You get what you pay for … sometimes
When we were assembling the field for this four-test shootout, a representative of a luxury automaker expressed concern that we were creating a straw man scenario—in other words, we were making a testing paradigm that would set up the luxury brands to fail.
With cross-our-heart promises that no such agenda was in play, we set out to see if mainstream automakers could play in the luxury sandbox or whether luxury brands could move downmarket and conquest folks with Maserati tastes but Mazda budgets.
As you can see from the previous pages, mainstream vehicles won the overall battle, 3–1. But two of those mainstreambrand victories were by the narrowest of margins—and, depending on one’s list of wants and needs, could have swung the other way.
For us, our wish list for a luxury vehicle (or a vehicle priced to compete against one) is that it comes with requisite performance credentials, a comfortable ride, interior refinement, elegance of fit and finish, and a certain flair one would associate with a premium vehicle.
Several things we learned in our pricesensitive testing:
Luxury vehicles tend to value tactile and sensory elements, whether it be the effectiveness of sound-deadening materials; the action of the switches, dials, and buttons; or the overall look and feel of the vehicle design. You also get whiteglove treatment at the dealership. It is the cost of entry.
However, when having to cut costs to reach a lower entry price point, the luxury brands often fall a bit short. The deletion or decontenting of items can result in frustrating compromises for someone hoping to get a steal on a base-model luxury car. It might be a tinnier stereo, cheaper leather, or a depowered engine. You get the classy badge, but you might have to bust out your wallet to add some options packages to see what all the fuss is about. And in the long term, maintenance costs tend to be pricier.
The flip side is that mainstream brands can aspire to compete against luxury models, but often times the underpinnings (which have to be priced to be affordable at much cheaper trim levels) show their proletarian roots. It might be louder inside the cabin. The ride might be choppier. And when you load up a mainstream model, a better deal might be found at the neighboring luxury dealer.
The only luxury vehicle in our tests that truly represented the upscale look and feel you would expect was the Volvo XC60. Then again, we bent the rules and allowed a pricier model to compete. Give any of these candidates another $4,000 to play with, and they would have likely shown stronger, as well.
That said, certain automakers execute the luxury premise better than others. Our testers rated the XC60 and Honda Accord as the two best vehicles of the field of eight, regardless of price.
There’s no fixed formula. Luxury can be worth it, but often it’s not if you scrimp. And although some mainstream brands aspire to create a premium experience, they can’t all fulfill the promise. There’s no substitute for actually sitting in the driver’s seat. n
ON LOCATION Our field was ready for its close-up at Los Angeles’ Elysian Park, home to Dodger Stadium, with a clear view of downtown.