for the next few years to come. When people see a new 7 Series, they think: “Meh. Wake me up when there’s a new 3 Series.”
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.