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Porsche: “No matter what, we build sports cars.” Or not.

July 3, 2012

Not that it didn't contradict a couple of years of excitement-generating, headline-making news reports, but was anyone really surprised when Porsche announced that it would not sell a popularly priced sports car, the one it was for the last three years officially rumored to be developing for joint use with Volkswagen and Audi?

Porsche is in the middle stages of a full-on image recalibration, from focused maker of first-quality sports cars to all-purpose purveyor of big, expensive, and too often nasty things. So a reminder that a cheaper, smaller, fine-handling model -- to introduce younger, more broke and more frugal citizens to the brand and into the sports car fold -- does not appeal to current management ought hardly be a revelation.

"To build a Porsche for 30,000 euros [$37,800 at current exchange rates] currently doesn't fit our brand," Bernhard Maier, the company's head of sales and marketing and a Porsche board member, told an Automotive News convention in Monaco the other week, adding, "The extraordinary purchase experience is not for free and the entry price [level] is currently covered with the Boxster and in the future by the Macan." As if $45,000-50,000 (loaded, the way you know any $38,000 Porsche would come,) was something akin to free.

Newly addicted to building things that aren't sports cars — more than half of its sales are currently two-and-a-half-ton Cayenne SUVs — Porsche is now scurrying to ready its new, smaller but still weighty soft-roader, the Macan (based on the Audi Q5, itself based on the none-too-small Audi A4 and A5 platform) for a 2014 release. And then there is the apparent success of the Panamera — the ungainly beast has sold better than many predicted, confirming this writer's suspicion that when you're trolling for megabucks you can't be too large or too vulgar; ideally, it seems, you're both.

Finally, of course there is the imminent arrival of the incredible 918 Spyder, which promises to be a technological tour de force, a hyper-costly (estimated $845,000, to start) showpiece for lightweight materials. The world's fastest hybrid, it will still tip the scales, however, at more than 3300 lbs., meaning it will still somehow manage to weigh more than a 911 or even a Cadillac ATS.  Not that I'd throw one out of bed for eating crackers.

All in all, Porsche is emboldened -- not to mention corporately beholden (to its Volkswagen masters, who want to squeeze as much profit out of every platform they make) -- to build every expensive bauble or damn fool non-sports car it can sell if it might deliver margins or help the brand reach its sales target of 200,000 cars a year by 2018. Roughly double recent volume, it's been set as part of VW's drive to become the world's largest carmaker. And while Maier & Co. object to an entry-level sports car that only costs forty grand, they've no problem with a so-called entry-level SUV Porsche. Go figure.

Maybe the sports car market isn't what it was. Maybe it's not just the dearth of relevant models that retards demand, but rather the people's desire for riding high and mighty in jacked up crossovers. Or maybe Porsche doesn't view its essence in the way it once did. Porsche owners paid a relatively modest premium to step up to a serious and seriously efficient German sports car in the past —especially in the company's formative 1950s and 1960s heyday — but that audience is tended to now with but a line item or two on the business plan.

We may never know how fine a cheap Porsche this new one was shaping up to be, for the sad part, though no one's saying it, is that the Zuffenhauseners' abdication may spell curtains for the whole Volkswagen BlueSport concept, analogues of which were in its original brief supposed to be shared by VW with Audi and Porsche to help make the economic case for this new sportster's specialized platform. As first shown at the 2009 Detroit auto show, BlueSport was a lightweight mid-engine roadster. But it was also designed to be brand-able in various ways, with a brilliantly versatile architecture that could also accommodate front- and rear-engine[1] layouts in addition to a middle positioning, affording the most striking brand differentiator there is.  And those variously located engines were to have drawn from the VW group's arsenal of choice small motors, gas, diesel and electric, each of which could plausibly be associated with the brand in whose $40,000 sports car it resided.

Ironically, the versatile, resolutely rear-wheel-drive platform, internal code name MSB, was developed by Porsche. But now, thanks to Porsche's exit, stage left, one fears the project is dead or living in the best German tradition under an assumed identity in a South American country. We don't pretend to understand internal VW politics, which may explain the BlueSport's quiet and who knows perhaps only temporary disappearance but, according to several undocumented and possibly un-scurrilous reports on the Internet, Audi long ago left the project. And so even though VW product development chief Ulrich Hackenberger told staffers in Detroit in January that the mid-engined roadster project was under-going real world testing, the fact that they were also told that the VW project would need another brand selling it before the numbers might add up is  (and was) cause for concern. As is the age of the project — it's hard to imagine something that's been kicking around for years arriving on the cutting edge.

Yet, for our money, this is the sort of thing we'd like to see Porsche's manifest engineering genius unleashed on — light, fast, super-agile and fine-riding sports cars. They didn't serve it too badly, brand-wise, back in the day with the 356 and the 911, both of which were light cars but never about huge horsepower, exorbitant pricing or in your face styling. Ditto the 944. We'll also take a moment to repeat again our view that Porsche should expend as much energy building a 2000-lb. high-tech 911 for the 21st century as it does on adding SUVs to its lineup. But instead it has two SUVs and a luxury sedan to worry about, a smaller sedan may be in the works, and it's bought Italy's Nardo test track (built for Fiat in 1975) for its engineers to play on when they're not at Weissach. Access to big money has its appeal, to be sure. But in many ways it also has done Porsche no favors.

Apologists for the new mindset like to point out that the money the Cayenne makes is the funding Porsche needs to build 911s of ever-increasing excellence. They note that volumes are higher than ever, thanks to the trucks and buses (I mean Panameras) the company sells. What they forget to remember is that it, in another real-life case of mo' money, mo' problems, it took selling all of those new models for Porsche to arrange to lose control of its own destiny after close to seven decades as a low-volume, high-profit-margin independent. Thanks to volume, it is now fully merged and assimilating into its longtime associate, Volkswagen.

Tempted by a cash flow explosion before the great worldwide economic bust, the Porsche board, led by Wendelin Wiedeking, attempted to use its newfound ability to borrow by the shit-ton to take over Volkswagen, purportedly to stave off its own takeover. An epic failure, when the economic downturn knocked the adventurers off the high wire, the proud company was forced to finally and fully merge into VW, with money from the Qatar Investment Authority paving the way. Shoot, score, Bobby Orr.  It one was like knocking yourself out when the hockey puck you fire at the net ricochets off the cross bar of the goal and hits you in your own head. Unless you're Wiedeking, who got knocked over by a 50-million Euro golden handshake and went home.

And so, Porsche's march to 2018 is well under way. Porsche as we know it is no more.

"Our Strategy 2018 began by defining the brand strategy," Maier said last week, adding hopefully: "No matter what we build--we build sports cars."

No matter what. That's the most meaningful part of the sentence and a big change from "all we build is sports cars." No matter what. No matter if 80 percent of what we build isn't sports cars. The new goal, Maier explained, isn't to build sports cars, per se, but to "always offer the sportiest and most exclusive vehicle in the segment." Gulp.

But what about exclusivity? How do you guarantee that at 200,000 sales per annum? A former BMW man, (an another growth-obsessed outfit who can't stop themselves adding off-point new models) Maier is not worried. "We will retain the brand's exclusiveness despite increasing volumes. …We offer one car fewer than the market is able to handle."

"If the experts are right and the world markets grow to 100 million units in 2018 and Porsche would sell 200,000 units, we would have a world market share of 0.2 percent. I don't believe this would be a drastic change in exclusiveness."

"We have to accelerate to stay successful in the long run."

But surely, Herr Maier, sometimes you must slow for corners? A cheaper, mid-engined Porsche would have been one worth slowing down for.