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Picture a vehicle that’s "comfort-focused" and comes with heated and cooled leather seats, a premium audio system, a suspension "that glides over most rough road surfaces" and a cabin so quiet that "you never need to raise your voice to talk."
Now picture an "opulent" vehicle that coddles its owner with a hand-stitched leather interior, "top-notch interior trim finishes" and "myriad amenities like heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel."
If you’re like most people, you probably conjured images from a short list of brands that have well-earned reputations: Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, Cadillac and Porsche, among others.
However, the first description was compiled from reviews of a sedan associated more with solid transportation at a popular price, the Kia Cadenza. The second is a list of the attributes of today’s finest pickups.
These days, the definition of "luxury" is hard to pin down. Some reviewers say it depends on how far beyond "the basics" a vehicle goes. Others say it’s not enough for a luxury vehicle to be nice; it has to pamper you. Others still say it all comes down to price, although they frequently add that however much more you pay is darn well worth it.
Finally, some suggest that a luxury car is one that makes people say, "There goes someone who’s really made it."
Autotrader.com Executive Editor Brian Moody says luxury "is about pleasing the senses" – which the familiar luxury automakers do well. Still, he asks, "Can a company like Kia, known primarily for economy cars, build a luxury car? You’d say no if your definition of luxury is primarily based on branding. But, if you define luxury as attractive, high-quality and pleasing to the senses, then yes, Kia can build a luxury car."
And that car, he says, is the Cadenza.
Don Kramer, general manager at Rosen Nissan Kia of Milwaukee, says there’s no question that the top top-of-the-line Cadenza Limited – Edmunds.com’s number one ranked large sedan for 2019 – is a luxury car. If you do question it, though, he suggests test driving one.
"It compares to traditional luxury cars," he says. "People buy Cadenza for the ride and the equipment, but price is definitely a factor. Some comparable vehicles cost $30,000 more."
According to online sources, a base Cadenza starts at $33,000, while the Limited starts at $44,000 with what reviewers agree is an impressive array of premium features.
Autotrader’s Moody notes that if you add enough features, almost any vehicle can be considered luxurious – including the top-of-the-line Touring Elite version of at least one minivan, the Honda Odyssey.
"If you can accept that one brand can sell everything from a budget friendly fuel-sipper to a high-performance coupe or luxury sedan," he says, "it might change the way you shop for a new car."
People who sell mainstream and upscale models will tell you as much, too.
"Usually someone who’s looking at Cadillacs isn’t comparing them to Chevys," says Jason Sadowski, sales consultant for Kunes Country Chevrolet Cadillac of Elkhorn. "There is a difference in style, comfort and ride."
Still, he says that General Motors uses similar platforms across its product line, so you can get a sedan, SUV, crossover or pickup that seems quite luxurious after piling on the options. "You can get on a GMC Sierra or Chevy Silverado pretty much everything you get with a Cadillac," he says.
Joe Malinowski, pre-owned sales manager for Uptown Ford Lincoln of Wauwatosa, says that while some drivers will notice – and appreciate – differences that make Lincolns seem and feel deluxe, "you can spec out a Ford with all the stuff that a Lincoln comes with and pay less."
That’s fine for SUVs, but if you’re in a luxury pickup state of mind, Malinowski says the King Ranch, Lariat and Platinum versions of the F-150 are as nice as any American, European, Japanese or Korean luxury sedan or SUV.
"People are drawn to these because you can drive six people in comfort and style one day," he says, "and the next day haul your boat to the lake."
Want to drive a luxury car like a CEO on a middle-management budget? Here are some things to consider.
- "Many luxury cars that are, at their core, premium versions of more standard cars," says US News automotive reviewer Chris Tonn. That means that while you can load options onto a Toyota Camry, the Lexus EX350 offers more "high-end" options, such as real wood trim, opulent leather seats and a Mark Levinson audio system. "This gives bargain hunters an opportunity," Tonn writes. "If the supple leather and wood trim are not as critical to you as a low monthly payment, you might be best served at the Toyota dealership."
- Angie’s List notes that luxury brands are building lower-cost vehicles like the Mercedes CLA and GLA, Lexus CT200H and BMW i3 "to reach out to previous non-luxury vehicle owners, while "non-luxury brands are building vehicles that feel luxurious with upscale interiors," including the Toyota Avalon, Kia K900 and Cadenza, Nissan Murano, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Mazda CX-9.
- US News reviewer Cherise Threewitt recommends considering pre-owned traditional luxury vehicles, such as the Lexus RX, ("drives more like a car than an SUV"), BMW X3 ("a popular choice for shoppers who want a sporty, powerful and exciting compact luxury SUV"), Acura RDX ("spacious and quiet interior"), Cadillac Escalade ("imposing and impressive"), Audi Q5 ("good balance between driver enjoyment and passenger comfort"), Lincoln MKX ("mature, elegant exterior styling") and Porsche Cayenne ("offered in a number of trim levels with a variety of high-performance engines").
- Forbes contributor Jim Gorzelany says some of the more luxurious pickups include the western-themed Ford F-150 King Ranch and "the dressier" Limited and Platinum trim levels, Chevrolet’s Silverado 1500 High Country, GMCs Sierra 1500 Denali, Ram 1500’s "rugged-yet-plush Laramie, Laramie Longhorn and Limited," Toyota Tundra 1794 edition and Nissan’s Titan Crew Cab Platinum Reserve and XD Crew Cab Platinum Reserve.