Features That Make a Luxury Car

Luxury vehicles routinely promise premium features traditionally unavailable in nonluxury cars. But these features are no longer so exclusive: Heated leather seats, for example, can be had on an $18,000 Chevy Cobalt.

With premium content moving across the market, luxury automakers must differentiate themselves by piling on even more equipment, said Mike Marshall, director of emerging automotive technology at J.D. Power and Associates. The result: Technologically advanced items such as intelligent remote entry and adaptive cruise control join leather and wood to create the modern luxury vehicle.

Erich Merkle, an automotive analyst at research firm IRN Inc., joined Marshall and resident expert Joe Wiesenfelder in contributing to this list of features you can expect to find in different luxury segments.

Jump to a section below:

Premium Vehicles
Multifunction steering wheels are common in premium vehicles.

Multifunction steering wheels are common in premium vehicles.

Automatic climate control: Single-zone automatic climate control is typically standard fare across luxury nameplates. Dual-zone systems are becoming more common; they offer separate temperature controls for the driver and front passenger, but they rarely work beyond 10 degrees of each other.

Multifunction steering wheel: Many nonluxury vehicles have redundant audio and cruise controls on the steering wheel; in this age, luxury nameplates should equip all their models with them.

Moonroof: Premium vehicles often include this feature as standard equipment. If it's listed as optional, consider the car's overall ambiance. Low rooflines may create an uninviting interior without the additional light from the moonroof. A moonroof can, however, cut an inch or more of front headroom, leaving taller drivers short on space.

Premium upholstery: At this price many automakers use a leather substitute or premium fabric standard and charge extra for genuine cowhide. Leather is often bundled with other items in pricey options packages — adding a Sport Package to a base 2006 Audi A3 to get leather costs $1,800 — so consider its look and comfort relative to the price.

Power driver's seat: A power-operated driver's seat allows near-infinite adjustments with much less effort. Look for at least three power adjustments: recline, fore/aft travel and cushion height — typically called six-way adjustment.

Near-Luxury Vehicles:
Near-luxury vehicles should feature an in-dash CD changer, such as the six-disc unit on the Lincoln Zephyr.

Near-luxury vehicles should feature an in-dash CD changer, such as the six-disc unit on the Lincoln Zephyr.

Luxury-nameplate vehicles costing $28,000 to $40,000 should offer considerably more features than the premium segment. Among them are:

Basic trip computer: Depending on complexity, trip computers can offer information on gas mileage, average speed, outside temperature and maintenance. They're often optional in cheaper vehicles, but at this price they should be offered without extra charge.

Heated front seats: Heated seats are a convenience feature available in nearly every vehicle segment today. Look for at least a two-setting heater (high and low) that heats both the seatback and the cushion.

In-dash CD changer: A CD changer allows continual music with fewer stops to change discs. Trunk- or glovebox-mounted CD changers are inconvenient relics of the past — in this class, an in-dash unit should play six CDs. One exception: If a navigation system preempts the dash space, some vehicles offer a single-disc player instead, or a remote CD changer in the glove compartment, center console, trunk or cargo area, or under a seat.

Leather upholstery: Leather might be optional in the premium segment, but in near-luxury cars it should be standard. It comes in all manner of qualities, perforations and combinations, so recommending a specific grade is impossible. Don't mistake the upholstery's character for its quality: a BMW has firmer leather than a Lincoln because the former is intended for sportier driving.

Memory driver's seat: A memory function is convenient if another person frequently drives the car. If you're the sole driver, this is a negligible feature. By recognizing a signal from the key fob, advanced systems adjust everything from seats, side mirrors and adjustable pedals to powered head restraints, seat belt anchors and stereo and ventilation settings.

Power passenger seat: Four-way power adjustment — fore/aft and recline — should be included in every near-luxury car. Additional adjustments, such as seat height or cushion angle, are pleasant but rarely necessary.

Satellite radio: If a CD changer runs out of tunes in seven hours, a satellite radio picks up and never stops. It's a feature that should be standard across the near-luxury class, though many owners won't want to pay the monthly subscription fees.

Luxury Vehicles
The trim of the Infiniti M, or any other luxury car, warrants inspection before purchase.

The trim of the Infiniti M, or any other luxury car, warrants inspection before purchase.

Luxury vehicles costing between $40,000 and $100,000 are a nebulous class because their price range is so broad. At the low end are vehicles that might include many of the features below as options, while high-end models list them as standard.

Adaptive cruise control: Adaptive cruise control uses radar or lasers to determine the distance to the vehicle in front of your car. It adjusts speed accordingly, applying light braking if necessary. Many systems alert drivers if the vehicle in front decelerates abruptly.

Adaptive suspension: Adaptive suspensions can vary the firmness of individual struts or shock absorbers, changing a vehicle's ride within milliseconds. Advanced systems sense road conditions and stiffen suspension points to provide appropriate handling. Some allow drivers to select suspension settings based on how firm a ride they want, though some manufacturers deem this manual control unnecessary for some vehicle types. Drivers used to have to choose between a vehicle that rode comfortably and one that handled well, but, to some extent, adaptive suspension provides both.

