Luxury means many things to different people. For some, it’s plush comfort; perhaps a full allotment of conveniences; or simply a prestigious nameplate. Luxury-car buyers might insist on a flamboyant exterior and eye-dazzling cabin, or lean toward subtlety, inside and out. To some, only a German brand will do; others prefer Asian nameplates, or are satisfied only with American-badge luxury.
Cadillac illustrates how luxury has changed. Gentlemen who drove Cadillacs in the Mad Men era would barely recognize the brand today. Long gone is the age of flamboyant flash, tailfins and glitter, Eldorados and excess. Today’s CTS, for one, stands for the latest technology, more subtle details, and impeccable road behavior. Then again, we still have Escalades.
In addition to the luxury brands -- Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Bentley, Porsche, and so on -- many mainstream automakers have a luxury division: Toyota/Lexus, Honda/Acura, Nissan/Infiniti.
Not many motorcars embody more tradition and heritage than the biggest Jaguar of the lot. For overall elegance, a luxurious ride, and high-end vibe, an XJ saloon (British for "sedan") is still the one to beat. Only Jaguar’s XK coupe and convertible deserve comparable consideration as modern updatings of models that reach way back in British automotive history.
Sure, the newer XF or F-Type might be more representative of Jaguar in contemporary times. Regardless, the four-door XJ (and two-door XKs) expel the full essence of road-ready smoothness -- strong, powerful, venturesome. But mainly, civilized to a point that they appear ready to welcome dignitaries and corporate directors, as well as impassioned admirers who can only fantasize about slipping across a Jag’s richly leathered seat, preparing to energize the engine for the first time.
Two decades ago, those engines might have had 12 cylinders. Nowadays they’re V8s, supercharged to extract as much unfettered vigor as possible, delivered under a cool umbrella of civility.
Even more than for most brands, picking one Mercedes-Benz out of their vast luxury lineup is a formidable task. Should it be the SL-Class, whose heritage dates back to the classic gullwing 300SL of the Fifties? Maybe an S-Class, the most lengthy and lavish of them all, and one of the last models with availability of a V12 engine.
How about one of those excellent SUVs: GL, GLA, GLK, or even the warrior-ready G-Class. At the smaller end of the Mercedes-Benz spectrum, it could be the new B250i electric crossover. Bringing a compact B-Class to the U.S. had been rumored for years, though only the battery-powered version made the trip.
After careful consideration, it seemed like a coin flip might be needed. Instead, my vote goes for the E-Class, which falls squarely in the middle of Mercedes’ sedan selection. More reserved than some of its mates, the “E” serves as an accessible representation of the German automaker’s reputation for technical excellence.
One of the automotive highlights of my life was an opportunity to drive a DB9 on the narrow, winding arteries of rural England, near the factory where Aston Martins were made. That was a dozen years ago; but no subsequent experiences, however stimulating, have dulled my enthusiasm for the Aston Martin marque.
Not only are Astons beautiful, shaped to be readily recognizable from afar, they’re unbeatably confident and self-assured. Surefooted even in inclement weather, when the pavement grows wet, a DB9 with a V12 purring beneath its bonnet, or its V8-powered Vantage cohort, promises not only supreme road behavior, but a seldom-seen level of panache. Even a non-agile enthusiast might try to squirm into a DB9's scant back seat if an opportunity to ride along presented itself.
After a long life, the DB9 is fading away, but other Astons have slipped alongside its niche. A joyful session in a Rapide sedan, for instance, almost (but not quite) replicated the sensation of piloting that early DB9 through the British countryside.
Several years back, when Porsche first announced that a sedan would be in the lineup, some purists were horrified. Porsches were two-door coupes and cabriolets, period; not stuffy four-doors. Tacking on additional doors would be tampering with perfection, wouldn’t it?
No one needed to be worried. After all, Porsche was already making SUVs, of all things. Logically enough, when that sedan appeared, there was nothing remotely dreary about it. Porsche’s rendition is far from ordinary.
While the pedigree of the Panamera might be arguable, it’s listed here for one solid, emphatic reason: this is simply one of the loveliest, most lushly shaped modern vehicles available today. Even better, it comes at a price that’s hardly affordable, yet not in stratospheric territory, either.
Veering even further afield from its illustrious heritage based upon sports cars and technical distinction, Porsche offers a hybrid-powertrain version of the Panamera, in lieu of a gasoline engine. Mon dieu! Horrors!