Sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in it all, especially when you spend so much time dealing with so much hyperbolic promotional material from auto manufacturers. “Sure,” you think, “the new Buick is just as luxurious as an Audi. OK…” But then, when you stop and strip away what you think you know about a brand, and you realize that it just might be true. It’s no secret that cars are safer, faster, and more reliable than ever before, so why wouldn’t luxury get a boost too?
For us working stiffs, that’s a great thing. It means features that were once relegated to six-figure flagships a few years ago, like LED lights, leather, dual-zone climate control, a big touchscreen with Sat-Nav, heated and cooled seats, and a host of safety features are now available for the cost of an average ($33,560) new car. Take away the badge, and a Toyota Camry XLE isn’t lacking any creature comfort compared to say, a BMW 320i; a Kia K900 won’t leave you pining for a Lexus GS, and a well-optioned Ford Explorer just about can go toe to toe with a Land Rover Discovery.
Luxury brands may still have performance pedigree, but the vast majority of buyers aren’t buying them for it. That middle-management type in the Range Rover isn’t going to ford a 3-foot deep stream, and the realtor in the BMW 540 isn’t going to buy a second set of tires and rims for track day. Nowadays, you’re more likely to see enthusiasts buying driver’s cars like the Ford Fiesta ST and the Mazda3 for performance, while buyers with cash to burn go for the Bimmer and Rangie for their nice leather and to remind themselves and their neighbors that they’ve made it.
Time was, if you didn’t want to look too much like a snob, you could use the quality defense. That still exists to a degree – you’re not going to mistake a Mitsubishi Lancer for a Mercedes C-Class – but the days when you bought a Mercedes because it was “built like a tank” while you’d abandon your nine year old Chevy on the side of the road at the first sign of trouble are long over. In 2015, Honda, Toyota, Buick, Chevrolet, and Scion ranked in J.D. Power’s Initial Quality survey, right along side Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Lincoln, Lexus, and Cadillac. BMW ranked at the industry average. Range Rover ranked second to last.
Of course, this rising tide has proved to be troublesome for some companies. Take Ford and Lincoln. Ford’s range-topping (and underappreciated) Taurus SHO. Starting at over $40k, the SHO has a 365 horsepower EcoBoost V6, Sony Sync3 infotainment system, and a whole lot of leather. Lincoln’s current range-topper, the MKS, is being phased out to make room for the 2017 Continental, but its Taurus underpinnings, 3.5 liter EcoBoost V6, tons of leather and… $40k starting price is a prime example of Lincoln’s difficulty with establishing it as a true luxury brand.
And this is by no means an all-American problem. Honda’s Accord is great, so why shell out the extra coin on the beak-nosed Acura TLX? And Volkswagen’s CC has all the Teutonic charm as Audi’s A4. Why not use the five grand difference between the two and buy yourself a hell of a vacation to go along with your new car?
More than anything else, it’s a sign that we’re living through an incredibly strange time in automotive history. With more Americans buying new cars than ever, premium brands are expanding downmarket to hook new buyers in hopes that they’ll trade up in a few years. And while they reach down, the average American car is leagues better than it was a decade ago, and brands like Hyundai and Kia are now striving upward in a way that’s beginning to win buyers over. As technology finds its way to the entry-level, and mass-market brands get better at luxury, there are fewer ways to actually define a luxury car. A Buick Envision may look like a giant roller skate, but when it’s fully loaded, who’s to say it’s any less of a luxury car than a BMW X1?
Maybe the pundits are right, and these developments point to a future where nearly every car will be an autonomous leather-lined pod that takes us from A to B. For the majority of Americans, that’s fine. In the meantime, closing the gap between entry-level and safe and more luxurious is by no means a bad thing. But while the lines continue to blur on the bottom end, here’s hoping companies like Mercedes, Porsche, Mazda, and Aston Martin are willing to keep the flame alive for those of us who still like to drive for decades to come.