You’ve read the road tests, you’ve taken Carbuyer’s advice, you’ve got yourself a canny deal. But it won’t be engine power or fuel consumption or ride that is the main factor in most people’s decision. It won’t be the discount you’re offered or the attractive price-to-change. For most buyers, what counts is image. The image that car maker has, and the one you’d like for yourself, are powerful influences, and understanding how car buyers make decisions based on image – and knowing which cars profit from a positive image and which don’t – not only helps you choose the right car, it can set you on the road to a deal that saves you thousands of pounds.

Every car makes a statement about its owner, and high-image cars sell themselves because they say their owners are attractive, successful, intelligent and on-the-ball. Like your clothes and your haircut, your car tells the world a great deal about you.

It’s because image is so important that car manufacturers take such pains to promote themselves and their products in the best light. That’s why BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Renault, Honda, and even Toyota pour millions of pounds a year into Formula 1 racing, and stylish adverts grace magazines and TV.

Image in Action

Even if you plan to choose your next car using your head rather than your heart, image still plays a part. Desirable, high-image cars cost more: discounts are lower when you’re buying new, and depreciation is lower so prices are still high when you’re buying secondhand. You’ll be lucky to get a dealer to discount a BMW 3-series by more than 3-4%, for instance, with independent retailers offering around 8-10% off. A Rover 75, without the BMW’s rock-solid image, can attract discounts of 15% at dealers and 20% or more at independents.

All that means more than just a big bill when you buy into a big image. Yes, you’ll pay more up front for a high image car – but the good news is that you can expect gentle and predictable depreciation that will pay dividends come resale time, with a good trade-in price against your next car. You’ll pay more for an Audi A3 than for a Volkswagen Golf, despite the cars being so similar under the skin. But a brand new diesel A3 will retain more than 60% of its value after three years, while at the same age a Golf will probably be worth only half what you paid for it – still a good return, but nowhere near the resale value of the high-image Audi.

There’s another, subtler benefit of buying into a positive image. Not only will a high-image car hold its value better and longer, it should also prove easier to sell on later because there will be greater demand on the used car market.

So you have to pay a premium for high-image cars, but choose well and get the best deal and you could find that extra investment recouped when you next change your car. And in the meantime you have the pleasure of being at the wheel of a car that says you’re going places.

Image bargains

Because car values depend so heavily upon image, cars with non-existent or negative images will depreciate much faster than more respected brands. And that’s excellent news if you’re looking for a used car bargain.

Take Peugeot’s 406. Bland image compared to more recent competitors means that it if you buy one that’s three years old you’ll pay only about a third of the price it was new, yet it’s still a capacious and comfortable family saloon. In comparison Volkswagen’s Passat has a better image and stronger residual values, so it’ll come in at £1000 dearer.

With bigger saloons the badge matters much more, so here Volkswagen’s Phaeton, though excellent, lacks the right image for its market. A year or two down the line it’s going to be a luxury car bargain – swift, luxurious, reliable, but held back by the wrong badge. Volkswagen certainly know that a VW badge won’t do a luxury car any favours, but even if the current Phaeton doesn’t sell particularly well it will soften up the ground for the next-generation car – which will be more accepted by the market as a result.

Image changes

Whether you’re buying new or secondhand it’s wise to watch the way the image of different makes is changing. Improvements can bolster prices of older, perhaps less worthy models: Alfa Romeo’s zesty 156 and 147 models of recent years have injected a modicum of interest into the 155 and 146 on the used car market. Their values, while low, are less near the floor than they otherwise would have been.

But new models don’t always add to a brand’s carefully-constructed image. BMW, always known for sporty saloons and roadsters, added the X5 4x4 to great acclaim. Up the road in Stuttgart, Porsche tried the same trick by adding the 4x4 Cayenne to its range – but to many people the Cayenne, though worthy enough in its own right, devalues the Porsche brand by taking away from its core values. It doesn’t help that Volkswagen’s Touareg, which is closely related to the Cayenne, is capable and looks far better.

