Commentary: What is a Luxury Car These Days?

North St. Paul on a Friday Night 012
All photos by Randy Stern

Remember what a luxury car used to be?

In my youth, luxury cars invited you into a rare air of elegance and grandeur. That meant you sat in a nicely appointed interior and moved with grace along the tarmac. You sat in plush velour or the best leather hides behind a swath of wood trim, elegantly-styled instrumentation, while being entertained by a fine audio system.

Nowadays, a luxury car is all about technology. How much of it can you truly throw into a $40,000-plus automobile? The list of toys on today’s prestige automobiles is unbelievable. If we just start listing out the latest in active safety technology alone, we may forget about the satellite navigation system, intelligent driving aids, central knob controls and smartphone integration inside the cabin. Don’t forget about the airbag count!

The current proposition for luxury cars these days is to pay over $40,000 for the privilege of being guilty for buying a luxury car and showing your true political stripes concurrently. We’re not just talking about hybrids here.

So, I ask this: is the volume of technology on a single automobile the current definition of a luxury car? Consider that the level of equipment found on a Cadillac or Mercedes-Benz thirty or so years ago can now be found on the least expensive of automobiles today. It’s no longer the exclusive domain of a flagship sedan to drive around with power windows, central locking and power seats.

But, what’s missing here? In an older Mercedes, you have a solid feeling inside and out. The push of the throttle to propel a 4.5 liter V8 above highway speeds with all four Continental tires rolling along is something from a genteel time. You sit on Mercedes-grade leather with fine carpeting and a Becker stereo humming along your way.

How about the plushy feel of a large Cadillac Sedan deVille lazily rolling along with 8.2 liters of V8 iron under the hood? Four whitewalls on the ground, a cushy suspension and a large bench seat swathed with leather or crushed velour underneath you. Just like the ride, you truly live large with the cruise control on.

There is something organic about driving an old luxury car. Today’s fuel efficient and technologically advanced luxury cars lack the soul and grace found in yesterday’s flagships. Can BMW’s iDrive let you feel every curve just as your father’s Bavaria sedan did? Sure electronic brake force and stabilization programs help get you through the roughest of situations, but where’s the litheness and elegance of being pampered behind the wheel?

Eurowerks 2015

Then again, no one from thirty of so years ago could envision an era where the luxury car business has grown into its own set of market segments and tiers of brands. It is no longer just the experience of driving a Cadillac or a Mercedes-Benz. There is a pecking order that now consists of today’s luxury market. The core of the market is the “Teutonic Three” – Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi. Above it are storied marques, such as Bentley and Rolls-Royce. However, it seems that everyone else falls underneath the “Teutonic Three.” Even mighty old Cadillac is considered a follower in the luxury car stakes. How the mighty have fallen…

Cadillac does have some company. There’s Lincoln, Jaguar, Land Rover/Range Rover, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Buick, Lexus, Infiniti, Acura and Genesis. Some may argue as to the pecking order of this lot, but these brands have made it quite clear that their targets are the so-called “Teutonic Three.” This is our luxury car reality today.

Also, when we think of luxury, we think of the big flagship sedan. They still dance with the imagination, but reality has turn luxury automobile buyers towards SUVs. Some may argue that the “Teutonic Three” might not make SUVs as well as, say, Bentley or as posh as Range Rover. But, customers with greater incomes to work with are turning to SUVs equally as mainstream customers.

Another trend away from the mighty flagship sedan is the growth of smaller luxury models. Granted, they instill a different kind of vibe – absolute performance above luxury trimmings. Yet, to think that it is required for a luxury brand to sell something to compete against the BMW 3-Series or the Range Rover Evoque just seems almost ridiculous for those of us who remember what a luxury car was all about. Then again, it is another piece of reality in today’s upwardly mobile and aspirational society.

Because of these disturbing trends over the past few decades, it concerns me that we have lost the luxury car plot. Then again, I could be pining for a rebirth of a classic. That will never happen. Yet, my memory dictates a slew of simply lovely machinery – accessible and elegant. We may never capture the absolute essence that created the likes of the 1961 Lincoln Continental, 1965 Cadillac full-sized sedans, the W116 Mercedes-Benz S-Class or the first Jaguar XJ.

As much as I pine for the classics of my youth, I have to continue to work with today’s luxury machines. Still, I have my wants in terms of elegance and grace – which is still rooted in the classic flagships that I mentioned in the previous paragraph. Maybe the most modern car that suits my want of classic luxury is the most recent Lexus LS 460. My experience with that flagship shows how much of a fine automobile as the ones I once encountered, mostly from a distance.

Don’t get me wrong. I do welcome the newest luxury cars in this work. Some of them do a great job of wooing me to their newfangled goodies and such. Others simply leave me cold. Perhaps it is a reflection of my automotive journey. The old luxury seems to be more comfortable, tactile and accessible than the new luxury. In the end, it will be the new luxury that will win.

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