There was once a time when luxury came in large packages.
When we wanted luxury, we often went for the most ostentatious item on the showroom floor. Normally, that would mean something that dwarfed anything even remotely close to its scale. Cadillacs had fins that told the world "you have everything." Beyond the fins, Cadillacs came with equipment levels that were not available on either domestic or foreign makes of the time.
Sitting inside a Cadillac, a Lincoln Continental, an Imperial or a Rolls-Royce was also something special. Just the feel of fine interiors from the carpeting to the seats to the headliners alone was an experience. You had room to roam as you are treated to a ride that unlike anything experienced in a run-of-the-mill car.
That was luxury, then. Nowadays, the idea of luxury may have changed to varying different forms. Rolls-Royce and Bentley took luxury to new heights by virtue of sticker prices that are almost a king's ransom. Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus have since trumped Cadillac and Lincoln in the traditional luxury car market. The Germans and the Japanese have done so by elevating the levels of engineering, manufacturing execution and build quality.
Today's luxury cars also include our run-of-the-mill, mainstream vehicles that are within the reach of our budget. Granted, they were not made as luxury cars to begin with, but the option to own a popular compact or mainstream mid-sized sedan with an interior reserved for a flagship are now more commonplace.
The idea of a leather-upholstered interior in a compact car was considered laughable about ten or so years ago. The laughing began to subside when such luxury amenities, including power windows, central locking, an electric sunroof and power seat adjustments were installed standard in today's mainstream vehicles. Add the host of electronic safety aids, larger rims and lower profile tires, on-board navigation systems and telematics suites, and today's $20-25,000 car has everything you need that a $35,000 entry-level luxury model is expected to have standard.
One may think that buying mainstream volume-selling vehicles in the top level trim are right for spoiled children on a budget. If you asked me a few years ago about this notion, I would agree. I saw nothing wrong with driving a mid-level Chevrolet Malibu LT with a few extras than aspire for a completely loaded LTZ model.
Recently, I received a series of vehicles for review in both here and Lavender magazine. They ranged from pedigreed luxury machines to top models of popular compact sedans. It was the latter couple of vehicles that prompted me to theorize if a top-of-the-line compact can be as luxurious compared to more expensive vehicles?
To understand the notion of luxury in an affordable, smaller car, I looked at two specific compact sedans for some clarity – the 2012 Mazda3 I Grand Touring 4-door sedan and the 2012 Hyundai Elantra Limited 4-door sedan.
Before I dive into either car – perhaps I should establish what would be considered "luxury" in an automobile. First, there has to be an air of quality. Wherever you touch inside and out, there should be an assurance that everything is well done and the materials are top notch. Next, you have to look at content. What is the equipment level available on a specific model that would be considered “luxurious?” This would be akin to the old adage: "(S)he who dies with the most toys, wins." Lastly, there's performance. Preferably, a luxury car would have to drive like a Cadillac, a Mercedes-Benz or a BMW. In this case, "close enough" would work just fine. No one expects the ride to equal that of a Rolls-Royce Phantom, but at least have some proper road manners to satisfy the most discriminating enthusiast.
In terms of quality, both the Mazda and the Hyundai have plenty of good points. The Mazda had a good mix of soft and hard touch materials, but front seat occupants are treated to supple and supportive leather thrones. The leather certainly feels good to the touch, though one might argue that it is not on the level of a Maserati Quattroporte or Bentley Continental Flying Spur. The carpeting and floor mats are durable and nice to the touch.
As much as I like the business black interior, I like the contrast with the satin trim in a few places where it shows up. Though I love the Mazda's exterior, the 16-inch rims and lack of chrome pretty much derails its luxury credentials.
In contrast, the Hyundai exudes class from the outside. Chrome work on up front invites luxury buyers to consider the Elantra as a high style alternative to pedigreed luxury models. It has huge wheels with narrow walled Continentals to compliment the classiness of the Elantra Limited. Repeater turn signals on the side mirrors complete the exterior look. Step inside and find supple leather and a fine mix of piano black, satin and polished chrome throughout the cabin.
