Commentary: The Special Feeling of Luxury

2013 Infiniti JX35 20
Is this your idea of luxury today? All photos by Randy Stern

There used to be a time when we thought how special it would be to ride in a very luxurious automobile.

It is perhaps an outgrowth of the pursuit of the American dream. We want to be in something that has class with an instant status upgrade. In some cases, we are already used to the idea of a luxury car since we grew up in them. They are as normal as any run-of-the-mill vehicle on the road.

Yet, we admire them. If not for the price tag, it is about how much quality they exude from the use of woodgrain trim, carbon fiber, chrome and satin finishes, fine hides and an air of higher engineering. They are supposed to feel like a million bucks, though some select models are available at ten percent of that price.

In my case, this was a very long time ago. I always admired the more expensive brands we were offered. Perhaps it was fitting that my first recollection of being in a luxury car was with some family member on mom’s side who had a 1969 Cadillac. He was a lawyer, I reckon. Just sitting in the back seat with white upholstery underneath a white vinyl roof and this shimmering light-medium blue body was unlike any experience I could imagine at that age.

Perhaps it was in that back seat was where this admiration for luxury began.

We were not in an income bracket to show off our want of upward mobility. The best we could get was an Oldsmobile. I recall a time when my mother flirted with the idea of trading in the 1972 Ninety-Eight Luxury Sedan for an all-black 1974 Cadillac Sedan de Ville. This was about the time before my brother got his first car – the 1974 Ford Mustang II Ghia. On some level, I am glad she did not get the Cadillac. Imagine the fuel bills on that 8.2litre V8 and that most replacement parts on Cadillacs are more expensive than the ones for the Oldsmobile.

Does a brand have to stand for status and class today? Last year, I asked whether luxury coukld be attained by mainstream brands by examining two top-end compact trims. Yes, you get leather, a branded audio set-up and all the goodies you get as default on a premium car, but there is something missing. It is something only a luxury brand can give you even without asking for it.

A premium product has to be something special. It is not just about a longer warranty, free loaner cars when you use the service bay, enhanced roadside assistance or exclusive concierge and emergency services through the vehicle's telematics system. The idea of owning a luxury product is measured by another yardstick.

That special feeling comes from the intangibles. A luxury car should be uncommon, unequalled and unrivaled with mainstream brands. There should be a sense of being pampered above everyone else when you open up the door to a luxury car for the first time. This feeling should continue through the final day of ownership – especially when you are the first owner of the vehicle.

2013 Cadillac ATS 2.0T AWD Premium 2

The reason I bring this up is that I have been working with a good share of luxury brands lately. Since the beginning of the "new season" in October, four vehicles form three luxury brands were in the V&R Garage as review subjects. During last calendar year, I had the opportunity to drive from seven different luxury brands based on three continents. To sample various interpretations of luxury, I had to employ the measuring stick for the intangibles to find out what makes each vehicle "special."

From a wider perspective, there were varying degrees of experiencing that special feel. I could feel it with every vehicle driven in 2012, but some felt more equal than others. You would be surprised which brands truly felt special in a luxurious way – at least to my perspective.

For starters, Infiniti delivered on the promise of being a special vehicle. There is this fine balance between technology and fabulosity that makes the brand what it is. If you add the upcoming 2014 Q50 to the equation, Nissan's luxury brand delivers on the promise of standing out in a crowd without even trying.

The link between the Q45 I drove two decades ago and the JX35 driven at the end of 2012 is very strong with the combination of textures, levels of comfort and unique design touches. At the level of the product, Infiniti achieves something that may not have a lineage known to North America – except for the past two-plus decades. Perhaps a fresh perspective on luxury was needed at the time. Infiniti delivered back in 1990. I believe it still does today.

The more I experience Lexus, the more it matches up with the kind of luxury car I look for. In my eyes, the products that stand out based on experience have been the 2011 IS250 C, the 2011 CT 200h and the 2013 GS 350. Each of these cars has a sense of elegance balanced with a sporty feel necessary for a good luxury car. Add the technology edge – mainly through the Lexus Enform telematics suite – and that special feeling truly comes out in every Lexus driven over the past two years.

2013 Lexus GS 350 AWD 15

On another level, I have experienced Toyota's luxury brand through the service experience. To win a luxury car buyer is to create a post-sales experience that is peerless towards making the customer feel more special through the process. The promise Lexus made to customer two-plus decades ago has held up quite nicely. This adds to the Lexus experience whenever I get the chance to drive one.

Ultimately, Cadillac remains a very special brand in my eyes. Though fans of Teutonic compact high-end sports sedans would not like what I have to say, but when you get into an ATS – it truly feels special in a modern way. The luxury of Cadillac has been augmented by technology and the Art&Science design language, it still has those unique touches that speak to the brand’s mission.

Yet, it would be a stretch to link a 1968 Sedan de Ville, a 1981 Fleetwood Brougham and a 1992 Seville – a few of General Motors' top-of-the-line cars I have driven over the course of my driving life – with a 2013 ATS. I could. The design language may have changed, but there are aspects of the intangible that are found deep inside each of these Cadillacs past and present.

When other luxury brands tout similar experiences with competitive products, I often wonder at what level do we need to feel special by these products. Do we want to be processed when our vehicle is in for servicing? Or, should we expect to be assisted with the utmost care, concern and respect as an owner investing in the brand?

Perhaps it comes down to the vehicles? Each product is tasked to be the calling card for the experience. Once you touch it, you have to sense the essence of luxury. Your senses and instinct must tell you whether it is a special vehicle or not.

Understanding the luxury market goes beyond the notion of status and class. It is the complete experience and the response of feeling special every time you step inside the vehicle. I would hope my next Cadillac, Infiniti or Lexus continues to prove these ideals accordingly.

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