There is a new challenge coming up on the horizon for automotive manufacturers especially those in the luxury car business. The challenge is to continue retaining the luxury status in the face of a world where the concept of luxury is reaching wider proportions than before.
Several decades back when people were still riding around in horse carriages and carts, a car itself was considered a luxury in most parts of the world. In India that concept lasted until the '80s when Maruti came out with the 800 and changed forever the notion that a car could only be owned by certain strata of society.
Fast forward to the '90s and you would find it hard to believe that features such as air-conditioning, power windows and power steering were considered luxury items. In those days, an S-Class was uber-luxury, tempered in the same furnaces as a Rolls-Royce. Of course that status hasn't changed but what has changed in the 2000s is that air-conditioning, power windows and power steering are standard features on almost every model available in India, no questions asked. Automatic transmissions too are now coming closer than ever to the common man. Just a few years ago an automatic was something only the rich wanted or could afford. Only the globally well travelled knew the benefits of using an automatic. Of course just the fact they were travelling abroad also meant they had the means to afford an automatic with its lower fuel efficiency and higher ownership and maintenance costs.
2010 onwards manufacturers are pushing the envelope several steps further. Automatics for one are more common than ever. But it's not just the gears that are turning this industry on its head but the proximity to more advanced features that enhance performance, luxury and safety. Everyday cars we drive have better access to airbags and ABS. We are seeing more traction control systems getting to be commonplace. Thanks to turbocharging, more power is now at our disposal in the shape of small displacement 4-cylinder engines. Air-conditioners are replaced by climate control, radios by ten-speaker 100-DIN million points of connectivity audio visual systems. Ordinary seats have given way to ventilated leather coated ones, glove boxes to cooled storage areas, instrument consoles have been taken over by multi information display units and the wife by a satellite navigation system which of course won't talk back to you, comment on your driving or give you sarcasm for hanging a left instead of a right! So much of what was considered luxury just a few years ago is now pass. In these times it's pretty normal for almost everyone walking into a showroom to first enquire about the base model and walk out purchasing what's top of the line.
Which brings me back to the point of how in the next decade are luxury manufacturers going to differentiate luxury. There was a time when you just looked at a car on the outside and compartmentalised it into luxury or non-luxury. That segregation is no longer possible with cheaper cars looking like a million bucks. Nowadays even the way a door shuts, which we motoring scribes love to describe as the 'thud' is almost the same whether you paid 5 or 50 lakh for it. If you look closely at the specification sheets of cars you will almost certainly notice how several more affordable cars are sometimes better equipped than what we consider luxury cars.
There was even a day when luxury meant a richer and more pristine ownership experience. But even there, dare I say it, there are certain budget car manufacturers that offer some of the best experiences.
So is the gap closing? You'd be blind not to see it diminishing rapidly and that is the challenge for luxury car makers. How do you keep luxury relevant and sacrosanct?
Pedigree could be one way of defining luxury. How long has the manufacturer been building cars? Did they always cater to a more elite class? Technology can be another definer. Do the injectors in your car spray fuel through a 5-micron nozzle or a 10-micron one? When the ABS kicks in will the seatbelts reign your body in and will the hazard lamps switch on? When you switch off for the night will the wing mirrors tuck themselves in so that the drunks don't knock them off as they stagger home?
Luxury might also be denoted by the powertrains you use. Fossil fuels or electric, hybrid and fuel cells? Or by the construction of the body shell. Steel, aluminum or carbon fibre? Will an SUV just crawl over rock, sand, mud and ice or will the future also provide aerial and aquatic abilities?
Honestly I don't have the answers but I can tell it's going to be very interesting to find out what the future unfolds. Because come what may, the purveyors of luxury will always find a way to keep themselves aloof from the gentry.