But according to users of question and answer community Quora.com, it is the intangible benefits that luxury cars confer that truly set them apart.
Going the extra mile
Andy Lemke didn’t mince words, writing that the difference between luxury and non-luxury vehicles “is nil if you don't care". And who’s to argue with that logic? A car that travels safely and smoothly from A to B is a car that delivers on the promise of personal transport. But for Lemke, drivers who enjoy being treated a certain way, particularly at the dealership, happily pay the premium.
"One key difference which I appreciate is the service department and service itself,” he wrote. “Most people don't think of this when shopping because they're purely comparing the vehicles."
Valet parking at the service centre was one such perk, as were private workrooms, special play areas for clients’ children and free car washes, among other benefits. "When you get a luxury car, you get luxury service as well. It is a world of difference," he said.
The industry forecasting and analysis firm JD Power & Associates tracks how well luxury dealers handle customer service after the initial purchase, and in a 2014 survey, Cadillac commanded the top spot in the US, with Audi following closely behind.
Status with a capital ‘S’
There are other post-purchase benefits beyond superior customer service. Gary Payton thinks the social reward is part of a luxury brand's allure.
"We're cultured [and] programmed to just feel better when we have some sort of badge of distinction,” he wrote, “and all the psycho-social and cultural goodies that are attached to said badge."
Mark Harrison noted that driving some luxury cars has earned him more civilised – even deferential – treatment from fellow motorists. "The Morgans are the ones that produce an amazingly positive response," he said, noting the quirky century-old British marque. Harrison claims to have driven Jaguars and Bentleys as well, but people have been more inclined to let him pull out in front when he drives his Morgan.
Aside from the preferential traffic treatment, Harrison noted that in France, it was not unusual for 30 or 40 people to approach him and compliment his choice of car, telling him, "Belle voiture, monsieur."
Perception is slippery
Not everyone is convinced of these intangible benefits, though. Tatiana Estévez wrote of the perceived value of luxury cars, whether merited or not. A graphic designer, she cited a luxury car's purportedly superior aesthetics. "From a purely visual point of view, one shape is not better (or even more interesting) than another." Rather, one’s visual appreciation of a car has more to do with its scarcity, relative to other machines on the road. “We are more likely to add value to a triangle if we have 100 squares at £1 and 10 triangles at £10 each,” she wrote.
Furthermore, the language employed by marketers, salespeople and – yes – automotive writers to describe these brands and their products can impact perception, irrespective of design. "The cheaper cars are usually marketed as 'budget', 'family' and 'value'; these are not very 'interesting' adjectives compared to the words you'd use for a Ferrari," she said.
Not all luxury marques succeed in their efforts to project a premium feel, though. A 2014 brand perception survey produced by the US magazine Consumer Reports indicated that five out of the top 10 worst-perceived brands were luxury automakers.
But some Quora users believe luxury branding works quite well. "The companies pay a lot of money to influence the public and the press as to the greatness of this car," James Finley wrote. "People buy these premium brands to feel good and stand out from the crowd."
From social perception and superior customer service to the occasional nod of approval from fellow motorists, some drivers will always perceive value in luxury vehicles beyond their engineering or aesthetic features – just don't expect anyone to let you out in traffic with anything less than a Morgan 3 Wheeler.
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