The Folly of Turning Normal into Luxury

Folly: a lack of good sense or normal prudence and foresight, a tragically foolish action or conduct. Simply put, an act or idea that, over time, will prove costly or potentially humiliating.
This is the perfect word I’d use to describe what some car companies out there are trying to do: making premium/luxury cars out of normal ones with basic exercises of marketing or redesign. In some cases, like Volkswagen—>Audi, or Toyota—>Lexus, it’s not as bad as you might think at first glance, but when companies like Honda, Nissan or Ford tried forcing growth from struggling brands, it looked kind of… strange.

For instance, after they became established brands, most big Japanese automakers decided that they wanted to be German as well. They wanted a bit of the luxury market. Toyota has Lexus, Nissan has Infiniti and Honda has Acura, and I’m not sure why.

Every time either of one tries to force growth into a market segment, they take a platform, create an over-style body and fill it with technology they think people will somehow confuse for luxury. Lexus is the most successful at this, but most people will agree even the brand new GS, after the novelty wore off, became an exaggerated BMW copy. However, they are the only Japanese luxury brand with the most redeeming features, and I’ll go into detail about that a little later.

At the same time, we’re always struggling to understand how Acura can say “this or that model is the cheapest in its luxury segment”. Just because a car has standard push button start, reversing camera or lane assist doesn’t mean it’s equivalent to an Audi A4. I look at the TSX or the TL and always say to myself “that’s just a Honda with a bird’s beak, there’s no way I can park that next to a Mercedes and smile”.

What actually makes a good luxury car is quality. For instance, most Japanese luxury cars, even the really good ones seem to use fake or bad leather. That might sound like a good thing when you’re pinching the pennies, but that just doesn’t cut it in Europe, where a GS 450h (about €72,000 in Germany) will set you back about as much as the base Porsche Panamera (about €77,000 in Germany). It just feels like there’s more engineering in that Porsche’s engine than in a whole Lexus. If there’s anything good to say about Lexus cars, it’s that they seem to have a common thread that binds them all together, little things like the similarity in engine tone between the even mighty LFA and a more humble V6 under hard throttle.

While all German automakers are developing new engines, all you hear from Lexus, who’s backed by the biggest automaker in the business, is excuses. While Audi and BMW have 3-liter turbodiesel engines with over 300 horsepower, Lexus still says diesel is not the answer and sticks with its soldering kit and electric wire spool. When the Germans say they can’t make Euro 7 diesels, which they won’t, i’ll believe Lexus.

Yet because of the fact they do business globally, imported Lexus and Infiniti cars do OK year after year. By comparison, what our next makeover specialists are doing sounds pretty good, but isn’t. The relatively unknown Lincoln brand and the Cadillac brand that’s captured every Chinese mafia member’s attention.

GM isn’t exactly famous for making the best quality products. Remove the carpets from any Opel or Chevy and you’ll find corners have been cut, but Cadillac’s new ATS really is good enough to compare to a BMW or Mercedes, and that’s because they didn’t cut corners and used a brand new platform.

On the other hand, Lincoln is trying to revive itself with re-bodied Ford bodies. We’ll agree that none of the body panels are the same and that EcoBoost engines are good, but that’s a bit like acting surprised when noticing the Skoda Octavia and VW Golf are different.

The Lincoln brand was supposed to have been killed off together with Mercury, but has limped on, refusing to die. You can either buy the 2013 Ford Fusion from $22,000 or its sister the $36,000 Lincoln MKZ. Ford has plenty of fans, Lincoln doesn’t – that’s what you call a sad story.

You want me to buy a Lincoln? What, like a town car?! No way, give me that Ford. I’ll take the ford because daddy and gramps were Ford guys. No use changing the badge when what people actually want is the best Ford, not a better Ford with the face of a dead fish. And that goes for every badge engineered car out there.

But if I had a chance to talk to the guys at Lincoln, or Lexus or Infiniti for that matter, I’d ask them what the heck are they thinking: the Mercedes C-Class starts at $36,000 in the US as well, and daddy or gramps would much rather have one of those, no matter what badge was on the front.

You might be tempted to say that VW does the same thing, that the A3 is nothing more than a glorified Golf. But there’s more money invested in Volkswagen Group’s MQB platform than in the entire Lincoln model lineup. What’s more, Audis are so instantly recognizable and popular, they can get away with changing the just the grille and headlights and calling it a major facelift. People will buy new Audis or BMWs just because they have the air vents in a slightly different place or a new shade of blue.

The folly of making fake luxury cars from normal ones is not limited to the Japanese and American automakers. Fiat probably does the worst job off them all and is the biggest badge swapper in the business. They’ve got too many brands under their belt and their crossbreeding with Chrysler is hurting their identity even more.

The biggest insults from Fiat are not the rebadge American cars, but their own work. The Lancia Ypsilon is like a Fiat 500 that’s a lot worse and slightly more expensive. But worst of all are the Alfa Romeos. Originally, that brand was supposed to be BMW-rivaling, but now all they have are VW Polo and Golf rivals that won’t turn heads or stay on the road. For just under €19,000 in Germany, they sell a 1.4 base Giulietta with 105 PS and no special paint, wheel or feature.

Looking at these luxury or premium cars that are based on regular ones, I’d say that within five years half of them will be killed off and the other half will be dropped, taking some of these brands with them. Their parent companies will create broader spectrums of models, gaining the right to compete in the modern luxury car market, not in the 1990s.
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About the author: Mihnea Radu
Mihnea Radu profile photo

Mihnea's favorite cars have already been built, the so-called modern classics from the '80s and '90s. He also loves local car culture from all over the world, so don't be surprised to see him getting excited about weird Japanese imports, low-rider VWs out of Germany, replicas from Russia or LS swaps down in Florida.
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