Pricing a German car? Sticker shock is stock

BMW X3

If the couple in the scuba gear think they’ve been in deep, wait until they price that BMW X3.

It begins when you see the car or truck you want in print, on TV or – ideally – on the street. You’re taken with the look, have a friend or co-worker driving one, and suddenly – almost intrinsically – you want to know more. The next step is online, where you research the specific model and, along with its standard spec, try and grasp what’s available.

And then it comes to you, especially if it’s made and marketed by a German carmaker; while a great deal of the spec may be standard, a heckuva lot is relegated to the option sheet. And in a preponderance of instances when shopping today’s German, the difference between ‘base’ and ‘nicely equipped’ could park another new car in your garage.

It began for us with a test drive of BMW’s new X3. With more spit-and-polish than earlier examples, today’s X3 seems to come closer to the near-luxury ideal planned for the original, with carefully massaged sheetmetal and a more integrated interior. And you can’t fault the platform, its iconic 3.0 liter six now matched to an 8-speed automatic and xDrive all-wheel drive. At a base price of under $37K (plus destination) you begin to think of this as a pretty good deal; after all, one could spend almost $30K on Honda’s CR-V! A good deal until, of course, you get to the window sticker’s details, where BMW’s Premium Package – universal garage door opener, wood trim, sunroof, auto-dimming mirrors, lumbar support and interior light package – adds $3,450, and ‘comfort access’ keyless entry adds another $500.

The sum – without the benefits of leather inside or any discernible upgrades outside – is just under $44,000! Our middle class sensibilities – or the few we have left – were shaken to their core. And this is on a car manufactured not in the Eurozone, where a dollar won’t get you a breakfast roll, but at BMW’s plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

An equally good – if that’s the descriptive – example comes from our friends at Porsche. The recently introduced Cayman R certainly moves the lust meter, with more power propelling a lightened body shell. We’re not, of course, talking a paradigm shift here; you’d probably need to be named Ferry (Piech or Porsche) to fully discern the performance differences. That said, there are differences between Cayman S and Cayman R, but more significant differences between the base Cayman R and its ‘nicely equipped’ siblings.

The base MSRP on Zuffenhausen’s newest is $66,300, onto which Porsche’s PCM (Porsche Communication Management) with Nav adds $3455. Automatic A/C (remember, we started at $66,300) adds $1760, wheels (painted black) add $1800, and the PDK trans adds $3660. Suddenly, our under $70K Porsche is brushing $90K before TT&L. The Cayman – in any iteration – is beautiful, soulful and responsive, but $90K puts it firmly in 911 territory, where no volume-based Boxster derivative should go.

Mercedes, of course, is cut from the same, expensively woven cloth. An E-Class Coupe enjoys a base of under $50K. Within the context of today’s economy – such as it is – that figure is high, but at least understandable when compared to other vehicles (3-Series, Audi’s A5 and Infiniti’s G37) in the segment. It’s only when you add M-B’s Premium 2 Launch Package – at a cost of $6050 – that your sensibilities (and sensitivities) are rocked. Add another $2K to obtain 18-inch wheels, sport suspension and perforated front discs – items we think should be included for the $50K base – and you’re suddenly at a price point of just under $60,000, for a car whose platform is shared with the volume-oriented in-Europe-they’re-used-as-cabs E-Class sedan.

There are, of course, a number of factors which dictate a car’s MSRP. But with Mercedes and BMW both sourcing a sizable share of their North American sales volume in North America, it would seem that U.S. content would at least partially ameliorate a dollar in the dumpster. Thankfully for the German marketers and their American partners, the affluent are retaining their affluence, while the rest of us retain little beyond our memories of a stronger dollar – and affordable German.