Saturday, September 07, 2013

Premium Style (...cars)

This is going to be a hard hitting piece, nothing held back on this subject of great importance. I want to talk about the style and design of high end sedans. I know, I know, rarely does anyone even dare to tread into these waters, but I am not afraid!

All kidding aside this is a fluff piece I'll admit. The thing is, in this part of America we are smack in the middle of our second season. Season one being winter, which ran 9 months this year, and the other being road construction season. So I have been stuck in traffic and therefore left with plenty of time to admire nice cars.

The cars that really catch my eye are usually premium luxury sedans and of course sleek, low slung, 2 door sports cars. I am going to focus on the last few model years of premium sedans here. I'll key on the aesthetics, my visceral reaction to the style and form of the visual package as seen on American roads.

The Europeans:
By far the lion's share of European sedans on American roads are the BMWs. These are beautiful cars, and only getting better as the years go by. I particularly like the 3 and 5 series. There is something to be said about the tradition of the styling cues that BMW honors. There is no mistaking these cars from any other. In the past few years the visual sleekness and streamlining of the look has only enhanced my appreciation. Clearly other car makers pick up on some of these cues and incorporate them in their own premium sedans. These are the gold standard for style and class in this market segment.

On the downside it can be confusing trying to distinguish one model line from the other or telling if it's a BMW or a pretender from a distance. A small downside really. That these are supremely competent cars on the road only adds to the instant admiration I have for these cars. The other downside is that there are thousands of them, they are everywhere you look, a dime a dozen if you will. Reliability studies put these cars above average.

Mercedes also relies on the tradition of unique styling cues that date back decades. It's another model that is instantly recognizable. Less popular on American roads than the BMW's these are nearly as eye catching - easily recognizable for many decades. The newer model year sedans are precise works in form and function. On the E-Class the only thing that detracts in my opinion is the front "scoop" below the grill that is too much of a gaping maw. It could have been toned down a bit.

Like the BMW's the C-Class and E-Class are stylistic twins, sometimes making it hard to distinguish between the two at a glance. The Mercedes is a pleasure to look at from all angles and this is not always true of premium sedans. The larger models in years past have been yawners, but the late model S-Class is about as non-stodgy as you get. Mercedes has always meant competent luxury, and in years past they wouldn't have won any awards for "style" but in the last few model years they've stepped it up quite a bit. Reliability studies put these cars well above average.

Audis have never impressed my stylistically - that is  - until now. The older plain Jane A4's and A6's have been absolute yawners, this while some of the Audi sports models have been real eye catchers. The newest versions of the A4 and A6 are a real pleasure to look at. Except for overall size it's really hard to tell which is which. The subtle differences need to be less subtle. That said, with these newer models we see some satisfying creases in the sheet metal where there were none before. In years past I would not have given an Audi a second look. I will now.

The upline models - the A7 and A8 are stretched out an decked out, definitely eye catchers. They are pretty rare in these parts. Their prices are rarefied too, like the higher end of any of the European brands. I'm still not blown away or even instantly attracted to Audis, but they are getting better every year. They are top performers when pushed, on par with their German counterparts and reliability studies put these cars above average.

Volvo... What can I say about Volvo, except that I've always hated them. They were ugly, uninspiring boxes. Did I say were? Indeed. Like the Audi's I've have been drawn to Volvo in recent model years - finally. I've always heard they were really good cars. And expensive cars, which only made my disdain all that much higher. Who would pay premium dollars for that wart?

These are not common cars around here particularly the S80, but like the other new models the S80 designers have rounded some of the box-like creases to make for a unique yet instantly recognizable sedan when you do see one. The tail light treatment is the first thing I reacted to. The rest of the car still says Volvo and while that used to be a turn-off  I find myself looking in the rear-view as I pass one to get a glimpse of the car from all angles. Reliability studies put these cars above average.

Jaguar. These may no longer be purely European having been bought by Tata Motors of India for
around $2.8 billion back in 2008 it still belongs in the European sphere of influence. I have always had a love for the Jaguar's style. In the past few model years the sedans have been  visually stunning head turners. These are very expensive cars and we don't see a lot of them around here so when we do it's a real treat. The XF and XJ models are truly beautiful. I'm not as pleased with the tail lights on the 2013 XJ as I am the rest of the car, preferring the more traditional tail lights on the XF.

There was a decade or more in the twentieth century that Jaguars were dismissed in both style and function, they were terrible cars, but all that has changed. With the new F-Type (not a sedan) they've crossed a threshold in style - the F-Type is drop dead gorgeous. Reliability studies put these cars just above average.

Honorable Mentions: Volkwagen CC - is a very sleek and beautiful car,  clearly built off one of Audi's upline models. Maserati - these cars are so rare and expensive (and beautiful) they are in another league altogether. Rolls Royce and Bentley - ditto. Porsche - I know they make some 4 door cars, but no matter, I have never liked Porsche's visual style, they just don't do it for me.

The Americans:
For Americans one name has always been synonymous with luxury and that was Cadillac. At times this reputation was well deserved and at others certainly not. Cadillac rivaled Jaguar for spiraling down to near joke status during the later part of the twentieth century. But a theme that continues across the Atlantic, things have changed for the better. For full disclosure I own a 2nd gen CTS that I really love.


