In the premium and luxury segments, the cars and crossovers are all great. What separates the wheat from the chaff is the overall ownership experience. Here’s what we mean.
Compare the Lexus NX200t, BMW X3 XDrive28i, Audi Q5, Mercedes GLC 300, and Land Rover Discovery Sport and you will discover they all have almost identical specifications. All of them have a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine and automatic transmissions with eight or nine gears. Their dimensions are within inches of one another. Based on our testing they are fantastic, and there’s not a bad one in the bunch. So why do some sell better than others? How can (or should) a shopper decide on one versus the other. More and more it is coming down to factors other than the vehicle itself.
One way the vehicles differ is in their cachet. That is defined formally as “the state of being respected or admired; prestige.” It is usually denoted by an emblem or symbol. Hence, the pie-plate sized logo Mercedes-Benz now affixes to its vehicles – yes it even lights up at night now. Mercedes knows that one (big) reason people buy its products is the name and the implied specialness it denotes. Brands have a reputation and a personality that buyers associate with. This brand image is hugely valuable to an automaker, and they cultivate it carefully. This is the underlying reason why the premium automakers have all stopped using names for vehicles and instead moved to numbers and letters. The models themselves are not the emphasis, the brand is. This is a quality that has no easy metric to measure. However, all buyers consider it when they make a luxury item purchase. The easiest analogy is the Rolex and Timex watch analogy. Timex could copy a Rolex design exactly, but would that make its product a Rolex?
Initial Satisfaction With a Vehicle
J.D. Power and Associates measures how much customers like their new vehicle after the break in and familiarization period. The group says its survey “examines what consumers like about their new vehicles after 90 days of ownership.” This is a valid and important way to measure how well a vehicle hits the target with regard to buyer wants and needs. Notice how the premium automakers all do better than the mainstream brands? Notice also how tightly grouped the top quarter of the brands are. Not much separates a BMW from a Cadillac. However, the difference between how well a Cadillac hits the mark with consumers compared to its own Chevy brands is large. Some question if there really is any value to buying a premium brand over a mainstream one. It’s a valid question we have asked here at BestRide. If there is any evidence that there is a value, it is shown here.
Quality, Durability, Reliability
Quality and luxury have often been associated with one another, but they are not the same thing. Again, our Timex and Rolex analogy may help. One can easily assign a high luxury feel to a Rolex, but is it less likely to break or wear out? Those second and third factors can be measured. Quality is a metric that can be measure in objective ways. How often does a part fail? How often do customers return for unscheduled repairs? How many owners complain that an infotainment system does not work for them? These are not feelings or opinions. Hence, quality, durability and reliability (QDR) are more measurable and less about an owner’s warm and fuzzy about a brand’s personality. Note that many of the brands with the best quality are not luxury brands. Acura and Infiniti don’t even make it to the top half of the list.
QDR has a huge impact on ownership experience. Nothing leaves a worse taste in a consumer’s mouth than being stranded by a broken vehicle. Nothing makes them more frustrated with their purchase than when they cannot operate the Bluetooth phone pairing. Recalls matter too, but interestingly, they are now so common, owners are “tuning them out” to some degree. Brands with a very high quality also have one hidden advantage. Since owners of these brands are likely to see their dealer only during scheduled service, and not when something bad has happened, they end up thinking better of the dealership service experience. Consumer Reports is the gold standard for quality measurement (chart above). If you don’t like their published results you can’t blame Consumer Reports. Their rankings are not the opinion of the editors, but of actual vehicle owners.
Customer Service Satisfaction – Dealer Visits
Owners of luxury cars visit dealerships. When something goes wrong under warranty for example. When they get there, a loaner car is waiting for them. It is new and of the brand they already drive. That way, they don’t have to learn the controls. Before they hop in though, they visit the free café for a latte and a scone. When they come back, their car is washed and full of gas. There is no charge of course and the upcoming scheduled maintenance is all done, preventing them from having to come back soon. Sound too good to be true? Maybe you’re driving the wrong brand of fine automobile. This is exactly what real dealerships at the top of our above list strive for. Many even have valet service to pick up and return a customer’s car. Scoring high on the above index is a way automakers can do more, even if their car is a 2.o-liter turbocharged compact crossover just like all the other ones in its class.
Warranty and Included Maintenance
Luxury brand buyers are familiar with the terms “total cost of ownership” and “fixed cost of ownership.” They understand that a long warranty means they won’t have to bicker with the dealership over cost of repairs. They also know that if maintenance is included they won’t have to suffer the indignity of paying during the one or two visits per year they will be making to the dealership. If you don’t believe me, simply compare the two charts above. Almost a perfect correlation. Luxury buyers want everything included.
The gold standard in safety is what luxury buyers expect and that means a Top Safety Pick Plus rating from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. There is no good excuse for the luxury automakers not to have earned this rating on all models tested. It is part of the ownership experience in that it makes a buyer feel like they made a smart choice. In the event of a crash, a car with a top safety rating is likely to do better than a vehicle the same size and weight that scored lower. Yet, you would be surprised how many luxury vehicles don’t make the grade.
The overall ownership experience is a big part of what differentiates one vehicle and brand from another in the luxury automotive world. If you are reading a review that doesn’t bring it up, you’re reading the wrong review.