The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

5 August 2006

Waiting 'round the Benz

Julie Bisbee reports in the Oklahoman:

As Oklahoma's per capita income grows, consumer's tastes are getting a little richer. Luxury car dealers in the metro area are seeing an increase in interest in their cars, and dealerships are adding more lines to appeal to consumers who are willing to plunk down more than $20,000 for a car.

I, of course, roared at this. Last time I went shopping for a new car, I bought a distinctly non-luxe make in the lowest trim level offered, and the sticker was just over twenty grand, and that was six years ago. The average price for a new car varies with who's doing the figuring: guesses about $27,800, while Car and Driver will not give a "10Best" award to any vehicle costing more than 2.5 times the average, and their cutoff for 2006 was $71,000, which implies an average of $28,400. But even allowing for the fact that most cars (Saturns excepted) are sold at a smidgen below sticker, you'd have to get quite a bit over $20k to get into anything legitimately describable as a "luxury" car.

Inasmuch as I drive an Infiniti these days, I looked at the very bottom of their product line, and I find the G35 sedan with a six-speed stick sells for $31,200; with a five-speed automatic, $31,450. With the cheaper of the two Premium Packages, the wheel/suspension upgrade, and a trunk mat, the price tag rises to $36,280. (This is not that excruciating a price, I suppose; Gwendolyn's sticker, with fewer options, was over $30k, and she's six years old.)

Since one of Ms Bisbee's points was the acquisition of the local Saab franchise by Bob Moore, I went looking for Saab prices, and the 9-2X wagon starts out at a mere $22,990, though most of them, I suspect, are sold with automatic transmissions, which pushes the price to $24,240. And I suspect rather a lot are trimmed to Aero levels, which is four grand higher, knocking on the $30k door.

There remains, of course, the question of what makes a given model, other than mere branding, a "luxury" car in the first place. My own definition calls for higher-than-average performance and greater-than-average creature comforts, though I'd hate to have to quantify the average for either characteristic. For some people, anything other than the barest Point A-to-Point B device might be over the luxury threshold. Consumer Reports, perhaps not wishing to get involved in discussions of this sort, has adopted the term "upscale" for these vehicles.

And a thought experiment comes to mind. Right now, Toyota's "halo" car is the hybrid Prius, which is in sufficient demand to sell at sticker or above. If you ordered everything possible on a Prius, you'd get the sticker up to $30k or thereabouts. Could the Lexus folks jazz these up enough to justify a $35-40k price tag? I'm thinking they could, if only because Lexus customer service is widely considered to be an order of magnitude better than what you'd get from a Toyota store, and maybe that's a "luxury" in itself.

Posted at 3:24 PM to Driver's Seat