Crawling back up from the depths of the Cimmaron, Cadillac turned the corner in the early 2000's with the introduction of the CTS and it's new highly cleaved styling cues that set it apart from all the other high end sedans. Along with the 2nd generation CTS the entire lineup has received the same sleek angular treatment. In 2013 the ATS and XTS were introduced. The ATS is a smaller more nimble and quicker car, by all accounts this car will go toe to toe with it's 3-Series, E-Class and A4 counterparts. The XTS is to fill out the larger segment previously filled by the DeVille and the DTS. I'm not as enamored with the overall look of the XTS, though I'm not sure why since I love the way CTS and ATS look. As I said I am partial to the new look Cadillacs. Reliability studies put these cars above average.

Lincoln... Ever since they re-badged the entire Lincoln line-up with the MK moniker I have taken notice. Previously I had dismissed Lincoln along with older Cadillacs as land yachts. The current model year has seen the introduction of the new MKZ. It's a stunning to look at. I love the backend treatment especially. This car is sleek and classy, it screams luxury and performance. I had really liked the previous version and in particular the vertical grille slats and wasn't sure about the horizontal slats on the new model, but they're growing on me.

The MKS is the upline model. Built on Taurus platform it unfortunately resembles it's cousin a little too much. Its not to say either is bad, the MKS is also a great looking car, but you instantly know there's a Taurus in there. It sits up high in the rear exactly like the Taurus. There is a nice family resemblance with the MKZ. It remains to be seen if Lincoln will stretch this new look across all models consistently, one certainly hopes so.

Lincoln (and Ford) is really making some of the best looking cars in America now. Gone are the land yachts of yesterday as new day has dawned for American premium sedans, Lincoln has arrived. Reliability studies put these cars well above average.

Honorable Mentions: Buick - is producing very, very beautiful cars - finally, I've truly hated the Buick look until about 3 years ago. These cars have been at or near the top of reliability for years and years and yet until recently I wouldn't have touch one with a 10 foot pole. Chrysler - I literally wouldn't touch a Chrysler with your ten foot pole. The 300 is all right to look at, but I can't get past the Chrysler name. I will take a few more years of Fiat era successes to rinse off the stench left by previous owners Daimler-Benz AG and Cerberus Capital Management. Tesla - Not enough real world exposure to their sedan for me to even have an opinion.

The Japanese: (Asia)
This is the car line that forced all manufacturers to step up their games. If Lexus hadn't come
around it's likely Cadillac and Jaguar would still be jokes, and BMW. Mercedes and Audi would be resting on their laurels. Lexus changed all that. They did it by building phenomenally good cars. I thought the first generation Lexus line-up were ho-hummers, nothing get excited about - dull actually. Over the years that has changed dramatically. By 2011 the IS and ES lines were sharp and sleek. I really liked the look of the IS-250, IS-350 and the ES-350. True, I see a bit of BMW in these sedans but they differ enough that they are unmistakably Lexus.

In 2013-14 they adopted a new look front clip that I don't like. They sort made the grill/front scoop area look like a kind of hour glass with the scoop being over-pronounced. There needs to be some visual separation between the grill and the scoop in my opinion. On some models they've even ringed it with a chrome strip making it look even more unbalanced. I find the front clip detracts from the overall picture. I hope in years to come they tone it down up there. The rest of the car is a beautiful, flowing statement right to the excellent tail-end treatment. Reliability studies put these cars well above average almost in a class of there own.



Acura. What happened to Acura? When this line came out as Honda's response to Toyota's Lexus I loved the look of these cars instantly. They just had such a smart, well balanced look to them. They always seemed a bit smallish to me, but they had an understated appealing style and flair. I really loved the older TL line. The last three model years I'm sorry to say are atrocious.The front clip on the  entire Acura line bugs me, the grill is like a hyper-chromed overbearing beaver tooth. The whole car looks like it was designed by committee, maybe several committees. The rear clip on one of the recent model years had the taillights severely angled in such a way it looked out of place with the rest of the lines, it actually would have looked pleasing set at a horizontal or slightly angled orientation. Acura has gone for a highly cleaved angular look, but unlike Cadillac they've failed to pull it off.

Four or five years back I was admiring every Acura that passed me on the highway and got me believing Acura gets it. Now I actually cringe. For years the Pontiac Aztek took the prize as the ugliest car on the road - thankfully that car has been put out of it's misery. That prize now goes to the Acura ZDX. Oddly there is a passing resemblance between the Aztec and the ZDX. Reliability studies put these cars well above average.


Infiniti. In Infiniti I have an almost mirror image of my feelings about Acura. Infiniti impresses! When these cars first appeared on the scene I thought they were plain and completely uninspiring. Lately as I pass a new Infiniti I am doing a double take. I ask myself was that a Jaguar? I slow down and look it over only to find it was an Infiniti. The M-Series sedan is stunning. I find I really like the G-Series coupes, but I like the sedans well enough too.
The smooth flowing lines of the M-Series allow the eye to follow from fender to fender without breaking concentration. There is subtle grace with the way these cars come together that really attracts my attention again and again. I am developing a quiet admiration for Infiniti, not unlike my fond feelings for Audi these days. Everywhere Acura went wrong in style Infiniti went right. Infiniti gets it! Reliability studies put these cars well above average.

 Honorable Mentions: Hyundai and Kia - not marketed as luxury lines each of the Koreans offers a premium luxury sedan. The Genesis by Hyundai is a beautiful car, not as striking as the Lexus or Infiniti but very well done indeed. Hyundai's Sonata is a smooth looker as well. Kia has a new premium luxury sedan called the Cadenza that I have only seen in commercials, so I have no real world looks at this car - which looks rather nice actually.

There you have it, my take on the premium sedans that zip past me - or I see in my rear-view...




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