Democracy runs amok when we try to democratize everything, including luxury. That's especially true in the global automobile industry, which is fond of slipping its products into narrowly hewn slots to justify price differentials.
We have, for example, this week's subject automobile, the 2011 Jaguar XF. It is what the industry calls an "entry-level luxury" offering, which, in this case, means it costs less than its "affordable luxury" Jaguar siblings the XF Premium and XF Supercharged - both of which are priced below the bona fide luxurious Jaguar XK and XJ models.
Also, we have the Jaguar R-Collection, which includes the XFR, XKR and XKR Convertible. In Jaguar parlance, the "R" bespeaks top luxury, invoking Jaguar's racing heritage in content, styling and performance.
For the moment, there is no "R" version of the Jaguar XJ sedan. But there is the long-wheelbase "L" iteration of that car, including the truly fancy XJL Supercharged and XJL Supersport models.
The point is, in the Jaguar crowd, the base XF is a poor cousin, the scion of a family with a noble name, but in reality not much different from a slew of substantially less expensive non-exotic cars in terms of build quality, amenities, safety and performance.
It is a thought that haunted me on a recent 300-mile drive here from my home in Northern Virginia.
Certainly, the Jaguar XF's 5-liter V-8 engine - 385 horsepower, 380 foot-pounds of torque - is a lot of fun. But it offered no more enjoyment than the recently driven Volvo XC60 R-Design wagon with its 3.2-liter in-line six-cylinder engine (240 horsepower, 236 foot-pounds of torque).
Acceleration in both vehicles was super-smooth. Both handled wonderfully well on turnpikes and highways. But while behind the wheel of the Jaguar, I found myself longing for the Volvo, which costs $14,450 less.
It is what happens when marketing - what car companies want you to believe about the car you are driving - collides with the reality of having driven many other automobiles.
Artificial categories such as "entry-level luxury" and "family" (a.k.a. "mainstream") tend to lose their meaning where the rubber meets the road.
For example, I would take the seats in the Volvo XC60 wagon over those in the Jaguar XF sedan any day, any trip. The Volvo's seats are exceptionally comfortable, embracing. The Jaguar's are marginally comfortable, tiring after a long drive. Under the circumstance, "entry-level luxury" does not please me nearly as much as "family" or "mainstream."
Perhaps it has something to do with age. The older my body gets, the less impressed it is with prestige. The more appreciative it is of comfort and safety. Luxury thus becomes redefined.
Technology also is forcing redefinition. In its purest sense, for example, luxury speaks to exclusiveness, access to something unavailable to almost everyone else. But the Jaguar XF has little that can't be found at a much lower price on a well-equipped Buick LaCrosse, Volvo S60 sedan or XC60 wagon, or, for that matter, a Hyundai Genesis sedan or coupe.
Start with safety. The Jaguar XF offers standard ventilated front and rear disc brakes. The Buick LaCrosse CXS and Hyundai Genesis sedan offer equally effective all-wheel disc brakes (ventilated front, solid rear) for thousands of dollars less. Multiple air bags, found in the Jaguar XF, can be found in many other cars that few people would deem luxurious. Emerging safety technologies, such as blind-side warning systems, designed to alert motorists to nearby trailing vehicles, are better designed and installed in family haulers such as the new Honda Odyssey minivan than they are in the more costly Jaguar XF.
Amenities such as onboard navigation, backup camera, parking proximity warning system, premium sound system and connectivity for multiple infotainment devices come with the Jaguar XF. They are also found on many other vehicles of lesser stature and price.
Something is amiss here. And it just might be that the global automobile industry's vehicle slotting scheme, more in place to justify prices than it is to intelligently differentiate vehicles sold, makes no real sense anymore.