Are Luxury Cars Just Dressed Up Versions Of Regular Cars?

Hello good people of Jalopnik, and welcome to Letters to Doug, your favorite weekly column that involves Doug responding to letters.

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This week’s letter comes to us from a reader I’ve named Horatio. Horatio writes:

Hi Doug,

When people buy a Lexus are they just buying a “nicer” Toyota? Same for Acura and Infiniti. Seems like BMW for example is a dedicated luxury brand right so when you buy one its not an upscale Yugo or something (or maybe it is lol).

What are your thoughts on these “top shelf” brands produced by the same folks that bore the earth with cars like the Camry.


Well, Horatio, this is an excellent question, and it touches on a topic I hear a lot: people who say they would never bother to buy an Acura, or a Lexus, or an Infiniti, because really they’re just “dressed up” versions of Hondas, and Toyotas, and Nissans. So is this really true?

In the past, there is no question the answer was yes. My family used to have a Lexus ES 250, which was the first-generation Lexus ES that was only made from 1990 to 1991, before Lexus really had any idea if this whole “luxury car” thing was going to work out.

I still remember that car fondly. It was a handsome little car; a faithful, loyal sedan that did whatever it was asked, until my brother crashed it into a Suzuki Sidekick three weeks after he got his driver’s license. But what I especially remember about this car, aside from the mangled heap of twisted metal it was when we went to retrieve the license plate, was that the inside was pure freakin’ Toyota.

I mean, yeah, sure, there were leather seats, and the steering wheel had a Lexus badge on it instead of a Toyota one. But my God this thing was a cynical Toyota ripoff. It shared the same door panels, and gauges, and center stack controls, and seats, and air vents. And the styling was identical, too, save for body-colored bumpers and different alloy wheels. We bought the thing used in 2001 for like six grand, but I can’t believe there are people who spent the equivalent of $40,000 on the ES 250 way back in 1991.

It was the same situation with the original Cadillac Escalade. Do you remember that? It came out in 1999, and it was seriously just a Chevy Tahoe with chrome wheels and a wreath and crest on the horn pad.

And the problem was, that generation of Chevy Tahoe had absolutely no business being a luxury car. It had this awful upright dashboard, and a gaping hole between the center console and the control stack, and incredibly cheap switchgear, and panel gaps so big you could lose your wristwatch in them. But somehow people paid a huge premium over the Tahoe for the privilege of owning all of these things with a Cadillac badge on them.

Fortunately, things have changed.

These days, the Cadillac Escalade is a Chevrolet Tahoe in platform and profile only. It now uses a different engine than the Tahoe and it offers a completely different interior. There are unique options you can only get in the Escalade, and the styling could be distinguished by a toddler whose primary activities involve a) peeing, and b) writing on the living room walls.

It’s the same story with many other luxury cars that have regular non-premium “versions.” Yes, the Lexus NX is based on the Toyota RAV4, and yes, the Acura RDX is based on the Honda CR-V. But you could spend an entire lifetime with one of these cars and never know that. It’s a far cry from Acura’s first SUV, the SLX, where they had to ask an Isuzu technician to pop by on his way home every time one came in for service.

Even better, many luxury cars are abandoning mainstream versions altogether. You can’t buy a Toyota version of the Lexus RC, for instance, or the IS. There’s no Honda version of the Acura TLX or the RLX. The Cadillac ATS isn’t exactly a rebadged Malibu. And only one vehicle in the Infiniti lineup (the QX something) has a Nissan “twin.”

So here’s my take: luxury car brands have realized just how much money they can make by selling luxury cars, and they don’t want to screw it up by peddling poorly rebadged crap. As a result, the luxury cars of today are a lot different than the luxury cars of years past. They’re more luxurious. They’re more distinctive. They’re more appealing.

I still think that ES 250 was kind of cool, though.

@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.