Automakers use the equipment they put into their various brands to signal which are luxury and which are not. It seems almost random.
Back in the day, if a car had AC and power windows, it was a premium model. My 1992 Civic SI had neither. There was some logic here. Air conditioning requires multiple components that are expensive to build and install and miles of plumbing inside the cabin and engine bay. Power windows also have small electric motors and switches, so to some degree, there was a cost associated with having them that one could see as a luxury. You won’t find a car without both of these today. However, there are a few quirky things that automakers have held on to and some new ones they invented to let us know when we are in a luxury car.
The most ridiculous of all is the “Auto-power-down and up” window switch. Hop into a Chevy Equinox and you will only get a driver’s window auto down switch. No auto for any other windows, and if you want the driver’s window up you have to hold the switch. However, over at Lexus, you should expect that all four interior windows will have that little switch to make the windows go up or down on their own. Based on my engineering background I estimate the cost of those switches at $0.04 each. So about twelve cents in total cost. It isn’t the money, Lexus wants to differentiate their cars from brands like Chevy, and even its own Toyota brand and this is a historic way to do so.
A new way automakers tell us we are in a premium model is the “Extra windshield wiper swipe.” In most cars, if you hit the window wash button the spray comes out, and the windshield wipers go back and forth three times clearing the window of dirt and salt. It works very well, but a little bit of the blue windshield washer fluid can be splashed up by wind after the last wipe and appear as a streak or dots on the windshield. Premium automakers now universally add a moment of hesitation, and then a fourth wipe to clear that. My estimation is that there is zero cost to this. Automakers use software, not hardware to make that happen, and they already wrote the code (for the premium models), so why not put it into all cars if it is a benefit? Ford has added the courtesy swipe. Maybe it too will be standard across all brands. But for now, three wipes mainstream, four wipes premium.
Infotainment systems are the craziest example of how automakers try to make you feel the luxury. In mainstream models, infotainment systems have a touch screen. The functions are the same as in the pricey models, but in the mainstream models, you tap the screen to make them work. Almost all of the premium brands force us to use a crazy mouse, touch pad, MMI, or rotary knob to change the channel on the audio system or put on the heated seats. Having driven, tested, and evaluated infotainment systems from every automaker, I am of the opinion the automakers have this exactly backward. The mainstream models like the one from Chevy’s Equinox are better. Simpler to use, with the same functionality. Apparently Land Rover agrees. Its 2016 Discovery Sport had a wonderfully simple touch screen. Maybe automakers are finally waking up to this.
The last part of this rant will cover engines. More and more the premium automakers are moving to the 2.0-liter turbo engine with nine speeds, turbo-lag, and a “Premium Fuel Only” label on the fuel door. At the same time, mainstream cars and crossovers, like V-6 Nissan Murano, and the V-6 Accord and V-6 Camry, are offering powerful and efficient V-6 engines using less expensive regular fuel, that are faster and more fuel efficient than the premium brands’ models. Does paying more for gas make a model more luxurious?
We’ve focused on the quirky things that automakers and suppliers do to signal quality, but if Mulliner of Pradesh, India has its way, you will soon know ultra-luxury by simply looking at the dash of a Bentley. No, the latest style is not another boring old wood veneer. The newest fancy dash veneer will be made of stone. How progressive.