Even the most modest car riding the American road today offers luxuries unimaginable on the most expensive automobiles 50 years ago. Power windows, air bags, CD players, front- and rear-climate controls, even power moonroofs, can all be found on cars costing less than $20,000. Today's most expensive cars, ones that sell for $75,000 and up -- sometimes, way up -- have to be pretty luxurious indeed to justify those price tags.
Though "luxury" is a moniker thrown around now more frequently than ever, some models are so regal they stand out beyond compare. In fact, the revival of storied brands such as Rolls-Royce, Bugatti, Maybach, and Bentley all but proves that staking a company's reputation on ultra-luxury -- a term coined for the above-$150,000 set -- can be a winning formula.
The Rolls-Royce Phantom is the first new product from the company under its new BMW ownership. But that doesn't mean a new Rolls-Royce isn't all that an old one was. Executives boast that no two cars are exactly the same because they are so heavily customized to the tastes of their owners. What's more, the marketers say their models don't actually compete with other luxurious auto fare. Instead, due to their enormous expense, they share mind space with yachts and third or fourth homes.
Bentley's models, meanwhile, have become perennial favorites among the Hollywood elite. That's good news for the Volkswagen Group-owned company. But, all that Southern California exposure called for a deluxe convertible based on the Continental GT Coupe. The GTC retains all the oozing style and performance that made its hardtop sibling so popular with the jet set. Its six-liter, 12-cylinder engine has not one, but two, turbochargers that take it from zero to 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds.
The proliferation of high-luxe competition hasn't stopped DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz division from trying to cash in, though. Its revival of the Maybach brand hasn't been as smooth as being driven in one of the company's elegant limos. One feature that takes the cake, though, is a new twist on the panoramic glass sunroof: electromagnetic panels that can be adjusted to be opaque or entirely clear. The luminous ambience made possible by the roof is unparalleled in the industry.
Of course, many equate luxury with sheer performance. The name of Bugatti's prince of speed, the Veyron, is on every supercar aficionado's lips these days -- and for good reason. Its massive W16 engine has made it the fastest production car in the world, capable of reaching speeds of more than 250 mph and getting from zero to 60 in under 2.5 seconds.
Spicy Cayenne SUV
But the Veyron is worthy of praise on other fronts, as well. Unlike many other supercars that forgo interior amenities for speed or are primarily intended as track cars, the Veyron is as comfortable and luxurious as the Bentleys made by both companies' parent, Volkswagen Group.
But that's not to say models at the lower price points don't make significant efforts, either. Hovering between $50,000 and $100,000 each, models from Porsche to Mercedes-Benz differentiate themselves along luxury lines.
Even a vehicle that at conception seemed ill-suited to its manufacturer can win over critics and potential customers with healthy helpings of interior amenities and performance. That's certainly the case with Porsche's first sport-utility vehicle, the Cayenne, which at first glance doesn't mesh with the company's reputation for making exclusive and zippy sports cars.
Not Your Mom's Wagon
But even if the Cayenne doesn't sound like a product of Porsche, it feels and drives like one. The Turbo S edition has a 520-horsepower V8 that gets you from zero to 60 in 4.8 seconds. Upper-limit speed tops out around 168 mph. Inside, the Cayenne is classic Porsche, a mixture of sport-inspired instrumentation and top-of-the-line leathers.
In another unexpected segment, Mercedes-Benz all but proved that wagons can, too, don luxurious amenities in a speedy configuration. Inside, the E63 AMG wagon is a strange brew of handy, kid-friendly features and classic Mercedes-Benz high-class materials. Its V8, meanwhile, pumps out 507 horses -- intense for a family car. That power plant gets the car from zero to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds.
Toyota's luxury division, Lexus, which has long been happy to rack up sales by providing less-than-thrilling but ultimately reliable fare, is raising the ante and attempting to redefine luxury with an eco-friendly aura. After two successful runs at transforming its gas-electric hybrid technology into high-chic models -- the RX SUV and GS sports sedan -- Lexus is aiming higher. Its new LS is intended to go up against stalwart large flagship sedans from Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
Erasing the Perception Difference
The LS 600h L will bring to market many firsts. Among those is the first full hybrid V8 engine -- producing 430 horses, no less. Luxury amenities include four-person seating with a fixed rear console that incorporates a foldout table. The rear seats can be equipped to recline by 45 degrees as well as massage occupants.
Audi is trying hard to close the gap between itself and German cohorts BMW and Mercedes-Benz. To do that, it will have to erase the significant price and perception differences in models like the A8. Part of the company's strategy is co-branding with other high-luxury brands. One of the first products of this tactic is a partnership with the Danish hi-fi company Bang & Olufsen.
Some luxurious combinations have had more trouble than others, though. The ultra-luxury truck is a concept that has had a rough time taking off, most likely because the patrician desire for comfort and performance rarely is comfortable with the rugged characteristics of flatbed trucks. Example: General Motors' Cadillac's EXT flatbed version of the Escalade still sells far fewer models than its SUV brethren.
But that hasn't stopped the company from selling the quirky EXT to those who want it. Like its siblings, the flatbed Escalade features a gargantuan 6.2-liter V8 with 403 horses. It can also tow a hefty 7,600 pounds like a manly truck ought to. But its interior amenities -- which manage to best even the offerings of Japanese competition like Lexus -- and exterior bling scream luxury.
Then again, with luxury-sized price tags, even just a few sales can make a difference.