Hooniverse Asks- What Defines A Luxury Car Today?

It used to be easy to tell a luxury car from a plebeian ride, and it all centered around just how much padding lived under the vinyl covering the roof. Then, something happened. The ostentation of blinding chrome trim and white wall tires seemed to be supplanted by something called build quality, and functional prowess. Pretty soon cars with manual seats and mirrors were rubbing shoulders with the bling kings, Cadillac and Lincoln, just because they were built in some fantasy land called Germany.
Today, even the lowliest Kia and Yaris can be had with accouterments that just a few decades ago were reserved for only the most  luxo of barges. Air conditioning? Cruise control? Central locking? La-de-freakin’-da! And just going up a class today can gain you things like Sat-Nav, keyless ignition, and memory seats; all features unheard of in any class of car just 20 years prior.
Add on top of that the fact that cars today are better built – even the crappy ones – than most line production iron in the past, and that means that even the lowly models that appeal to liberals exude a feeling of solidity and class. So how do we categorize what’s a luxury car anymore? Is it by brand? Is a Caddy or a Benz automatically dropped into that silo by right of their name? Or maybe it’s the technological and feature elements that haven’t yet trickled down to those of us in Lower Slobovia – heated massage seats with nod-off sensors or happy endings, crazy stuff that we’ll all demand in five years. What do you think, what defines a luxury car today?
Image source: [oldcarbrochures]

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  1. muthalovin Avatar

    Power widows? Luxury.

    1. P161911 Avatar

      Only if they are power vent windows.
      (I still miss my 67 Imperial)

      1. tonyola Avatar

        Yeah. my dad's '63 Lincoln had those. However, we had a family friend who had something even cooler – a '66 Fleetwood that had power vent windows in the front and rear doors.

  2. P161911 Avatar

    A luxury car has always been about better fit and finish, better/more features, and above all more occupant comfort than normal cars. Sure, you can get a Kia with leather seats, but will that leather last as long as the leather in a Lexus? You can get cruise control on any car, but the cruise control on a Mercedes will keep you from rear ending the car in front of you. Any car can have reclining seats, but it takes a luxury car to get reclining rear seats with a footrest. Today's Chevrolets might be better cars than yesterday's Cadillacs, but today's Cadilacs are still better cars than today's Chevrolets.

  3. Cretony38 Avatar

    Something people dont know today that Leather seats were for the chauffeur. Not the people sitting inside, fine wools are always more comfortable to sit on cold or hot. That said I showed up at a family gathering in my "new car" a '67 Chrysler Imperial (It had cloth seats) and my grandparents wanted to ride in it not my Bros '80s BMW 3 series. seven of us went for a ride in it that day.

    1. P161911 Avatar

      Leather seats with cloth inserts were available on '67 Imperials. My '67 convertible had black leather seats with cloth inserts. My 4-door parts car had cloth seats I believe.
      Congrats on the Imperial!

  4. tonyola Avatar

    I'd say quiet, solidity, and refinement are still the defining qualities of a true luxury car. In the perfect luxury car, the engine can barely be heard and even when you can hear it, the tone is musical. The car is library-quiet. On the highway driving the car is like gliding on a cloud, but there's no slop or awkwardness either. All the controls feel smooth and solid. Everything fits perfectly together. There's a feeling that the car was carved from a single piece of metal, not assembled from parts.

  5. IronBallsMcG Avatar

    The Big Emslie: What makes a luxury car, Mr. Lebowski?
    The Dude: Dude.
    The Big Emslie: Huh?
    The Dude: Uhh… I don't know sir.
    The Big Emslie: Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn't that what makes a luxury car?
    The Dude: Hmmm… Sure, that and a pair of testicles.

  6. OA5599 Avatar

    What defines luxury is the availability today of features that will be mainstream in the future.
    Is a PT Cruiser a luxury car? Not by a long shot. But when that model first became available, people were paying $4K above sticker price, companies were stretching them to add to limo fleets, and car rental places were able to charge about $100 per day for them.
    Luxury cars of years past were the ones that offered automatic climate control when air conditioning wasn't a standard feature (and sometimes not even available as an option), 15" rims when those were an upgrade size, and built-in telephones so you didn't need to use the payphone at that seedy convenience store.

