Now that all bets are off in the car market, there’s a strong body of opinion that believes one of the trends of 2009 will be that the whole notion of premium cars will have to withstand the strongest examination. When times are tough, who wants to pay 40 percent extra for a BMW, when a Ford or Vauxhall is, practically speaking, almost as good?

The argument used to be that BMWs held their values better than Fords, but those high values depend on continuing demand, which can’t now be predicted. At the very least, the purchase of a premium car will become a whole lot less ‘automatic’ than it used to be. Which makes me think about the case of Mercedes-Benz, a marque I’ve grown up thinking was genuinely special. Ten or 15 years ago, the tag-line that run with all their advertising was “Engineered Like No Other Car”, which is something I was prepared to believe, because at the time it was true. Nobody spent on R&D like M-B did. Then two things happened.

The product development boss of the time — current company leader Dieter Zetsche, no less — decided (with main board support) to take value out of the cars. Their engineering depth and especially their quality fell away. They also dropped the “engineered like…” line. Mercs became more ordinary. Now, contemplating the fortunes of the German premium makers, I see three major marques standing on shaky ground. Audi makes quality front-drive cars, quite similar in function and specification to Skoda and VW, both cheaper. Or Ford or Vauxhall. For all its Efficient Dynamics, BMW is a performance marque which may suffer as people don hair shirts for 2009 and deliberately deny themselves the pleasure of driving — especially when it costs 40 percent more.

The one marque of the trio that stands a prayer of justifying its extra cost, to me, is Mercedes-Benz,. The cars have improved again: the company has made a prodigious effort to correct its woes about reliability and dealer underperformance. Now may be the time, I believe, to reinstate “Engineered Like No Other Car”.