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August 24, 2021

Luxury vs. mass-market vehicles: Is there really a difference?

David Vanamburg

The shine surrounding luxury vehicles has all but vanished.

According to our recent Automobile Study, customer satisfaction slid another 1% to an ACSI score of 78 following a 4% loss last year. The luxury segment now stands just one point ahead of mass-market manufacturers, steady at 77.

Luxury automakers’ satisfaction advantage over their mass-market counterparts has been dissipating over the years. It’s all but vanished lately – and now, the line between the two segments is blurrier than ever.

Which begs the question: What is luxury anymore?

The changing perception of luxury vehicles 

The widespread belief has been that luxury cars weren’t just fancy; they were also better made. But the idea that luxury equals a superior ride doesn’t necessarily hold up anymore.

In terms of customer experience, luxury and mass-market vehicles rate the same for dependability (81), driving performance (81), gas mileage (76), and, even, vehicle safety (82).

As for the attractive features that typically set luxury vehicles apart, they don’t have the same impact they once did.

Customers agree that luxury cars outshine mass-market vehicles in terms of interior (82 to 80), comfort (82 to 80), and technology (80 to 77). But the gap in each of these categories is smaller than the previous year. And the slight advantages aren’t enough to give luxury manufacturers a leg up overall.

In another surprise twist, luxury manufacturers can no longer point to their vehicles’ “look” and “overall style” as differentiators. After slipping 2% year over year, luxury falls into a tie with mass-market vehicles for exterior at 81.

The fluidity of the auto industry

Last year, we pointed out that luxury vehicles were losing their luster in satisfaction. However, now we’re seeing that it’s less about the luxury segment falling by the wayside and more about the fluidity that exists in the auto industry.

Manufacturers are altering the look and feel of certain vehicles to exude higher quality.

Honda’s 2022 Civic Sedan, for example, boasts a cleaner exterior, a streamlined interior, and more tech features. The automaker, as it were, now sits atop all automobiles and light vehicles after surging 4% to a score of 82.

Honda isn’t the only mass-market manufacturer making strides this year. Subaru (up 3% to 81), Hyundai (up 4% to 79), Dodge (up 4% to 78), and Ford (up 3% to 78) all show relatively strong gains year over year.

Mass-market vehicles used to be the bare-bones option to get you from point A to point B, with flashy features only reserved for the luxury class. Now, mass-market manufacturers offer a range of add-ons to rival any high-end vehicle. You might not get all the bells and whistles, but with accessories like touchscreen controls, Bluetooth pairing, rearview cameras, and blind spot detection, you could beef up a car with a lower base price to feel more luxurious.

Room for improvement in autos

Luxury versus mass-market. It’s easy to distinguish them based on name recognition. BMW, Lexus, and Audi evoke a certain image compared to Honda, Subaru, and Ram.

Yet, the flashier components – interior, exterior, technology – no longer give luxury vehicles a significant edge. And in terms of basics like dependability, drivability, and vehicle safety, the gap between luxury and mass-market has disappeared.

That doesn’t mean, however, that customers are totally satisfied with their vehicles. This is most evident when looking at warranties and gas mileage. Mass-market manufacturers score 76 for both, while luxury automakers score 78 and 76, respectively.

The fluidity in the industry has led to a neck-and-neck race between mass-market and luxury vehicles. It’ll be interesting to see what factors lead to one – if any – breaking away in the years to come.

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