The Touareg, too, benefited from a clever marketing campaign that set out its credentials as a capable, all-road machine, and clever marketing can quickly make a big difference to image. In the late ’70s Audis were worthy but dull, but the aerodynamic new Audi 100 gave the company the opportunity to drive its image upwards. The result was a famous ad campaign, ‘The Villa’, the story of the Schmidts, the Mullers and the Reinhardts, and their respective journeys to their villas in Spain. Geoffrey Palmer’s lugubrious commentary revealed that the Schmidts and Mullers in their noisy, inefficient cars, were still on the way – while the Reinhardts, in their effortless Audi 100, were already relaxing by the pool. Almost overnight Audis acquired an image of technical superiority, backed up by that famous ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ (success through engineering) slogan.

Whatever the marketers come up with to create an image, the effects only last for so long. Image is vital when a car is new, and still important when it reaches the used car market. But once a car reaches the age where it’s likely to be with its third or fourth owner, image tends to have less of an effect. At least, that car’s original image has less effect. By then it’s the image of the owners that will dominate. During its production life the Vauxhall Nova was a competent hatchback, reliable and practical but ultimately a bit boring. Now every major town has its share of tuned-up Novas with big alloy wheels and thumping stereos, driven by callow youths who haven’t yet learned which way round a baseball cap is worn. The Nova’s image has changed completely.

So a model’s image adjusts over time, and a make can image its image by effective marketing as well as by introducing good products. Whenever you buy and sell, image has to be a factor in your decision.

On the Up

Five makes making more of their image

Bentley Spent years in the shadow of Rolls-Royce, but blossomed again in the 1980s. Now separated from RR and under Volkswagen control, there are great new products like the Continental GT (even if there are VW bits under the skin), and Bentley won a stirring victory at Le Mans. Bentleys are flash, expensive – but cool too.

Chrysler There’s an inexorable upward trend for this American make. Voyager won friends, though it’s long in the tooth now, but attention has switched to the stylish Crossfire coupé, the upcoming roadster and performance saloon models due next year. Cross-pollination with partner Mercedes-Benz will do no harm to the cars or the image.

Hyundai So long seen a budget make with reliability but little else, Hyundai is gradually building an image of no-nonsense, practical, good-value cars. Sante Fe 4x4 looks odd, but does the job at a bargain price, the Coupé is good fun for the money and the new Getz supermini has much to commend it. Hyundai is becoming the thinking person’s bargain buy.

Land Rover Always the ultimate off-roader, Land Rover invented the luxury 4x4 with the 1970 Range Rover but didn’t realise it until years later. Impeccable off-road credentials still bolster the brand’s image, but now Land Rover is raising its game thanks to Ford’s resources: new Discovery 3, for instance, has retuned Jaguar engines. Like a Defender in low-range first gear, Land Rover’s image drives ever forward.

Mazda Another brand with Ford connections, Mazda was rescued from terminal tedium in the early ’90s by the brilliant MX-5 sports car which is still in production today. Recent Mazdas have an attractive blend of build quality, style and panache: latest Mazda3 is a serious competitor. A marque on the move.

Down – and out?

Five car companies with their images in neutral – or worse…

BMW The Bavarians once made cars that were harder currency than gold bars, but now there’s a snag: the edgy Chris Bangle styling has yet to win over sceptical buyers. BMW’s engineering is as solid as ever so there’s no major scare yet: the inexorable rise has faltered, but BMW are sure to bounce back.

Bugatti Little known today, and it may just stay that way. Another of the umpteen car makers under Volkswagen control. Veyron supercar should have been with us by now, but has been subject to interminable delays despite being shown in apparently production-ready form at the Tokyo Motor Show in October 2003.

Peugeot Back in the ’80s almost magical suspension control was a Peugeot hallmark, and they had the best diesel engines in the business. Today’s range lacks that element of pizzazz, with 106 and 406 well past their prime and dull diesels in the latest 307. New models need to be good to give Peugeot some zest.

Perodua Budget brand it may be, but that’s not necessarily an excuse for a poor image. Skoda overcame theirs, Hyundai and Daewoo are aiming higher too, but a Perodua still says nothing about you except that you can’t afford anything else. Values drop like a falling brick, and there’s no image makeover on the cards to change that.

Rover It’s a miracle Rover is still around at all, and astonishing that it’s now turning out some interesting new cars like the 75 V8 and MG XPower SV. But grim CityRover takes the shine off the Rover badge, and the inaptly named Streetwise is little less embarrassing. Like Alfas, enthusiasts love MGs – but often wish the products were better…

Published in Carbuyer magazine 2004