Future CC: 2017 Ford Fusion Platinum – The End of Luxury

(first posted 3/27/2017)    This 2017 Fusion Platinum represents the culmination of two decades-long trends: The Consolidation of Brands, and The Democratization of Luxury. Let’s examine each of these first before getting into our subject car.

The Consolidation of Brands

In the beginning, most brands sold a single car, meaning that when you bought a Ford, you bought a Ford. Sure, the models may have had names (Model A, Model T, etc.), but seldom were more than one on sale at any given time.

In the 1930s, GM sold different “models” as companion brands to give dealers additional sales volume, but without diluting the value of the parent brand. Cadillac’s LaSalle is the best known of these companion brands, but Pontiac was the companion to Oakland, Oldsmobile had Viking, and Buick had Marquette. Chevrolet was already the entry-level brand, and presumably had no need for an entry-level companion brand (although one could argue that captive import brand Geo would fill this role for Chevrolet many decades later). This proliferation of brands was seen as a defensive maneuver, much like how Proctor and Gamble monopolizes supermarket shelf space with their panoply of brands.

19 different models? I only see one…

In the same vein, variations of essentially the same vehicle manufacturers once sold as separate “models”  (e.g. Bel Air, Biscayne, Impala), are what we would now consider to be trim packages.

This began to change somewhat in the 1940s and 1950s as manufacturers began to expand their product line with specialty models, like Corvette and Thunderbird.

The watershed year for this change, however, was 1960, when each of the Big 3 introduced their compact lineup (Ford Falcon, Chevrolet Corvair, and Valiant). Now, for the first time, when you walked into a showroom, you no longer had the false choice of body style variations of the same vehicle, but genuinely different vehicles within the same brand. The transformation from brands to models was complete with the introduction of intermediate-sized cars later in the decade, with the Ford Fairlane, Oldsmobile F-85, Pontiac Tempest, and Buick Special. Now one could buy from a full array of vehicles at the same dealership.

This proliferation of models came with a cost: The necessity to properly differentiate vehicles across brands becomes exponentially more challenging now that each brand had to have a full lineup, instead of a single offering. The resulting brand contraction got a quick start in the early 1960s, which Ford discontinuing their short-lived Edsel brand, and Chrysler ditching DeSoto. Imperial would soldier on as a separate make until 1975, and Oldsmobile lasted until 2004, but it wouldn’t be until the Great Recession of 2008 before the final, massive brand consolidation would occur with Pontiac, Mercury, Plymouth, Saturn, Saab, and Hummer taking dirt naps. Today, one and two-brand lineups are the norm. No manufacturer offers a mid-market brand anymore, outside of GM with Buick (although one could argue that Chrysler occupies this role at FCA, but then they don’t have a true luxury brand either).

The Democratization of Luxury

The second trend is what I call the Democratization of Luxury. Oftentimes, automotive trends unfold over years, if not decades, but again we can one can point to one specific year: 1965. In this case, we can even point to a specific patient zero: the 1965 Ford LTD. Paul has a phenomenal writeup on the LTD, which kicked off the entire Brougham epoch, and whose influence cannot be overstated.

The 1965 LTD brought luxury car style and amenities to lowly Ford buyers. Contemporary ads even dared compare the LTD to Daimler, Rolls Royce, and other high-end cars. It was so successful that it spawned a coterie of imitators, such as the Chevrolet Caprice, Plymouth VIP, and AMC Ambassador DPL. Overnight, midrange brands like Mercury and Oldsmobile were rendered obsolete. It just took years of inertia before the marketplace finally caught up.

Which brings us to our subject vehicle, the 2017 Ford Fusion Platinum. The Platinum trim line was introduced with the 2017 Fusion refresh as the new top-end model, above the previous range-topping Titanium model (which is still around). The Platinum has pretty much every available feature standard, including such former MKZ-only goodies as LED headlights and DRLs, Power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and 2-position memory on the power seats and wheel. The only major option is All Wheel Drive.

Actual leather covered dashboard

Where Ford really upped their game on the Fusion Platinum was on the interior. Genuine wood trim, actual leather on the dashboard and console (which even the MKZ doesn’t have), and diamond-tufted leather seats create an interior that I think looks even more upscale than that of the MKZ. Indeed, off the top of my head I can’t think of a single car even close to the Platinum’s price range that has a leather-trimmed dash.

Speaking of that price, the Fusion Platinum stickers for $39,830, when equipped with AWD, its only option. A Lincoln MKZ Reserve optioned as similarly to the Platinum as I could configure stickers for $48,310, almost $8,500 more. And by optioned similarly, I mean almost identically (including the same 2.0L Ecoboost engine).  Below is the sum total of the differences between these two configurations (note that not all the demerits are in favor of the MKZ).

  • Heated rear seats on MKZ
  • Power trunk lid on MKZ
  • Electronic Adjustable suspension on MKZ
  • Slightly better 14-speaker Revel audio system on MKZ (vs. 12-speaker Sony setup)
  • Leather-covered dashboard on Fusion Platinum (plastic on the MKZ)
  • LED fog lights on Fusion Platinum (no fog lights on MKZ)
  • 4/50 warranty on MKZ (vs. 3/36 for Fusion).

That’s basically all you get for your $8,480 (plus the fancy Lincoln showroom that you will probably never set foot in again). Yes, both cars currently have piles of cash available on the hood, but assuming it is roughly the same amount in both cases, the dollar difference still stands. Generously assuming a 50% residual for the Lincoln, that $8,840 works out to an extra $120 or so per month on a 36-month lease (before taxes). Buyers fare even worse, as the differential works out to about $150 more per month on a 60-month note (again before relevant taxes).

Sure, there are a few ultra high-zoot options you can get on the MKZ that are unavailable on the lesser Fusion, such as a panoramic sunroof, 400HP 3.0T V6 engine, 20-speaker concert sound system, and upgraded Black Label interior. By the time you layer on these goodies, you are looking at over $60K, which is a lot to spend for a tarted-up Fusion. Indeed, once you reach the $60K price stratum, there are much more compelling alternatives you could (and probably should) be considering.

While I have used the Ford Fusion for this case study, almost every entry-level maker offers their own ultra-high spec “Limited,” “Premiere,” or “Platinum” models.

So if market cannibalization is nothing new – what makes these latter-day LTD’s any different their 1960’s counterparts? For starters, recall that many of the 1960’s luxury goodies like air conditioning, power windows, and an AM/FM radio, are now considered to be table stakes, and are items you would be hard-pressed to find unavailable on even the cheapest econobox today. Heck, even whitewall tires, power steering and brakes were options on most 1965 cars.

So as the standard equipment of most cars has continued to move up Maslow’s Hierarchy, the equipment available exclusively on luxury cars becomes more and more superfluous to most buyers (things like massaging seats or power-adjustable pedals).

Unable to differentiate themselves on features, luxury carmakers must now sell their wares more like other luxury goods, and less like cars. Or in other words, the way most other luxury goods have been always been sold.

This means selling the brand instead of the product. Lifestyle marketing. Selling on style and exclusivity (the latter of which actually increases as the price gets more ridiculous). So your Cadillac CT5, Mercedes CLA, or Lexus RX-350 becomes as much a fashion accessory as your Coach bag or Louis Vuitton shoes.

Further Reading

Curbside Classic: 1986 Ford LTD Crown Victoria –  The Final Ford

Curbside Classic: 1965 Ford LTD – It Launched The Great Brougham Epoch