Question: What automotive figure has increased by 266 percent in the past 20 years?
Answer: Audi's model range.
It's hard to believe, but back in 1991 the now ubiquitous German marque had a range of only six different cars. By 2001 this had risen to 11 different cars, and today it's 22 individual models, all with dozens of engine options and trim levels.
BMW and Mercedes-Benz have had similar building sprees. BMW's tally has risen from 8 models twenty years ago, through 12 in 2001 and now 19 - if you don't count M-badged models as separate lines. If you do, you can add the 1M Coupe, M3 saloon, M3 coupe, M3 convertible, the M5, X5M and X6M to that tally. Making 26 different models.
Mercedes had ten distinct lines in 1991 - more than BMW and Audi - and now has 19.
So why the meteoric rise of model lines? Are there really that many niches to be filled by 5-Series GTs, Audi Q3s and the Mercedes-Benz R-Class?
Given that all have posted record profits recently, you'd have to say yes. No longer is the three-box saloon enough to satiate consumer desires. If a vehicle doesn't fit your needs exactly, then you move onto a competitor's car which does. This means every niche must be filled, and there are no better companies at filling niches than the German car makers. Volkswagen has also had a damn good go - nine models in 1991, twenty today.
So you need a city car to compete in the volume market? Mercedes A-Class. Flashy coupe with a low break-even point? Build the Audi TT on a Golf platform. Want a four-wheel drive, seven-seat MPV with a sleek profile? Okay, we still can't really see a point to the R-Class, but we all love choice, right?
Platform sharing is the main reason for the rise of the niche vehicle. Its easy to create a new model when you have a solid platform with hundreds of millions of pounds of RD money already spent on it. Take BMW for example, theyre an expert. When a 5-Series, 5-Series GT, 6-Series, X5 and X6 are all so closely related (and use similar engines) the overheads become relatively low. You can afford to offer tiny, occasionally pointless variations (step forward 5-Series GT) because it won't hurt you financially to do so.
Does the world need a 5-Series GT or an X6? Not really, and it'd certainly be easier on everyone's eyes, but for those few thousand who absolutely must have an impractical, hunchbacked version of an X5, the X6 does the trick.
The trend only looks to be increasing. Theres news just this week of another Audi Q SUV variant and BMW released the 6-Series Gran Coupe, which brings their current saloon count to six models. There are rumours of an X4 and X7, which would take BMW's 4x4 range to 6 models as well. Exploiting every car niche is without a doubt here to stay.