I must respond to Julie Cantwell's May 27 column (in some editions), "Mini Cooper is hot, but low volume is not" and her not understanding niche vehicles. I hope she wasn't serious, but if she were ...
Manufacturers need niche vehicles because they're exciting. It's true that in order to sell in volume, you have to appeal to a wide audience, but doing that requires very sedate design. In a market as competitive as automobiles, very sedate design is self-defeating. It cost General Motors much of its market share.
Don't get me wrong: Malibus, Cavaliers, Maximas and Camrys are great vehicles. They do their job well, but they're about as much fun as a loaf of bread and as invisible as a washing machine. And let's remember that two of those four still need big cash incentives to sell.
Minis and Vipers and Thunderbirds get people's blood flowing for the automobile, even if they're not going to buy one. Niche vehicles tap right into the emotions of how people feel about themselves, how they want to be perceived and what excites them - without cash incentives. And yes, they become halo cars, which are entirely necessary.
Halo cars get people into showrooms and start a trickle-down effect. Minivan customers might feel like they're driving a piece of the niche car they aspire to own. Mazda has based an entire ad campaign on that concept ("Zoom-Zoom"). Porsche and Ferrari manufacture only niche cars and have been more successful on a per-unit basis than many of the big guys.
It's the same reason why cosmetics in America are given names like Tonique Controle and Bi-Facil instead of just Face Cleanser or Eye Makeup Remover and have colors called Dusk, Soft as Velvet and Vamp Red instead of pink, purple and red. What's more exciting?