It’s not the most commonly-used term in the automotive lexicon, but you might have come across an article or video referring to a ‘halo car’.
But what is a halo car and what are some examples?
In this short edition of Car Facts, I’m going to explain the meaning of halo car.
What Does Halo Car Mean?
There isn’t actually a dictionary definition of halo car (at least not according to Oxford or Collins).
However, the generally accepted meaning is that a halo car is a vehicle designed and manufactured by a company not necessarily to sell in large volumes or be profitable, but to draw attention to the brand and enhance its reputation.
A halo car is all about demonstrating the technical prowess of a car manufacturer’s team and equipment; building the best in its class.
I really like the Popular Mechanics’ definition of a halo car, which is a “figurehead for a brand, a car that may sell in smaller volumes but that captures the public imagination.” (source)
Basically, a car manufacturer will design and produce a halo car not necessarily because it makes the most financial sense to do so (at least in terms of generating a profit of that car itself) but because it will enhance the reputation of the brand and make it more desirable.
The Psychology Of The Halo Effect
The term halo car actually derives from the ‘halo effect’.
And no, the halo effect is nothing to do with Master Chief and his exploits against the Covenant (although paradoxically you could argue that the Halo series of games is the halo brand for Microsoft’s Xbox platform).
The halo effect has been studied for well over a century, and is – according to Wikipedia’s definition – “the tendency for positive impressions of a person, company, brand or product in one area to positively influence one’s opinion or feelings in other areas” (source)
In the world of marketing, the halo effect is a big deal. When a brand releases a product or service that is regarded as a game-changer or category-leader, this can lead to a broader elevation of that brand’s status, and greater enthusiasm and demand for other products in the brand’s lineup.
Apple is perhaps the best example of a brand that has mastered the use of the halo effect. For example, when Apple released the iPod to near universal acclaim, this lower-priced product drove more demand for Apple’s much more expensive laptops and desktop computers. They have successfully continued – and built upon – this strategy with the iPhone, building a loyal army of followers who only buy Apple tech because of just how good the iPhone is.
Car manufacturers try to achieve the same outcome. By making the substantial – often money-losing – investment in a halo car, the desired strategy is to drive additional demand for the brand’s other cars through positive association.
Examples Of The Halo Car
I won’t retread too much ground – there are plenty of articles online with comprehensive lists of halo cars.
However, here are some great examples of halo cars:
For us mere financial mortals, Ferrari doesn’t exactly have entry level cars. But when you consider the brand and its target market, the Enzo was a clear halo car. Produced in small numbers (by Ferrari’s standards) and developed at great expense, the Enzo was all about showing just how far the “Prancing Horse” could push the envelope in a road-going car.
In turn, this helped to generate more demand for the more attainable and available models produced during the mid 2000s, such as the F430 and 612 Scagligetti.
Of course Ferrari was no stranger to the world of halo cars by the time of the Enzo, with the F40 and F50 being halo models from the 1980s and 1990s respectively.
Lexus burst on to the automotive scene in the late 1980s/early 1990s with the now-legendary LS400. Toyota’s luxury export division showed the world that you could have the utmost of comfort, opulence and performance in a reliable package.
However, the brand had always suffered a bit of a reputation for being the preserve of (and there’s no other way to put this politely) boring but well-heeled individuals … I seem to recall older episodes of Top Gear mocking Lexus owners for their ubiquitous love of golf, for example.
Until the launch of the LFA, Lexus had never been a byword for sporting prowess.
That all changed with the development of what was one of the most technologically-sophisticated performance cars of its time. Although the LF-A was actually the second entry in Lexus’ performance-oriented F line (the IS-F sedan coming a few years earlier) the sheer brilliance of this piece of automotive engineering massively elevated the brand’s reputation and won new fans.
If you had to do a case study on the halo car, the LFA might be the best example ever.
America’s greatest supercar, the Ford GT, is another example of a halo car.
Built in small numbers (and so hard-to-come-by that you may recall Jeremy Clarkson struggling to get his hands on one; you might also be interested to know that the right to buy the first Ford GT was sold for over $500,000 to a senior Microsoft executive at a charity auction) the Ford GT was never about driving massive sales volume and profit, but instead followed the true halo car mould of elevating the status and perception of the brand.
Ford showed the world that an American auto-maker could mix it with the best of Europe’s supercar manufacturers.
JDM Halo Cars – What Are They?
You might have also heard people refer to ‘JDM halo cars’.
In case you’re wondering, this term typically refers to the various high-end performance cars that the major Japanese brands built during the 1990s and early 2000s.
- Mazda – RX-7
- Mitsubishi – 3000GT/GTO
- Nissan – GT-R Skyline
- Toyota – Supra
- Honda – NSX
The use of the term halo is perhaps not the most accurate here, as most of these cars could be more accurately described as being flagship models (more on that in the next section) although at the same time they were built to be showcases of what each manufacturer was capable of achieving.
It’s important to bear in mind that during this period, most Japanese car manufacturers had multiple performance models in their lineup. Toyota, for example, had the likes of the Celica GT-Four and MR2 turbo, but the Supra is the most desirable car they built during this period of time.
Make sure you read our JDM meaning guide for more information on this topic as well.
Is A Halo Car The Same As A Flagship Car?
You might also have come across the term ‘flagship’ car.
Is a halo car the same as a flagship car? (or vice versa)
In my opinion – and also consensus seems to agree – they are not the same thing.
A flagship car is generally seen to be the car that a manufacturer is best known for. It will often be a higher-end model, but it will typically be a volume seller.
For example, BMW’s flagship car has typically been the 7 series. Certainly an exclusive, high-end car, but one that has always sold relatively well. On the other hand, something like the BMW i8 could be considered a halo car … a low-volume seller that was really all about demonstrating what BMW was capable of doing from a technology perspective.
Using Lexus as an example, you could argue that the LS is (and always has been) the brand’s flagship model. In fact, on the Lexus website they refer to the LS as their “flagship luxury sedan’. However, the Lexus LFA was a true halo car, with the company reportedly losing money on every single car sold – it was all about raising the bar and perception of the brand.
However, you could also be justified in arguing the terms have a sufficiently close meaning, and it’s not uncommon to see them used interchangeably. There aren’t ‘scientific’ definitions of these terms if that makes sense?
Recap – What Is A Halo Car?
Long story short, a halo car is a vehicle that a manufacturer develops to demonstrate the capabilities of the brand (and, by extension, generate more buzz and demand for that brand’s other products).
For example, when Lexus launched the LFA it showed the world that they could do more than just build reliable, leather-trimmed Toyotas for country club members and golf enthusiasts. The LFA helped to grow demand for sportier Lexus models such as the IS lineup.
BMW’s halo electric car was the i8, which in turn built demand for lesser cars such as the i3.
With specific reference to the world of Japanese car culture, ‘JDM halo cars’ are typically seen as the top-end models that manufacturers such as Toyota and Nissan built during the 1990s and early 2000s.
As with many motoring terms, ‘halo car’ doesn’t have a strict dictionary definition, and there are a few different interpretations. Feel free to leave a comment below with your take on what a halo car is – I’d love to hear your input!