IS LUXURY WORTH IT?
$40,000 LUXURY CHALLENGE
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.