Why We Crave Luxury Cars.

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Why We Crave Luxury Cars.

Way back in the olden days when Cadillac declared itself the "Standard of the World," everyone knew which cars were owned by the rich, and which ones sought middle-class customers. Packard, Cadillac, Pierce-Arrow, Lincoln. Those were the motorcars that promised prestige and luxurious driving.

In the 1950s and '60s, luxury cars were easy to spot. Many were laden with chrome, exhibiting what might today be dubbed "bling." Nowadays, luxury is a lot more subtle. So, how does a person who relies on his or her automobile to flaunt status make sure onlookers know the car is costly and, better yet, exclusive.

Acura, for one, has found that the reasons for purchasing a luxury model have changed lately. At the end of 2007, nearly half of surveyed respondents said a luxury car would "help me feel privileged." Almost two-thirds expected it would "help me feel successful," and just over half believed it would communicate that success. Three out of five expected to "feel I own something rare," while 70 percent said a luxury car would "help me feel different and unique."

Viewing higher-end cars as status symbols hasn't disappeared, of course; but the number of people who seek each of those presumed benefits declined by around 15 percentage points in just over a year. In a comparable survey at the beginning of 2009, barely more than one-third of respondents expected a luxury car to help them "feel privileged." The number who saw such an automobile as a communicator of success dropped from 51 to 34 percent.

Customers nowadays are less ego-driven, according to Acura PR manager Gary Robinson. Not long ago, "value for money" ranked Number Six on the list of reasons to buy one of Acura's cars. In 2010, value ranked Number One, followed by manufacturer reputation, past experience with the brand, and workmanship. Nearly all customers (96 percent) now claim they like brands that "reflect high craftsmanship," and have a reputation for "best quality" as well as "good service."

So, are the status-minded among us really turning toward practical features when they enter a luxury-car dealership? Well over half (55 percent) still believed in 2009 that a luxury car would help them "feel different and unique," though that was a lot less than the 70 percent expressing such a view previously. Clearly, the financial "meltdown" of 2007 and beyond had a significant impact on views of luxury and success as they pertained to automobile ownership.

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