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- 19 Jan 2012
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Leather, Price, And All Things Nice


Lexus’ positioning remains at the luxury end of the sphere, despite is oft technical resemblance to some Toyota engineering

Ben Zachariah, managing director of The Oriel Design Group, ponders the difference between a Lexus ES300 and a Toyota Camry in a tuxedo

As I was cursing the peak-hour traffic I was so unfortunately stuck in the other day, 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? While I pondered this question, I realised that it’s far harder to demarcate than I had originally assumed.

There are cars we automatically pigeon-hole as being from a luxury automaker, and those that we assume are simply transport. In the past, it was easy. Luxury meant leather and technology. Today, both are easily accessible, available from even the entry-level Korean offerings.

Take, for example, the Hyundai i30cw. This is a small-to-mid-sized wagon that comes with leather, an optional diesel engine, along with a host of other features, all together in a well-built package that is actually a lot of fun to drive. Combined with an unparalleled warranty, and here you have what is undeniably a great car. But despite being a better vehicle than BMWs 116i, it’s not a luxury car. And the BMW is.

 Nowadays luxury is more inwardly focussed, rather than outwardly expressed. Modesty is the overriding message 

Forgetting the physical experience of luxury, the rest of it is defined by marketing and public relations. How you feel about Apple or Virgin or Lexus is sculpted by their PR departments over many, many years. The fact that Americans see the Infinity G37 as a luxury coupe, rather than a humble Nissan Skyline, is because of modified perception.

In Australia, Lexus is the perfect example. Perpetuated as the thinking man’s whip, Toyota has positioned the L badge as a genuine competitor to the Europeans. We all know that the ES300 was a Camry in a tuxedo, but to golfing grandfathers everywhere it’s a luxury sedan without the ostentatious statement of a German saloon.


BMW’s 116i, technically comparable to Hyundai’s i30cw – so what makes it luxury?

Without the high quality of their engineering and craftsmanship, I suspect Lexus would have failed as a brand. They don’t have the history to back themselves up and I think only now are they starting to forge their own character.

At a recent design forum by BMW, artist Thomas Demand said that nowadays luxury is more inwardly focussed, rather than outwardly expressed. Modesty was the overriding message. This makes me think of the rise in popularity of apartments converted from warehouses all over the world as an example.

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. It 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.


Ben Zachariah is the former Motoring Editor of X&Y Magazine, who now considers himself an entrepreneur. The owner of The Oriel Design Group and Online Car Brokers, Ben also has other ventures at varying stages of infancy. The driving enthusiast will launch a new service in the United States this year, wholly focused on the luxury sector.