    1. dukeisduke Avatar

      Note that the Toyota, Lexus, and Scion emblems are all the same overall oval shape, so they can be interchanged on different models, depending on the country they're being sold in (like Lexus vehicles that are sold as Toyotas in other markets).

  7. Alff Avatar

    Right or wrong … MSRP

    1. P161911 Avatar

      Sounds like a good challenge. See if you can option up a lesser model to more than the base price of a luxury model on the same platform. Maybe Tahoe vs. Escalade.

      1. P161911 Avatar

        Went and checked it is easy to get a Chevy Malibu to cost more than a Buick Lacrosse.

    2. tiberiusẅisë Avatar

      So true. Ever since cars became brands as opposed to makes, there has been little differentiation other than price.

    3. TurboBrick Avatar

      You got it, and more specifically "MSRP Starting at…". Optioning up some proletariat ride does not count. People that buy luxury cars buy them to show off that they have money. Aircraft-like maintenance schedules and nosediving depreciation are of no consequence, when you can show off your new trinket to your friends and enemies.

  8. aloynot Avatar

    I want that Versailles!

  9. Deartháir Avatar

    I'd buy that.

  10. Alff Avatar

    Ooh, yeah. I want a leather whip!

  11. Froggmann_ Avatar

    Good seats, quiet interior, proper suspension for the type/size of car and an engine that makes the whole thing mooooooove when the happy pedal is pressed. Regular cars have caught up with all the other accessories.

  12. Alff Avatar

    From that perspective …a working heater and defroster.

  13. Lotte Avatar

    I think that's too much of an extreme; according to that criteria, a Corolla LE is a luxury car because you can always get a CE without the colour door handles and mirrors that one doesn't need. But no one would call a colour-coordinated Corolla luxurious today.
    I think luxury has to be outspoken; you really need to shove a "nyah-nyah!" message into the proletariat's face in order for it to be considered luxury. I think the MINI business owes its success to this phenomenon, and maybe the 500 too, to a lesser degree. Hybrids, not so much. They're too quiet and too rational. Now BMWs, there's a reason some call their drivers douchenozzles…

  14. Joe Btfsplk Avatar
    Joe Btfsplk

    Crushed velvet….especially in a Cadillac Cimarron, one of the finest luxury vehicles evah.

  15. pj134 Avatar

    Dead hooker disposal unit in the trunk.

    1. IronBallsMcG Avatar

      I prefer my disposal unit in the front seat, driving. But you're right, good help is so hard to find.

  16. facelvega Avatar

    It's funny that with all these responses I haven't noticed anyone mention DESIGN. You can tell a luxury car from a non-luxury car at a glance, even if you don't know the MSRP or whether it has automatic parking robots and surveillance cameras standard, or whether it is abnormally quiet inside, or what have you. Luxury is primarily an aesthetic question, and that's the realm of the designer. Consider the difference between that men's wearhouse suit your boss is wearing and the $3000 suit on the CEO. More comfortable? Maybe a little, maybe not. Better built? Possible, but possibly not. Better materials? Probably, but not necessarily. Better lines, curves, fit, drape, and shape? ABSOLUTELY INDISPENSIBLE.

    1. tonyola Avatar

      So how does a Maybach fit into this theory?

      1. facelvega Avatar

        I don't think anyone would call the Maybach the best example of a current luxury car, except for maybe the six people who bought one.

        1. Joe Btfsplk Avatar
          Joe Btfsplk

          Rush Limbaugh bought all six.

      2. Deartháir Avatar

        Or, alternately, how does the Phaeton fit in? A luxury car specifically designed to NOT look like a luxury car.

    2. Maymar Avatar

      But to that extent, the E500 driven by some upper management-type here isn't that far removed from the E200 used as a German taxi.

      1. facelvega Avatar

        Or the Lincoln Towncars used here in NYC both as hire cars and for official purposes. The question is what it was designed to be, and through what strategies. Every product or object put out into the world is susceptible for reuse as something it wasn't intended for, like swanky lofts in an old warehouse. In the E-series example, it may be a little that the management doesn't want to look too showy streberisch, while the cabs want to seem solid and nice. Though interestingly I see fewer and fewer Mercedes cabs in Berlin.

