UNITED STATES – 04-24-2020 (PRDistribution.com) — Several decades ago, the world didn’t know what a luxury car was; if you wanted something more exotic, you bought something from Bugatti, Maserati, Ferrari, or even Alfa Romeo. Luxury cars in the modern sense weren’t really a thing until Mercedes-Benz started revolutionizing the automotive landscape, with higher quality materials, plush ride quality, and the build quality to ensure it lasted a lifetime. It became the archetypal luxury vehicles for the well-to-do, while BMW focused on a thrilling driving experience bar none.
But with the rivalry between the two brands growing, and the likes of Audi emerging in the fray as a serious contender, the need for higher quality and perceived luxury was growing. Bit by bit, these brands increased the levels of lavishness on offer in their products until they were quite clearly a cut above the rest, and so the era of the premium car began. Others joined, with Toyota and Nissan spinning off Lexus and Infiniti respectively to conquer the USA, while American manufacturers had their own luxury subdivisions. Ford had Lincoln and General Motors had both Buick and Cadillac. But no matter which brand you looked at, the intent was clear: charge you more money for the privilege of soft leather and additional insulation – an isolation chamber for the road.
The Rise of ‘Perceived Quality’ Among the Proverbial Peasants
While the elite manufacturers battled it out among themselves, the rest of the world carried on producing vehicles with harsh plastics, cloth upholsteries, and none of the conveniences one might consider to be premium. Heated seats were the reserve of the best vehicles in a model lineup, and even then, the leather equipped was often hard and not as luxurious as brands that charged more. Volkswagen wasn’t having any of this though, and thanks to Ferdinand Piech, the German brand began a journey that would see the quality levels rise to match, if not beat, the established elite, all while charging the same prices as the common car.
‘Perceived Quality’ was the term that was coined to describe it – making sure that everything that was touched on a regular basis felt lavish, while the out-of-sight bits were the same budget materials everyone else was using. Items like the armrests were now clad in cloth or vinyl with soft padding, while the dashboards started receiving the ‘soft-touch’ treatment. Instead of hard-wearing plastics that were easy to produce and would last forever, these items were soft to the touch and were often imprinted to look like leather. To the layman, the difference was indiscernible, and when paired with a genuine leather steering wheel, all the main touchpoints now felt far classier than the affordable price tag suggested.
Everything out of sight was still hard plastics, and the budget-style carpet cladding of the transmission tunnel, hard plastics on the console, door pockets, and bits under the dash still remained. However, Volkswagen proved that it was possible to give buyers a sense of luxury, even if they weren’t paying premium prices for it.
Democratizing Technology – The Antidote to the Premium Monopoly
But while perceived quality was an easy way to sway buyers, the saying that beauty is skin deep still rings true. Buyers may have enjoyed soft-touch dashboards, but part of the allure to luxury car ownership was the amount of tech that was standard-fit. When air conditioning was still an option on most normal cars, high-end brands were offering heated seats, followed by ventilated seats with perforated leather. High-end sound systems, heated wing mirrors, cigarette lighters, and onboard telephones became hallmarks of BMW and Mercedes-Benz products, while in later years, navigation systems became a key identifying factor of a premium marque. In later years, this began to include the latest safety tech, such as blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, rearview cameras, and even head-up displays.
Several brands took it upon themselves to make this technology available to the masses, with the French and Koreans paying a fair amount of attention to pursuing the democratization of high-level tech. Economies of scale meant that by making everything available on a mass-market scale, costs would be vastly reduced, ensuring that everyone could have access to such tech. It didn’t matter how big or small a car was, Hyundai, Kia, Renault, Peugeot, and others began an assault on the market with the fanciest of tech brought into the lowliest of city cars.
It wasn’t just safety equipment either. You could now get automatic climate control, heated and ventilated seats, heated steering wheels, and even massaging seats with power adjustment in something the size of a Ford Fiesta.
Growing in Size and Filling in the Blanks
The aforementioned changes in mindset for common or garden brands posed a threat to premium automakers for a number of reasons. With the world changing and buyers constantly demanding more, vehicles kept growing in size. A BMW 5 Series grew to the size of a 7 Series, and likewise, the 3 Series grew in size, allowing those in the back seat to enjoy the opulence. This has resulted in Mercedes, BMW, and more trying to fill the gaps with smaller vehicles that will appeal to a lower-income audience; except reduced costs mean reduced quality, and in products like the Mercedes-Benz CLA and GLA, buyers have received a premium look but without the luxuriant levels of quality expected from something with a premium badge.
The established elite have been shown up by lesser brands. Very often, in a comparison between two vehicles – one premium, one not – it’s the more affordable offering that would feel like the product of a luxury marque.
More Than Just A Badge
While there may once have been substance behind the notion that a premium badge makes a premium car, the waters have now been muddied. With Honda and Mazda now pursuing premium-feel cabins, edgy design, and an abundance of features, you can now achieve luxury status without paying a high MSRP. Tech, quality, and style are now no longer the reserve of the elite few in the market, and buyers are in the fortunate enough position that they can find something that feels classy without needing to shell out tens of thousands extra.
Ultimately, luxury is about more than the badge on the steering wheel, and for those lucky enough to see through the rose-tinted glasses of brand-bias, there are true gems to be enjoyed on the new car market.
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