Up until very recently, the reason that you bought a BMW 3 Series or a Mercedes-Benz C-Class was to prepare you to buy a 5 or an E in a few years. You know, ladders to climb, blowing up to do, de-luxe apartments in the sky to own. These days, according to a new study, that is less and less the case: fewer premium buyers are moving up and more buyers are actually moving down.

According to numbers compiled by the Power Information Network, in 2006, nearly 16% of new car buyers moved from a compact to a mid-sized car, but through the first half of this year, only about 11% did so. And compared to 2006, this year two other categories showed 4% gains: people moving from large to mid-sized cars, and those moving from mid-sized to compact cars.

Gas prices have a bit to do with that, as does the democratization of high-end features, but the real story appears to be that unless David Stern signs your paychecks, being a baller is out. Customers don't want to look like they're flaunting their money, or they simply don't want to spend it. Even brand-loyal buyers are either keeping their cars, or instead of buying new ones they're going for pre-owned certified or an off-lease deal. Even Acura and Lexus are seeing their customers turn their aspirations downward.

According to Automotive News, brands that appear to be poised to benefit from this trend include Hyundai and Audi. The Korean firm's Genesis sedan is an all-the-luxury-you-want option for $10,000 less than most comparable brands. Less flashiness and an engineering-led message could also be the catalyst for Audi, whose sales declines are a third of the luxury market's overall. Said Scott Keogh, Audi's chief marketing officer, "There is affluence, and consumers have means, but frivolousness has gone away."

[Source: Automotive News, sub. req'd]