Advanced climate controls: Dual-zone automatic climate controls offer individual temperature settings for the driver and front passenger, but advanced systems allow fan speeds and airflow to vary between the two zones. In a BMW 3 Series, for example, both temperature zones must operate on the same fan speed and airflow setting. On a 7 Series, these settings are variable; the driver can program warmer air to hit her feet, while the passenger opts for cooler air to blow toward his face.

Genuine trim: Painted plastics that resemble wood or aluminum are available in cheaper cars, and sometimes they look very close to the real thing. But in this price class, a vehicle should have genuine trim — be it wood, aluminum or carbon fiber. Some models also apply trim to the steering wheel. Bear in mind that execution matters: The best painted plastic looks better than the worst genuine stuff.

Heated steering wheel: Electrically heated steering wheels heat faster than traditional climate-control systems, warming hands long before the ambient air does. Most operate at the push of a button, though some automatically activate when the seat heaters are switched on.

The Land Rover Range Rover Sport has a standard navigation system.

The Land Rover Range Rover Sport has a standard navigation system.

Intelligent remote entry: Known by various names — SmartAccess, Keyless Go, Intelligent Key — many luxury key fobs constantly transmit a signal that communicates with the car when it's nearby. This tells the car door to unlock when its handle is pulled — even if the remote is in a pocket or purse. It's a convenient feature if you're holding an armful of groceries or if you don't want to dig for your keys. It's often paired with a push-button engine start system, which also allows the transmitter to remain out of sight.

Navigation system: Navigation systems come in all varieties. The key is intuitiveness: Systems that bury simple commands in layers of menus or don't offer any touch-screen options can be more frustrating than helpful. Ironically, simpler systems in cheaper cars can often be more user-friendly. Most cars closer to $100,000 offer standard navigation systems, while virtually all others in this class list them as options.

Onboard data processor: An onboard processor should minimally operate as an advanced trip computer that reports relevant vehicle statistics. On pricier vehicles in this class, the feature may include a hard drive that stores music, maintenance files and navigation data.

Power-adjustable steering column: A power-adjustable steering column tilts and telescopes at the push of a button. Some versions automatically tilt away from the driver during entry and exit. A power-adjustable steering column will likely be optional at the $40,000 end of the segment, but any vehicle priced near six figures should include one standard.

Power lumbar supports: Manual lumbar support is universally available, but luxury vehicles should include power-operated supports for both front seats. Power lumbar systems use inflatable sections within the cushion or seatback to adjust firmness. The most advanced type allows you to choose the support's height.

Premium sound system: At this level, vehicles are quiet enough to allow a high-end sound system to shine. Luxury automakers often pair vehicle audio systems with a premium audio-component manufacturer like Bose, Mark Levinson or Harman/Kardon. It's impossible to compare wattage or speaker count at face value, as interior acoustics and speaker quality determine the end result.

The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is one luxury vehicle that offers a variety of rear-seat amenities.

The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is one luxury vehicle that offers a variety of rear-seat amenities.

Rear-seat accoutrements: Backseat features become more lavish as prices increase. Heated rear seats are common on the low end of this segment, with power-operated seatbacks, individual temperature controls and cooled rear seats available on vehicles closer to $100,000.

Rear sunshades: Whether manual or power-operated, rear sunshades keep backseat passengers in the shade on sunny days. Many luxury cars have a sunshade in the rear window, though some also offer either powered or manual sunshades for the rear side windows.

Remote start: Remote start systems include a button on the key fob that can start the car from several hundred feet away, usually while keeping the vehicle locked. Starting the vehicle early allows a climate-control system to bring the cabin to a comfortable temperature by the time you arrive.

Ventilated/cooled front seats: Seats act as an insulator against the body's backside — a good thing on a cold day, but if it's already warm, they can cause considerable discomfort. Ventilated seats typically use embedded fans to blow air through perforations in the upholstery. Cooled seats go one step further by blowing cold air.

Ultraluxury Vehicles
A panoramic moonroof and refrigerator, both on the Maybach 62, define the ultraluxury class.

A panoramic moonroof and refrigerator, both on the Maybach 62, define the ultraluxury class.

Luxury vehicles costing more than $100,000 offer superfluous features by the truckload. Some notable ones:

Full leather trim: Seats and door inserts are not the only place for leather. Ceilings, instrument panel domes, dashboards and center consoles can be stitched up as well. It's often a pricey option on sub-$100,000 cars, but should be standard in the ultraluxury class.

Massaging seats: These are a recent luxury innovation that are available for both front and rear seats. Some systems, such as BMW's Active Support, use liquid-filled bladders that slowly flow from one side to the other; others use embedded motors. Either way, the systems aim to relieve fatigue over extended trips.

Refrigerator: Typically mounted between the rear seats, an onboard refrigerator keeps chilled beverages at hand for backseat passengers.

Panoramic moonroof: Essentially a fixed glass pane behind an existing moonroof, panoramic moonroofs give the cabin a more airy, open feel — especially over the backseat.

Posted on 2/22/06