It’s only natural that a manufacturer should offer several variants of each car it makes. There needs to be a basic ‘I can just about afford to get into one of these’ model, and a, ‘look, my car’s got e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g” grade. And, likely as not, there’ll be an ‘it’s got everything I need, I don’t like to show off” version for those kindly, modest folk in the middle.
In Europe, though, three well-spaced specification grades and an abundant pile of optional extras simply won’t do. We like our cars to wear a badge that denotes precisely how much we’ve paid (or borrowed) for our whip. These things matter a whole lot, particularly when we’ve bought a car from the lower reaches of the range but not, repeat not, an entry-level model. Oh no.
A great example is the Ford Contour and its progenitor, the Ford Mondeo. In North America you could choose from the rental-fleet special GL, the day-to-day workable LX, or ‘enthusiast’s choice’ SE. Each could be motivated by a (superb) 2.5-litre Duratec V6, though it was mandatory in the SE, which had the 15-inch alloy wheels, sports seats and colour-keyed rear spoiler to go with them. The GL, meanwhile, forwent front foglights, a full-length centre console, leather-wrapped steering wheel, rev-counter or lumbar support adjustment.
It seems remarkable, too, that unless “preferred equipment package 2” was ordered, even the big-engined SE came without air-con, heated mirror and a rear screen heater. Power windows were a package option across the range, too, as were power door locks. Compared to how things were done in Europe, this all seems rather strange, because Contour buyers could theoretically combine leather trim with door locks and windows that require manual labour to operate, and no a/c to refresh you after expending such effort. If you were so heroically pro-leather that you actually did spec a car this way, please make yourself known. We really want to meet you.
By comparison, the specification choices on the Mondeo were far more incremental, and even (dare I say it?) quite logical. The basic model was basic, named Mondeo Aspen for no sensible reason I can think of, and offered only with the diesel engine or meagre 1.6-litre petrol lump, both mills the USA didn’t even bother with. No rev counter, no power windows or central locking, but it did get a full-length centre console. This wasn’t prison, for goodness sake.
Those who preferred a slightly less puritanical approach to car specification could opt for an LX – initials with a rather different meaning this side of the pond. Here it means one rung above bog basic. Those sitting in the front gained a rev counter to look at, there’s a heated front windscreen and power front windows, as well as a tilt ‘n slide sunroof. Those in the back, though, only got a pair of front seatback pockets to show that they’ve not been forgotten. Meanwhile, LX badges, jazzier wheeltrims and side rubbing strips demonstrated to the world that you aren’t as cash-strapped as your Aspen-toting brethren.
And thus it continues throughout the rest of the range. Comfy GLX and sporty SI (and SI 4×4) added such joys as power adjusted and heated mirrors, rear seat head restraints and centre armrest together with more planes of adjustment for the front seats. Thing is, though, virtually all of the Contour’s Group 3 Preferred Equipment Package, was standard on all but poverty-grade Aspen trim. This includes illuminated interior door handles, rear door courtesy light switches and a load compartment light. How on earth wasn’t a load compartment light standard on the Contour?
And then we had the Ghia, and better still, the Ghia X. These went way beyond the scope of the Contour LX, and the name was all important. When asked what you drove, your response would always, always be “a Mondeo Ghia”. In fact, that was trumped only by “a Mondeo 24-valve.” My own father, when occasionally allowed a moment of one-upmanship, would add theatrical pauses and go for the quartet. “Oh, just a Mondeo… Ghia..X… 24-valve”.
That was a full house. The Ghia X brought features that North Americans could only dream of. You guys had to make do with a distinctly proletarian “door ajar” warning, while we got the “graphic information module” that showed exactly which door to be concerned about, as well as outside temperature. A fuel usage computer was included, the glass sunroof went electric and a storage tray appeared beneath the passenger seat. Best of all, the Ghia X teamed the Ford 2007 sound AM/FM RDS cassette stereo system with a separately controlled 10-disc CD changer, blending digital and analogue sound sources in perfect harmony.
And onlookers knew it. A car person could lay their eyes on a Ghia X and knew exactly how many bells and whistles were on board, while a well-optioned Contour LX or SE buyer would have to bill-post a copy of the order form on their car’s flanks if he wanted to show how much he had spent. This tradition is still in full effect even today. The latest Ford Fiesta starts with the Style and runs all the way to the trinkets ‘n baubles Vignale, a trim level beyond the now discarded Ghia designation. Nobody can be in any doubt as to exactly how much you’ve “spent”, desperate dealer discounts notwithstanding.
However. Things are different when you look at cars from premium brands. In Europe, it’s possible to buy a base-model Mercedes CLA, but the brand with the three-pointed star knows that to offer such a think in status-obsessed Britain would be futile. Plus, since these are inevitably sold via PCP, the increased pre-owned desirability of high-spec models mean they’re more cost effective to finance.
It could be, then, that the North American model will ultimately win through. There’ll be a basic, fleet special model for big corporate orders, and a spangly, feature-rich version for those who buy on PCP, and who want to visually distance themselves from the lower orders. And then, perhaps those to whom such things matter could be awarded an extra bootlid badge to denote the extra kit optioned up. I can see it now:
“Ford Mondeo SE Leather Climate Damped Interior Grab Handles Floormats Massage Seats 2.0 EcoBoost”.