What constitutes ‘luxury’ in a car, truck or SUV is as debatable as what constitutes good design; often it’s little more than what’s in the eye of the person or persons looking at it. And that is never more debatable than today, when luxury (and near-luxury) offerings run the gamut, from the more traditional sedans, coupes and convertibles to a relative rush of pickups and SUVs offering luxury accoutrements at – you guessed it – luxury price points. Traditionalists will perceive true luxury as something inborn, refusing to believe it can be added on. New luxury is more than a little like new money: inherently more fluid, with less pretension and (possibly) more relevance. For those sitting in the luxury pews, know that even traditional luxury is in flux, with both Cadillac and Lincoln attempting to redefine themselves. And as BMW veers toward more luxury, its arch competitor, Mercedes-Benz, appears to be enhancing its driving dynamic. Audi has emerged as an equal to BMW and Benz, Acura continues to struggle in everything but its crossovers, and Hyundai has just introduced a new luxury division, Genesis. And as noted in the Buying Guide, Mercedes sells a $30K sedan, while an Accord or Camry can easily cost $35K. Perhaps when considering a luxury purchase it’s less what you know – and more what you feel.

Exterior – Throughout most of its history the luxury vehicle has been identified by both size (Extra Large) and notable ‘bling’, and this before ‘bling’ came into common usage. Today a luxury offering can take many forms, and while the architecture may offer more elements that are bright and shiny relative to a manufacturer’s mainstream offerings, increasingly a luxury model is devoid of exterior flourishes, preferring to go about its business with subtlety rather than ostentation. Classic examples include recent offerings from Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Mercedes. All three feature the traditional grille, but beyond that – and, of course, the extended footprint – there’s little to suggest their six-figure price tags. Most of that is spent inside.

Interior – Whether a manufacturer is attempting to sell you luxury or near luxury, if they don’t nail the interior appointments they’ll miss the market – and buyer – completely. And interior comfort comprises many components, from noise isolation to seat support to dash and door plastics to the selection of interior trims. Audi is notable for its attention to colors and materials, while General Motors has historically gone to the corporate parts bin when equipping Cadillac and Buick. Thankfully, since GM’s reorganization that is changing; even Chevy’s Corvette comes with an interior appropriate to the price point.

Of course, technology plays a significant role in any interior menu, and luxury models typically offer tech enhancements, either within the standard equipment menu or as an option or option package.  Whether an audio improvement, enhanced navigation or a suite of safety upgrades, if someone makes it a luxury car, truck or SUV will probably offer it.

Powertrains – The very fluid definition of luxury provides a significantly varied selection of drivetrains. And not even Rolls-Royce gets away with an ‘adequate’ descriptive – as it once did – when discussing horsepower. In this category, which is probably north of $50,000, size still matters, and the number of luxury cars credibly offering but four cylinders is still small, but advanced tech is providing luxury horsepower from engines not typically associated with luxury brands. Both BMW and Mercedes-Benz use turbocharged fours in place of normally aspirated sixes, and when using sixes they are often turbocharged and supplanting V8s. For those still regarding ‘less’ as ‘less’, a handful of OEMs still package twelve cylinders under their longish hoods, but twelve cylinders – given their inherent complexity and relative thirst – are probably not a sustainable business model; in short, get ‘em while you can! And in stark contrast to the 12-cylinders offered in upscale sedans and GTs, consider Tesla’s Model S: all-electric, with a timeless exterior design, high-tech interior spec and 200+ miles of all-electric range.

Safety – With their higher price points and a (typically) leading-edge take on design, it’s no surprise that luxury offerings are – at least since World War II – at the forefront of safety design.  It begins in the structure, continues with the powertrain and suspension, and wraps with what you can add to enhance both active and passive safety. Mercedes-Benz has long been at the forefront of safe design, and whether by governmental mandate or market demand most luxury manufacturers have followed. Today’s Mercedes-Benz E300 offers an entire suite of safety enhancements, and many are completely new to an automotive showroom.  As Mercedes-Benz describes it, M-B’s Drive Pilot ‘takes intelligent cruise control in a new direction: sideways. It can stop and go with the flow, and help you stay between the lines, even in curves. And now you can change lanes with just a touch of the turn-signal lever’. And Pre-Safe, if sensing a side impact, rapidly inflates the front seat bolster in order to move the driver or front seat passenger further away from the intrusion of a side impact. Finally, most safety initiatives we now see in mainstream vehicles probably began their consumer lives within luxury platforms. These include, but are not limited to, blind spot warning, lane change monitoring and adaptive cruise control.

Technology – Today, if a manufacturer opts for an introduction at a major auto show the offering is more typically devoted to newly-introduced technology within the product than the outside sheetmetal or under-the-hood enhancements.   Of course, automotive technology can take many forms, including those intended to improve safety, efficiency, connectivity or entertainment. With its Tech of the Year Award in 2016, Autoblog recognized Apple CarPlay for its user-friendliness and “overall impact on bringing our connected lives into the car.” If you’re an iPhone user, the control of apps is done via a familiar interface on an infotainment screen while adding features that weren’t originally installed at the factory. Android Auto was second in the voting, delivering to the user essentially the same capabilities via Google’s phone OS.

With automotive technology’s trickle down, you can expect in-car WiFi to enjoy greater availability, and its integration into a ‘media hub’ increasingly common. Optional parking assist, available from an increasing number of manufacturers, will park the car for you. Rearview cameras are the norm, and 360-degree cameras are increasingly available on both luxury and more moderately priced cars.