    3. Lotte Avatar

      Isn't everything to an extent designed? Even moreso these days; the new Hyundai Veloster comes to mind. It is a funky looking car that was designed to be appealing to the younger crowd. Same with the Nissan Cube. I won't consider those luxury items as they are priced closely to their more white-bread brethren, but those cars were designed just as much as anything else. They just had different priorities. I don't think capital-D Design is a differentiator, maybe "the intricacies in a design"? That 'something' that makes a BMW a BMW?

      1. facelvega Avatar

        Yes, of course products don't design themselves. But luxury is just one of the things design can do, among many others. The various buttons that can be pressed to tell us what something means and to make us feel a certain way about it are about the manner or flair with which a given design brief is executed. A little more youthful, more beautiful to a certain set of possible buyers, connoting fun or sturdiness, etc.

    4. AteUpWithMotor Avatar

      I agree, but an important point — "better design" is not a dimensionless quantity. For sporty cars, the primary criterion of "better" design is looking fast. For luxury cars, the primary design criterion is connoting wealth — it has to look expensive. That may be conveyed in the choice of design cues (creating an association with other or past expensive luxury cars), in the detailing, in the materials, the sheer size, or a combination of the above. American luxury cars of the seventies played heavily on design cues, most of which were borrowed from luxury and formal cars of the thirties (the era when a 40- to 50-year-old contemporary buyer would have been a kid) — padded roofs, opera windows, coach lamps, blind quarter panels — even though they typically sacrificed materials and sometimes detailing. It wasn't that the fake landau bars themselves were luxurious, or even "good" design in the art critic sense; it was that they connoted the expensive cars of an earlier era.

  17. B72 Avatar

    It's all relative. A luxury car is any car that is more comfortable and ostentatious than your neighbor's car. Just like a fast car is any car that is faster than you neighbor's car. They might both be crap, but you'll still razz each other about any perceived advantages of one vs. the other.

    1. Joe Btfsplk Avatar
      Joe Btfsplk

      A luxury car depreciates three times faster than a regular car. I personally drive Land Cruisers that are 5years old. They sell for 1/3 the price of new and are just nicely broken in.

      1. P161911 Avatar

        The last new car my parents bought was a 1967 Triumph Spitfire. Since then they have gotten either highly optioned Fords and Chevrolets or "luxury" cars: Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Mercedes, Audi, Saab, Mercury, and Lincoln. All usually gently used for half the price or less of a new economy car.

  18. Bret Avatar

    I think perception of value/wealth is what makes a luxo car these days. Think of it as the automotive equivalent of the "Rolex drape" if you will (the Rolex drape being the conscious positioning of one's wrist so the expensive timepiece strapped to it is visible at all times).
    People know certain brands are "good", so we get hordes of sheeple driving Camrys and Priuses.
    Similarly, people know certain brands are "rich" so we get folks who would be otherwise perfectly happy in a Camry or Prius driving Lexuses and Mercedeses.
    As I have gotten older and less flexible, I find myself wanting to luxuriate my R package Miata a little bit. Luxrification Step 1) Install power window. Yes, not plural. I only need the passenger side to be powered since my old and tired back won't let me reach it as easily as in the past. I'll relish the luxury of remotely raising and lowering that window every day. John Q. Sheeple will look at me like they always do: weird guy in a teenager's car.

    1. Joe Btfsplk Avatar
      Joe Btfsplk

      Today's teenager car is a $300 Neon with $3,000 rims and a $5,000 stereo.

    2. Bret Avatar

      True. At least folks aren't accusing me of trying to recapture my youth with a red sportscar… Truth is, I never let go of my youth.
      Lately I've been seeing kids in those early Camry Lexuses with the wheels and stereo you describe above. They describe themselves as looking "pimp". It always seems a waste to me. For that money, they could have a regionally competitive autocross car or fun track day toy with a budget for a few sets of tires.
      Oh well, I guess I just don't get it. Luxury for me would be an M100 powered Benz.

  19. Hopman Avatar

    In that case, I believe that Porsche & Ferrarri are the only ones left!

  20. facelvega Avatar

    Either you really buy into advertising or haven't shopped for $3000 suits lately. Also, which pre-90s European luxury cars are the same shape as regular cars? Are you thinking, say, Jaguars? Or really pre-90s, like Delahaye?

