The German Big three BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi have faced each other for the European luxury car buyer for decades now, and the fight isn’t limited to high-volume segments. The compact roadster / coupe segment has been a battleground as well, although the three brands have followed entirely different strategies for this segment. Each of the three manufacturers has been in the lead of the compact roadster / coupe category at some point in the past 16 years, since the introduction of the first Audi TT.
Audi was the last to the game, as the BMW Z3 and Mercedes-Benz SLK were introduced in late 1995 and 1996 respectively, while the TT didn’t arrive until 1999. But it entered the segment with a bang, saleswise, immediately rising to the top in its first year of sales.
The front-wheel drive (with optional Quattro all-wheel drive) TT was based on the VW-Group compact car platform, underpinning cars like the Volkswagen Golf and Skoda Octavia. The car was first introduced as a coupe, with the soft-top TT roadster following a year later. Audi hasn’t changed this concept for the second generation and upcoming third generation.
Initially available with four-cylinder turbocharged engines only, an optional six-cylinder engine was introduced in 2003, but wouldn’t return in the second generation, which featured an optional five-cylinder turbo engine, which was also available in S and RS versions with increasing power. An optional diesel engine was added to both the coupe and roadster in 2008.
The TT’s design has been highly acclaimed, the first generation was a design statement, with its purist Bauhaus design, styled by a star-studded design team that included J Mays and Freeman Thomas, while Peter Schreyer worked on the award-winning interior with the baseball-glove seats as the most notable feature. The silver exterior color in which the TT was introduced, added to the industrial looks. The second generation, introduced in the second half of 2006, followed the same philosophy: it kept the rounded, form-follows-function looks, with the addition of the infamous Single Frame Grille.
The second generation Audi TT would top the segment sales chart as well in its first full year of sales and would manage to stay on top for a few years, something its recently introduced successor will undoubtedly repeat, despite its evolutionary instead of revolutionary design.
Mercedes followed a different path than Audi, offering its SLK as a 2-seater rear-wheel drive roadster with a foldable hard-top only. Unfortunately for Mercedes, the SLK quickly acquired an image of haircutter’s car instead of a true sports car. An image that it never really has been able to shed, even with the subsequent generations.
That image may have had something to do with the underwhelming engines with which the SLK was initially available: a normally aspirated 2-liter four-cylinder engine and an optional supercharged 2,3 liter version, called Kompressor in German. A six-cylinder engine wasn’t available until 2000, followed by a supercharged V6 in the SLK 32 AMG in 2001. The AMG would become a V8 in the second generation, a unique combination in this class, although true petrolheads were less enthusiast of the fact that it was fitted with an automatic transmission as standard. It wasn’t until the third generation, introduced in 2011, that the SLK also offered a diesel powertrain option in Europe.
Whereas the first SLK’s styling was considered a bit tame by some, the second generation’s design was inspired by the Mercedes Formula One team and the latest version has taken some styling cues from the SLS AMG supercar, most notably the grille, giving the model a somewhat more aggressive appearance.
Despite the SLK’s image, all three generations of the model have led the sales charts, although the latest generation has peaked at less than half the volume of the previous generations, a trend that is visible in the segment as a whole.
BMW Z3 and Z4
BMW has chosen for the sportiest layout of the three: the Z3 was a rear-wheel drive only roadster with a kind-of retro look, especially muscular around the rear “shoulders” and long nose, short tail proportions, reminding of classic muscle cars. The soft-top roadster would be followed by an arguably somewhat oddly looking coupe version. Its 2004 successor, named Z4, accentuated the characteristic exterior design features even further. And again the main focus was on the soft-top roadster, with the coupe taking just a small percentage of sales.
The Z3 was available with four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines and an M-version, which featured the famous inline-6 from the M3. The Z4 was initially only available with six-cylinder engines, although a fourbanger followed later.
The third generation of BMW roadsters was introduced in 2009 and although the exterior was still very recognizable as a Z4, the concept of a soft-top roadster was ditched in favor of a foldable hard-top like the SLK. As a result, there was no more need for a Z4 coupe. Also no longer available was an M-motorsport version. BMW has never offered a diesel engine in the Z3 or Z4.
The three German compact sports cars have seen their combined sales slowly declining, from almost 100.000 sales in Europe in 1999 to less than a third of that volume in 2013. The BMW’s appear the most stable, but as the Z4 peaked just over 24.000 sales, the TT and SLK each enjoyed multiple years above 35.000 sales shortly after their model updates.
Underscoring the slowing popularity of these cars is the latest generation SLK peaking at under 18.000 annual sales. At the end of next year we will be able to see how well the third generation TT will be received by European car buyers. Audi will be aiming for 35.000 sales again, which would be more than double the sales of both competitors combined.
Looking at all-time sales, starting in 1999 when the trio was completed by the arrival of the TT, The SLK is the bestseller with 340.287 European sales from 1999 to 2013. The TT is close behind at 331.784 sales, giving the model a chance to overtake the Mercedes-Benz next year if the new model becomes a sales hit. But considering the TT is available in both coupe and roadster version, and the SLK is just one model, the latter model’s performance is quite impressive, and shows that even a “hairdresser’s” image doesn’t necessarily have to hurt sales. In fact, the most masculine and muscular of the three, the BMW, carries the red flag with 212.223 sales of the Z3 and Z4 combined in the same period.