A little while ago I was cursing the peak-hour traffic I was unfortunately stuck in, when my eye was drawn to a BMW E87 116i, glistening black in the afternoon winter sun. And it got me thinking: what defines a luxury car? Is it the badge? The price? The list of features? After pondering this question, I realised that it’s a lot harder to characterise than it may seem.
There are cars we automatically pigeon-hole as being from a luxury automaker, and those that we assume are simply a-to-b transport. In the past, it was easy. Luxury meant leather and and luxury meant technology. In other words, it meant it was German. Today, both leather and technology are easily accessible and available from even the cheapest Korean motorcars. Technology moves fast, and leather is a tick-box option.
Case and point: the Hyundai i30. This small hatch can be optioned with leather, an sophisticated diesel engine, and a host of pretty impressive features, all together in a well-built package that is actually a lot of fun to drive. Combined with an industry-leading warranty and you have what is undeniably a great car. But despite being a better vehicle than BMW's 116i, it’s not a luxury car. And the BMW is.
Forgetting for a moment the physical experience of luxury, it's easy to look past the fact that the rest of it is defined by marketing and public relations departments. How you feel about Apple or Virgin or Lexus is sculpted by their PR flacks over many, many years. It's not just about the engineering of the product, but about how you're made to think about logos and badges. The associations have been planted there, with daily reminders to solidify that seed of an idea that the brand is exactly as good as they want you to think it is.
Lexus is the perfect example. Perpetuated as the thinking man’s whip, Toyota has done an impressive job of positioning the L badge as a genuine competitor to the Europeans. Some may remember that the original ES300 was nothing more than a Camry in a tuxedo, but to golfing grandfathers everywhere it was a luxury sedan without the ostentatious statement of a snooty German saloon. Yet if they didn't have such a high calibre of engineering and marketing, I suspect Lexus would have failed as a brand, much like Eunos did in the 90s. It's been decades since Lexus first launched, but only now is the company beginning to forge its own design language and find its place in the market.
At a design forum a few years ago hosted by BMW, artist Thomas Demand said that nowadays luxury is more inwardly focussed, rather than outwardly expressed. Modesty was the overriding message. I'm reminded of the rise in popularity of apartments converted from warehouses all over the world. If you look closely at those that are trying to imitate luxury, we can see that it is outwardly expressed. It's BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, that are edging further towards modesty than they ever have before. This is how they differentiate themselves.
Even without being able to clearly define it, we all know what luxury is. We know it when we are immersed in it, and we know when it’s being faked. We can also appreciate leather and technology when it appears in a humble Korean hatch. Because luxury is not just the material, but the quality of the material being used. The fit and finish of our surroundings. The character, the modesty, the heritage. And, of course, the price.
Cover photo by JM Photoworks.