If you want to buy a German luxury car, it is not enough to have lots of money. One apparently needs legs as strong as oak trees, too. In an effort to attract younger buyers, BMW, Audi and Porsche are marketing high-priced trail bikes.
Luxury automakers often market accessories that supposedly fit the customer's lifestyle. But these bicycles are remarkable for their sheer cost, with prices that range as high as DM10,000, or $5,550. All three luxury automakers hope to attract new, young customers who might otherwise view German luxury brands as stodgy.
So far, the automakers' marketing strategies appear more confused than inspired. Consider the performance of BMW's new Q line of luxury bicycles, which went on sale this year. BMW has sold 1,500 bicycles. Nearly all have been bought by existing BMW customers - not newcomers to the brand, says company spokesman Klaus Zwingenberger. Moreover, the bicycle is not attracting young customers. The target age group is 20 to 35, but most buyers are 40 or older.
The story at Audi and Porsche is similar. All three German manufacturers market their bicycles through dealers. In theory, they can be ordered from any dealer worldwide or online from the company. But it is difficult to find a dealership that displays these bicycles in its showrooms.
'Selling a bicycle for £3,000 ($4,500) is quite different from polo shirts or coffee mugs,' said Gerry Furay, parts manager of a Porsche dealership in Glasgow, Scotland. 'Customers are happy to order less expensive goods from a catalog. But they want to see the quality of the bicycles before they buy. For us, a bicycle is a high-cost item to stock, and we simply don't make enough margin to make it worth the effort.'
Porsche sells about 2,000 bikes per year worldwide, including 200 or so in the United Kingdom. Porsche wants to boost annual British sales to between 300 and 500 bicycles. The company displays its bicycles at car shows and is considering dealer incentives to put more bikes in showrooms this year.
BMW does not advertise its lifestyle accessories because it would weaken the company's core vehicle message. This policy frustrates Zwingenberger. 'We recognize that by not actively promoting the bikes, we are not reaching the target customers,' he says. 'We are looking closely at how this can be improved.'
The company's reluctance to advertise is difficult to understand, given its support for dealers that do sell the bikes. BMW dealers offer customers full maintenance service for the bicycles, just as they would for a car or motorcycle. Dealership employees receive technical training, and the bikes even come with a service manual.
Customers also can improve their off-road skills by taking a BMW-sponsored luxury holiday in the mountains around Italy's picturesque Lake Garda. It costs up to $1,050 per person for one week of grueling cycling and fine Italian cuisine. Less wealthy enthusiasts can test their skills at the automaker's bike park that opened last year in the Bavarian forest.
In September, I visited the course to test BMW's bicycles and meet a few serious cyclists. BMW's course is built next to a ski resort. Even the nursery slopes are not for the fainthearted. Some trails are built into the mountainside and consist of challenging jumps, banks and slaloms. Protective gear is a must. Accustomed to city cycling, I am far from a sporting biker. My meager efforts were eclipsed by athletic 10-year-olds with no sense of fear.
Compared with my $220 mountain bike, the BMW machine was positively luxurious. The Q series features the BMW Telelever suspension system, which was adapted from the BMW suspension for motorbikes. It easily handles the lumps and bumps that would leave less capable bikes - and their riders - foundering.
But serious cyclists question the bike's merits. Diddie Scheider, a former stunt cyclist who designed the park, says the bicycle is too soft for sport biking and better set for cross-country touring. 'The geometry of the bike is great, and the stability excellent,' he says. 'With just one or two modifications, it could compete with the best sports bikes.' But he thinks that will not satisfy enthusiasts. 'It's a shame, but sports bikers are not convinced that carmakers can design good bikes,' he said. 'It is not a core product and therefore doesn't receive the same attention in the eyes of the enthusiasts.'
My guide, an ace jumper named Horst Blochl, summed up the feelings of serious bikers: 'These bikes are a great match for a designer outfit and sunglasses but not for serious action.'
While I was on the course, Scheider was preparing for a ride with a corporate mailing group, Deutsche Post. Corporate weekends make up about half of his business. The other half comprises enthusiasts who bring their own bikes. Only the corporate groups ride the BMW bikes. About one third of them come back for more, but no one has bought a BMW bicycle.
While BMW dithers over its marketing strategy, Audi is preparing an aggressive advertising campaign to promote a new lineup of bicycles. The bikes, which were launched in September, are marketed through Audi subsidiary Quattro GmbH. The Quattro label, long associated with the company's innovative all-wheel-drive system, was established as a separate company in 1983. Its product range is wide and covers fashion items, cars and even luggage. The previous line of bicycles generated sales of only 500 per year. An Audi spokesman says the new range should boost annual sales to 2,000 units.
Although the carmakers are struggling to improve their marketing campaigns for lifestyle accessories, there is no shortage of new products. BMW is preparing to launch Street Carvers - small, unmotorized scooters. Children's scooters have gained popularity across Europe as a form of adult transport. Nowadays, executives in business suits can be seen whizzing around town on them. Early next year, BMW will introduce the scooters worldwide. The company will target young adults.
As one might expect, the automaker's scooter will be high-tech and expensive. It uses BMW suspension technology to cushion riders on uneven sidewalks.
What's next for lifestyle products? Can we look forward to Mercedes-Benz inline skates?
You can e-mail writer Elaine Catton at [email protected]