  21. Maymar Avatar

    I was about to suggest my affection for Lexii is entirely dependent on how Toyota the car is – I respect the IS and LS, but despise the ES and RX. But the rebadged Land Cruiser and Land Cruiser Prado (LX and GX) are sort of cool, even if they make sense no where but the U.A.E.

  22. P161911 Avatar

    A woman I work with was rather shocked when I called her Acura a Honda. I TRIED to explain they were the same car underneath.

  23. Alff Avatar

    Tell us again what your daily driver is?

    1. Thrashy Avatar

      Old Town Cars don't count. Once all the fancy crap breaks, they're just unusually heavy Panther-platform cars. That Windsor 302 will keep turning over long after the opera lights burn out and the vinyl roof starts to flake.

      1. Peter Tanshanomi Avatar
        Peter Tanshanomi

        actually its a 1st year Modular, but…

        1. Thrashy Avatar

          So I realized when I went back and looked. Mine was an '89, with all the options (broken, of course).

        2. ptschett Avatar

          Even the early mod motors were pretty solid. At 190k miles my '96 has never had the valve covers or the oil pan off. The worst issue I can think of was the valve stem seals that would gradually go bad and then the cars would puff out a little blue smoke upon leaving from a stop light. (that, and the plastic intake manifolds that would have the stupid coolant crossover tube fail, for the mid-'90's cars that used that manifold.)

    2. Peter Tanshanomi Avatar
      Peter Tanshanomi

      How do you think I came to that conclusion?

  24. brazilreporter Avatar

    The one that haz more mega pixels, but I could be confused with digital camara's

  25. PowerTryp Avatar

    By that reasoning, I give you the most luxurious car to date.
    <img src="http://carphotos.cardomain.com/ride_images/2/4666/4821/24164910058_large.jpg&quot; width="500">

  26. JayP Avatar

    According to Vincent Gallo, luxury car is car that shifts itself.

  27. Sidecar57 Avatar

    Hey that makes my Se7en a luxury car! Who would have thought it.

  28. Deartháir Avatar

    As someone who has owned more suits than I can count, there is some truth to that… But only some. There is a difference between a $99 special and an $800 custom. But a good men's wear shop will custom-tailor a good off-the-shelf model to you for about $250-300. Anything more than that is buying into the hype. If you're paying more than that, it needs to have been custom-made by a tailor. And even then it shouldn't be more than $500. I've had a custom-made suit made from scratch for $350.
    Similarly, with cars, there is a lot of hype. A $250k Rolls starts out as your order and a block of aluminium. From there, it's custom-made specifically for you. Does that make it that much better than a $100k Phaeton? No, but people will pay a lot for exclusivity.

  29. nofrillls Avatar

    Like luxury at home, luxury in a car should mean increased comfort, not doo-dads and chachkis that less expensive cars don't typically come with. Air-conditioned and massaging seats? Luxury. Huge wheels, trim packages and useless electrically-operated things like pop-up navigation screens and vents that are just waiting to break? That's not luxury, but it is successful marketing.

  30. ptschett Avatar

    Judging solely based upon my mom's CTS, the entertainment system has to be impossible to understand without having the manual in front of you.

  31. Tim Odell Avatar
    Tim Odell

    I like Jack Baruth's (appropriated from somewhere else) definition: Luxury is having what other people don't have. It's independent of price, quality, craftsmanship, significance or value.
    The classic example is that when fluorescent lighting first came out in the early 1900s, it was considered very luxurious to dine by fluorescent light. As fluoro became more common (due to it's efficiency), incandescent or candlelight became the thing. If it's hard to come by, it's a luxury good.
    The things that come on the S-Class only come on the S-Class (for now). As mentioned above, design can constitute an exclusivity. In a way, the X6 is the only one of its kind (depending on whether or not you count the FX), which kind of makes it a hit with the future ex-wives set.
    Not my preference, or what I'd personally spend large sums of cash on if I had them, but it's a definition that I think holds up decently.
    Based on that, I'd argue the ultimate luxury these days is Authenticity. Very hard to come by, and the prices of "real" examples of race cars, vintage clothing, watches, etc etc all reflect that.