Motor Trend (USA) - - Contents - Mark Rechtin

We don’t need no stink­ing badges. We pit four fully loaded main­stream ve­hi­cles against four base-model lux­ury cars.

It’s hu­man na­ture to place things into neat lit­tle cat­e­gories. This has been true when it comes to cars. Main­stream brands knew their value-ori­ented price point, and lux­ury brands lorded their so­cial stand­ing, burled wal­nut, per­fo­rated leather, and thun­der­ing au­dio sys­tems over their peers.

But the lines that sep­a­rate main­stream and lux­ury ve­hi­cles are in­creas­ingly blurred these days. Main­stream au­tomak­ers are of­fer­ing lux­ury-laden trim pack­ages, and pres­tige car brands have moved down­mar­ket to grab vol­ume. One brand ex­ec­u­tive re­ferred to such ma­neu­vers as “de­moc­ra­tiz­ing lux­ury.”

In look­ing at this chang­ing en­vi­ron­ment, we or­ga­nized four com­par­i­son tests to see who does posh bet­ter for a capped price of (roughly) $40,000.

Why 40 grand? Be­cause it’s just a hair above the av­er­age new-ve­hi­cle trans­ac­tion price of about $36,000. It’s a “let’s splurge a bit” num­ber—whether it be load­ing up a VW or tak­ing a trip to a Volvo dealer to see if lux­ury is within reach.

As to the prod­ucts we chose to test, not ev­ery main­stream brand can per­form a su­pe­rior lux­ury im­i­ta­tion. There’s too much built-to-price con­tent to over­come, whether it’s acres of cheap plas­tic, a kid­ney-pun­ish­ing sus­pen­sion, or a raspy, un­der­pow­ered en­gine. Sim­i­larly, many pre­mium brands can’t move down­mar­ket with­out re­mov­ing many of the fea­tures

that peo­ple come to ex­pect from a lux­ury au­to­mo­bile—se­verely dam­ag­ing their brand prom­ise as a re­sult.

To choose our en­trants, we needed main­stream play­ers that make le­git­i­mate claims to lux­ury and lux­ury play­ers that adeptly man­age ex­pec­ta­tions. We didn’t want straw men. We wanted a fair fight.

The typ­i­cal bat­tery of Mo­tor Trend tests fo­cuses on ac­cel­er­a­tion and brak­ing, ride feel, and han­dling re­sponse. Those still mat­ter for this test. But as this is a value story, we took a more holistic ap­proach.

If both ve­hi­cles’ seats are leather, does one feel like thin-gauge vinyl while the other is plush and re­ward­ing? How much hard plas­tic is in the cen­ter con­sole where your right hand and wrist rest on long drives? Do the but­tons, knobs, and di­als feel ele­gant or plinky? Is the sound from the speak­ers lush or tinny?

We also added a test for in­te­rior noise lev­els, as oc­cu­pants fre­quently as­so­ci­ate lux­ury with a quiet cabin. We tested un­der full throt­tle and while cruis­ing at 65 mph. This is pre­sented in sones rather than deci­bels to de­liver a lin­ear, hu­man­like mea­sure­ment of loud­ness.

With these met­rics, we tested the del­i­cate tac­tile and sen­sory el­e­ments that folks might not no­tice dur­ing a 15-minute test drive but that af­ter six months would drive them batty.

Of course, be­ing prag­ma­tists, we also mea­sured the cost of own­er­ship—with data cour­tesy of In­tel­li­choice—which will in­form which car would be bet­ter for your wal­let in the long term.

In seek­ing lux­ury ve­hi­cles with sticker prices in the $38,000–40,000 range, sev­eral press-ve­hi­cle fleets could not pro­vide rep­re­sen­ta­tive cars. In those sit­u­a­tions, we re­lied on the help of a cou­ple co­op­er­a­tive area deal­ers, who loaned us zero-miles show­room mod­els at the ap­pro­pri­ate price points. (We re­im­bursed the deal­ers for the tires we torched in our fig­ure-eight test­ing.)

One lux­ury dealer, in fact, was quite quick to jump in the fray—not­ing that the $40,000 price limit is of­ten cited by cus­tomers in his deal­er­ship, with a fairly large vol­ume of sales at the lower trim lev­els. Af­ter all, many peo­ple can’t af­ford the loaded ver­sion yet still want the pres­tige and re­fine­ment of the lux­ury badge.

So there you have it. Our play­ground. Our rules. Who wins might sur­prise you.

THE VALUE OF A BADGE We set out to see if main­stream mod­els can hang with their lux­ury brethren.

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