The cars we loved.
Most dictionaries would define the term luxury car as a “marketing term for a vehicle that provides luxury — pleasant or desirable features beyond strict necessity — at increased expense”. In the past it was clear and more easily established that you had a luxury car. It was usually large and often featured more power and better styling. It also had cutting edge technology and engineering than lesser cars were lacking.
The larger dimensions of the luxury car made it the ideal canvas for manufacturers to try out their new styling themes. They also became the testing ground for technology we take for granted today. For instance, in 1953 the Chrysler Imperial was the first production car to feature air conditioning. It would be decades before this feature became a common place option on lowly offerings like the Plymouth Horizon or Dodge Shadow. After a few years, some variation of big car opulence would be passed down to lesser models.
After the 70’s the luxury market began to fragment in response to emissions, tax and safety regulations. The resulting change splintered the market into segments that ranged from compact up to the traditional ideal of what a full-sized luxury car was. These changes were happening mostly in Europe where post war realities had forced market innovation. American manufacturers were moving in a different direction and were late to adopt some of the engineering advances that came from Europe and later Japan. By the mid 80’s the result was declining market share by the traditional luxury leaders Cadillac and Lincoln in the US. Suddenly new Japanese competition caught everyone by surprise and forced even the more established European firms to be more competitive.
Suddenly the 90’s luxury car buyer was faced with new choices from the likes of Acura, Lexus and Infiniti. In addition to the Japanese brands that came from mainline manufacturers, Europe had refined smaller offerings like the BMW like the 3 Series to offer a sport oriented emphasis to entry-level luxury. The new emphasis on quality had already taken its toll on Alfa Romero, Fiat and Peugeot in North America as they bowed out of the market. The biggest market impact came from Toyota in the form of its new Lexus brand. Americans had become accustomed to Japanese quality and had learned to expect it. So it was just a matter of time before Toyota would cash in its chips and bank on its good reputation. Almost overnight its big LS 400 and smaller ES250/300 would redefine luxury and cause competitors to reevaluate their offerings.
Meanwhile at the top of the segment, cars from Maybach, Bentley and Rolls-Royce were forced to up their game and offer more value. No longer was snob appeal going to insure sales to the ultra-rich, although it had been a powerful marketing tool. The recent Great Recession has further disturbed upper ends of the luxury market, forcing BMW and Mercedes to lower the starting prices of their new flagships to meet the new reality. The recent trend of active austerity measures has reduced the sales of ultra-luxury cars in traditional Western markets where the world economic downturn was strongest. With the exception of Bentleys and Maybachs in pop videos, you’d never think that the biggest market for these cars is now shifting to China. Elsewhere the high-end market is as competitive as ever with old names making a comeback like Cadillac while other brands like Saab in trouble.
All of the changes in the luxury market have been good for the buyer of modestly priced cars. With price points blurring in some instances, a fully loaded Honda Accord rivals the luxury from Acura’s TSX. Even entry-level economy cars like the Ford Focus offer more gadgets and technology than the BMW 3 Series of 10 years ago. With the continual lines blurring, luxury makers have only exclusivity and high price to guard against the common buyer’s aspirations. Though that may not be enough in this brave new automotive world where younger potential buyers car less about cars than their parents did.
Style, performance and advance engineering are no longer the exclusive traits of the luxury car. When a Hyundai Sonata can be as expressive and have similar technology found in a Lexus or Mercedes, only the perceived benefit of buying the luxury brand is exclusivity. Power is still a consistent trait in the upper ends of the market, but that too is no longer exclusive. With Impalas and Taurus reaching or exceeding 300 hp, the lines are beginning to blur with what was once an almost exclusive feature of the luxury car. For now cars like the Cadillac CTS-V offer a level of power, performance and comfort that traditional mid-sized family sedans like the Taurus and Accord can’t match, but they are creeping ever closer with each new model year. Style and more increasingly, technology remains the trump card of Cadillac and other premium car builders.
The final frontier and perhaps the last card the luxury car industry can play just may be technology. Technology that will allow new levels of convenience like auto drive while still being plush is one ideal. Of course it would also have to have optimal power and efficiency. Hybrids continue to evolve to include luxury cars, but for now increased efficiency and performance must be achieved with regular combustion gasoline engines.
When a car like the S Class Mercedes can get 35+ mpg with 400 hp, and still perform as expected, that will be the technological threshold that will keep luxury cars relevant and exclusive into the near future. Advances will always keep the luxury car ahead of the pack, but until some new game changing tech comes along like the flying spinner cars of Blade Runner come along, the ultura-luxury car as we know it might become an endangered species.