What Counts as a Luxury Car Nowadays?

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Certain categories of vehicles are easy to define. We can describe what makes a performance car or an off-road vehicle from its roof line to its tires. But the term “luxury car,” while it does come with specific implications behind it, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to really pin down exactly what luxury means.

This topic came up recently because I was helping a number of clients who were looking for lightly used luxury sedans, something along the lines of a BMW, Audi or Mercedes. However, the car that kept coming up and the one that proved to be the most popular among these buyers was the Mazda 6. With an available 250 horsepower motor, an array of standard safety and technology features and an “upscale” feel, the Mazda checked all the boxes for these buyers. I happen to think the Mazda 6 is the best luxury sedan you can buy for under $40,000, even though it’s not made by a luxury car maker.

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So this leads to the question: How do we define a “luxury car?” One could make the argument that it should come from one of the brands have a legacy of making luxury cars like BMW, Mercedes, and Audi, but history isn’t everything. Cadillac was once the “standard of the world” for luxury cars, but today few buyers would place them in the same category as the Europeans. Lexus didn’t exist as a luxury brand until 1990, yet folks consider Lexus a luxury car. Volvo was a maker of “safe cars” not upscale machines, but the Swedish brand is stealing upscale buyers from the Germans. Hyundai’s Genesis luxury brand just showed up, though I’m not sure too many luxury buyers have taken that automaker seriously yet.

Do features and technology define luxury? You can get “upscale” features such as vented Nappa leather seats, panoramic sunroofs, from “regular” brands and there was a time where, if you wanted the latest tech, you needed to pony up serious money on whatever flagship car your luxury brand of choice had for six-figures. Today, you can get advanced features like automatic emergency braking, lane assist, blind-spot monitor on cars that retail for less than $20,000. Tesla has especially blurred the lines in what is luxury and what is not. The automaker is essentially a technology company that makes very advanced electric cars, and despite the fact that some of Tesla’s features and terminology can be problematic, the brand is viewed by most buyers as a “luxury car.”

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Is it the price that draws the line between luxury and non-luxury? Well, you can buy a Kia for almost $55,000, well within luxury brand territory, but despite the fact that the Stinger is a very cool car, I don’t see people labeling it a luxury machine. On the other hand, the compact Mercedes A class starts at $32,500 which is right in the common zone for most of your mainstream manufacturers. Of course, there are luxury brands like Bentley and Rolls Royce on the extreme upper end of the spectrum, but their key differentiator is basically exclusivity and more expensive materials that are sometimes “bespoke.”

With the proliferation of features and technology at much lower price points and mainstream brands angling for a more “upscale” experience to be more competitive, what determines a “luxury car” is now very much a grey area. As automakers slowly march towards scalable electric vehicle platforms and autonomous cars, it’s likely the vehicles of the future will be more similar and there may come a day when only the super-rich have luxury machines and everyone else will just be a user of a transportation module with a different badge.

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What do you think makes a car a luxury vehicle in 2019?

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About the author

Tom McParland

Tom is a contributing writer for Jalopnik and runs AutomatchConsulting.com. He saves people money and takes the hassle out of buying or leasing a car. (Facebook.com/AutomatchConsulting)