The Blurring Line Between Cheap and Luxury Cars

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The 2013 Hyundai Accent is a low-price car that offers amenities once only found in luxury vehicles.

Pickup trucks are being sold with heated steering wheels and snakeskin leather accented interiors. Middle-of-the-road cars like the Ford Fusion come with sport-stitched leather-trimmed 10-way power seats. Even Kia, which has won awards for being the automaker brand with the lowest cost of ownership, has a line of “luxury” models in the works. All of which might make car shoppers wonder: What does “luxury” mean today?

A luxury vehicle was once fairly easy to define. Compared to the average ho-hum vehicle on the market, a luxury car generally offered far better performance on the road and a far fancier and more comfortable interior. It also came with a far more expensive price tag.

But at a time when pickup trucks—once considered the quintessential no-frills utility vehicle—can top $50,000, and when cars starting at under $20,000 can be equipped with bells and whistles normally only seen in the high-end market, it’s time to redefine what a “luxury” automobile is and is not.

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Over the years, automakers have discovered that many consumers like and will pay good money for luxury touches, even when it comes to vehicles that seem to be the polar opposites of staid, classically luxurious cars from Mercedes, Cadillac, and Audi.

Last year, Hyundai, once considered a “cheap” brand in every sense of the word, basically stopped selling the bare-bones version of its lowest-price model, the Accent. It said that because the vast majority of drivers didn’t want the base model priced below $13,000, the cheapest MSRP for the Accent essential topped $14,000. According to USA Today, the 2013 Accent will start at over $15K and include several features that used to be options as standard, such as a USB port, heated side mirrors, and remoteless key entry.

Some of Hyundai’s success in the marketplace can be attributed to the risks it took in recent years, specifically the launch of two luxury sedans—with premium price tags to match—the Equus and Genesis. Now Kia, which has usually been considered the chintzier of the two major Korean automakers, is also expected to roll out a premium luxury sedan, the K9, later this year.

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It’s not just sedans that are leaning toward luxury. While the number of light trucks sold has been shrinking slightly—owed, to some extent to the fact that pickups have such long lives—the Detroit News reports that automakers are producing pickups with more and more luxury features, including heated steering wheels, heated seats (front and rear), and, perhaps, 8-inch touchscreen infotainment hubs amid an interior overflowing with fancy leather and wood-grain accents.

The luxury pickup truck—which, not long ago would have been an oxymoron—is gaining in popularity among buyers. In 2010, 22% of heavy-duty Ram pickup trucks sold for $50,000 or more. Last year, that figure increased to 29%.

The auto insider publication WardsAuto, meanwhile, notes that the rise of luxury features in mid-level cars such as the Honda Accord, Hyundai Elantra, and Ford Fusion has caused certain automakers to go to new lengths to offer luxury and exclusivity—and to justify their high MSRPs. Sometimes, automaker efforts to set themselves apart can seem silly. No matter how pretty the appearance, do you really want to pay top dollar because the decorative wood inside the Fisker Karma is 300-year-old white oak retrieved from the bottom of Lake Michigan?

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Such a material doesn’t perform better than others. It doesn’t necessarily look better than others either. Then why would a consumer want it, and be willing to pay extra for it?

In the same way that automakers want to set themselves apart from the pack, a certain breed of consumers wants to do the same. Car features that at least give the appearance of being exclusive, one-of-a-kind, and handcrafted help accomplish that goal. Whether or not these features are actually superior doesn’t seem to matter. Pat Murray, of the brand consulting and product development firm Murray Design, did his best to explain why some consumers are so attracted to luxury, without making them seem foolish or shallow:

“Luxury is very self-centered. It’s hard to describe it that way because it sounds like a negative trait, but it’s a positive trait,” Murray says. “Luxury is all about me.”

I’m not sure if people see self-centeredness as a positive trait. But the makers of luxury automobiles probably do.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.
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