Four Ways Mainstream Vehicles Top Luxury Models

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Tell us if you understand why luxury car makers do these dumb things.

This story was already tee’d up before Consumer Reports called the Lexus NX200t a “Worst Car to Buy.”  However, the Consumer Reports slam hit on two of the four key areas that automakers are making their mainstream models better than their premium and luxury models.  Consumer Reports called out the NX200t crossover for its “firm, jostling ride.”  The publication also said the NX200t’s “infotainment system’s touchpad is challenging to manipulate while driving.”  In two short sentences, CR pointed out why this high-priced version of the Toyota RAV4 was inferior in two keys ways to the less expensive crossover made by the same company.

Having now tested and test-driven hundreds of new cars, it has become apparent to this writer that automakers are trying too hard to make the more expensive brands and models they build stand apart from their mainstream, less expensive ones.  Here in order of the worst violations are the four ways they do this:

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Infotainment Systems with Mice or MMIs

Consumer Reports is not the only one noticing that if the system in our dashboard is so complex we need a mouse, track-pad, or man-machine interface (MMI) rotary knob, maybe that system should be simpler.  We used to pretend that our passenger was the one who needed to access all that important information, but with smart-phones continuing to outpace the usefulness of our in-dash infotainment any passenger looking for something is going to use her phone first.  That leaves the driver as the one who is tempted to be mousing their way to new unexplored satellite radio channels and inputting address or other requests while they are supposed to be looking at the road.

The only purpose of a mouse, track-pad, or rotary knob is to aim a pointer at an image on a screen.  That means you are not just looking away from the road, but manipulating a device other than the wheel while doing so.  Let’s stop the madness.  Having tested a VW Golf GTI and an Audi Q3 back-to-back this month, the Golf’s touch-screen was more than sophisticated enough to handle all my high-tech desires, yet far simpler to operate.  The same is true of the Lexus NX200t and Toyota RAV 4 comparison.  Mazda may have the answer.  Most of its systems have an MMI just like the Audi system, but the screen can also be touched.  Ironically, the screen can only be touched while parked, but the MMI can be fiddled with while moving.  Reverse that, and we many have the perfect in-dash solution.

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Low Profile Tires

Hash rides are often not a result of a vehicle’s chassis or suspension.  Many are just fine in their base trims.  However, then the automakers try to tart up the look of the model’s higher-priced trims with larger-diameter wheels shod with lower-profile rubber.  This mistake by automakers is not limited to differences in brands either.  Many base models we have driven at media launch events drive better on their smaller rims and taller profile tires than the “upgraded” trims.  This trend is worse when the automaker takes a model from its mainstream brand, then polishes it up for sale as one of its premium brands’ models.  Of course the premium version must have bigger wheels than the mainstream model’s top-trim.  The ride gets harsher still with little real-world benefits to handling.

The problem is not limited to ride quality either.  This past winter the one tire I destroyed was on a European crossover that its maker advertises with images of it blasting through wooded trails in deep snow.  I damaged its low-profile tire driving at a walking pace in a slushy parking lot.


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Premium Fuel

We as enthusiasts and car owners need to stop pretending there is any benefit to using premium fuel in our daily drivers.  Ford and Hyundai have some of the best, most lag-free small turbo engines in the industry, and they use regular unleaded.  We as buyers tend to look too closely at the EPA fuel economy numbers, and not closely enough at the cost per mile.  Premium can add 15% or more to the cost of operating a car.  Automakers need to stop the mystery and rate all their cars for use with regular unleaded, as most mainstream brands already do.  If there are any fuel economy benefits or performance benefits to using a higher grade fuel, let them publish those numbers as well.

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Carpeted Cargo Areas

Most of the premium crossovers I test have carpeted cargo areas.  These same vehicles are advertised as outdoor enthusiasts’ dream rides.  Carpet makes no sense in a cargo area.  It is slippery, so your stuff slides around.  If you transport anything wet, it is going to absorb that liquid and stain or smell.  Some premium SUVs I have tested even used cream-colored carpet in the cargo space.  The everyday Subaru Outback should be the model for all crossover cargo areas.  A thick, rubber, high-friction mat is standard.  It can easily be removed and shaken out or wiped clean.  If automakers feel a need to put carpet back there, do what Toyota did long ago on its original Highlander: make one side of the of the cargo area mat carpet, and the other waterproof rubber.  Let the owner decide what they want.


*Consumer Reports Worst Car To Buy List

Photography by John Goreham