The leather may feel nice, but the quality of the hide was not exactly Connolly-level quality. I also found the seats to lack bolstering, despite being comfortable to sit. There is a mix of soft and hard materials, but overall build quality trumps the use of these materials throughout the cabin.
In terms of content, both the Mazda and Hyundai offer plenty of kit for the money. However, I need to find out what is considered "luxury" if it is judged by equipment level? To put a measurement on "luxury," I recalled a vehicle I am working on a review for – the Cadillac SRX. The two-row luxury crossover costs $51,000 and has a host features that seem dizzying even for the mainstream consumer. To make things more interesting – both the Hyundai and Mazda cost more than half the sticker price of the Cadillac.
First – the Mazda3 is well equipped in the Grand Touring trim. This example came with an extra Tech Package that adds plenty more to satisfy the infotainment savvy driver – myself included. While it offers satellite radio, a navigation system, Bluetooth connectivity for the phone and music files and all the power conveniences required in a luxury vehicle, there are also some additional safety features the Mazda had available. With headlamps that followed how you steered and a blind spot monitoring system, the Mazda3 is only one of a few compacts offering such active safety features. The Mazda3 even had a Bose audio system – branded audio systems are a must-have item on luxury vehicles of any stripe.
However, the Hyundai Elantra Limited has its own level of equipment that rivals the Mazda3. For one, a push-button start was featured on the Limited model – something that was not on Mazda3. Then, there is the reversing camera that pops up in the infotainment screen – another rarity amongst compacts and also not offered on the Mazda3. The aforementioned screen was larger on the Elantra – luxury car buyers prefer the larger screens than the puny one in the Mazda. Sadly, the Elantra does not offer the level of active safety features as the Mazda.
Then, there's the drivability factor. No one expects mainstream compact sedans to match the driving prowess of similarly sized cars costing thousands more – namely the Audi A3 and BMW 1-Series. The Mazda3 offers up some cred amongst enthusiasts when it comes to compacts with proper driving dynamics. This model has the new 2.0litre Skyactiv engine under the hood. It offers the balance of "Zoom-Zoom" that Mazda advertises for the 3, except for a few points. Normally, a Mazda3 will respond to your right foot with the right amount of thrust coming through the rev band. The Skyactiv is not like that. Though quieter, it is not as sprightly as the MZR engines. The Skyactiv, however, is quieter – helped by better sound deadening in the Mazda3.
The Hyundai offers something more in tune with the average compact, but with a bit better road manners than most. With the larger wheels and tires, road holding is equal to the Mazda, but it emits a huge noise from underneath through the cabin. It also doesn't help if the 1.8litre engine is boomy at certain revs. Sound deadening in the Elantra could be better – even in the Limited.
Which raises the question of whether leather-upholstered compacts are a hedge against the rise in the price of petrol. Not to belabor the point, but it takes more than leather to make a luxury car. Certainly, both the Mazda and Hyundai can average in the 30MPG arena, but luxury hybrids and diesels can do the same – if not better.
Though both cost below $25,000, one might recall that ten years ago, that was the price of a Mercedes-Benz C230 Kompressor coupe. The economics may have changed, but there is a still a stigma of whether a Hyundai Elantra Limited, a Mazda3 Grand Touring, a Ford Focus Titanium or a Chevrolet Cruze LTZ are respectable replacements for an Audi A3 or a BMW 130i – let alone a larger, properly luxurious sedan. Moreover, this is not to suggest that a money conscious, upwardly mobile consumer would have to downsize from a Genesis sedan or an Azera at a Hyundai dealership for an Elantra Limited.
How do we get out of our taste for the finer things in life in a time such as now? Not sure. Understand there are alternatives out there that may cramp your style, but worth a try.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicles used in this article were provided by Hyundai Motor America and Mazda North American Operations.