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Car Buying

Are Luxury Cars Just "More Expensive" Mainstream Models?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro

If you've talked with enough other car owners about luxury cars, you've probably heard the old argument that luxury vehicles aren't worth the money because they're just dressed-up versions of regular models. Some people say that Lexus models are just more expensive Toyotas, for example, or that Audi vehicles are just pricey Volkswagens. Is this true? We have the answer.

Sometimes It's True

One thing is clear: It has been true in the past. If we look at some brands, such as Buick, Lincoln, Mercury and some early Infiniti and Lexus models (we're thinking Lexus ES 250 and Infinti M30) from the 1980s, some of their models were obviously just regular cars with leather seats and some new logos thrown on. Even today, there's no doubt that certain luxury vehicles really are just gussied-up versions of mainstream models. The Lincoln Navigator, for instance, shares many parts, inside and out, with its mainstream cousin, the Ford Expedition. The simple reality, however, is that this type of badge engineering is mostly a thing of the past. In today's world, shoppers interested in luxury cars typically expect their vehicles to offer major improvements or updates from mainstream models, and they usually do.

What's the Difference?

What's the primary difference between most luxury cars and mainstream models? There are a few big ways that automakers distinguish their standard vehicles from their high-end offerings.

One easy way to distinguish the two is bodywork or compelling design. The Lexus ES sedan, for instance, uses the same chassis and many of the same mechanical components as the Toyota Avalon, but it's styled very differently. As a result, it's unlikely that you'd ever know the two are related. Additionally, the Lexus might offer a slightly bolder or more premium look than the Toyota in order to entice shoppers to spend more money.

Another way automakers can distinguish their luxury and mainstream cars is differences in ride quality and harshness engineering. Luxury models will usually ride better than mainstream models, and you'll get less wind noise and tire noise when you're on the road. Automakers spend more money developing suspension components in luxury models, and luxury cars usually carry extra sound-deadening materials to keep their interiors quieter. For years, Buick has used double-thick glass in key areas to keep interior noise down.

Luxury models may also offer different features from mainstream vehicles. For instance, while two cars may use the same chassis and engine, the luxury model might offer an automatic parallel parking system or a panoramic sunroof not available on the mainstream version. Such differences help shoppers see the value in spending extra money to get the luxury model.

Luxury cars often boast improved engines with more power than standard models. A good example is the Lincoln MKZ, a midsize luxury sedan based on the Ford Fusion. While the Fusion only offers 4-cylinder engines, the MKZ is also available with a potent 3.7-liter V6 -- a powerplant that adds extra muscle for shoppers interested in spending more money for the luxury version.

Our Take: Luxury Is Different

In most cases, the days of adding leather and changing the emblems are over. Instead, we suspect that most car shoppers will find big differences between the mainstream version and the luxury model, proving that high-end vehicles offer a lot more than just a more expensive take on an everyday car.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.