IRVINE, Calif. (TheStreet) -- The utilitarian, mid-sized sedans that usually dominate automotive awards are all that's preventing a class war between fans of popular and premium vehicles.
When auto-research firms Intellichoice and Auto Pacific let drivers decide the winners of their Motorist Choice Awards, they accounted for this schism that's easily concealed by praising a
High-end car owners can smugly assert that Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln, Cadillac, Buick and BMW all increased sales during a dismal August while Hyundai, Honda, Ford, Toyota, GM and
all reported drops.
Parking-lot populists, meanwhile, note that middle-of-the-road 2011 models like the Honda Accord and Ford Edge are only on the lot an average of six days before they sell, according to TrueCar.com. Upscale competitors like the Mercedes-Benz SL550 and the Volvo C70 spend more than two months in showrooms before they're sold.
Seeing the merit in both arguments, Intellichoice and Auto Pacific separated the winners of their 15 categories into popular and premium segments. This made for some strange garagefellows, but spoke volumes about the worldview of buyers in each category. With help from IntelliChoice Executive Editor Charlie Vogelheim,
picked the 10 best categories and oddest pairings, and looked at the key differences between the auto industry's haves and have-nots.
Dodge Ram HD
OK, so one's hauling a smaller vehicle up to the mountains for quadding, while the other's taking a kayak and the kids out to the Hamptons for the weekend. Their owners are each leading "active lifestyles," but one requires a bigger payload capacity and the other a diesel-powered paycheck.
While both pack an eight-cylinder engine (though the Ram's is 5.7 liters to the Porsche's 4.8), the Porsche's 550-horsepower blows the Ram's 383 off the line. However, the Porsche owner spends roughly $120,000 for the pleasure, compared with $25,000 for a Ram with double the payload and towing capacity.
The story here isn't about the Ram's strength, though, as it is about Porsche's ability to compete in a truck category it didn't even acknowledge a decade ago. The Cayenne is the German carmaker's best-selling vehicle. "It was hard to get dealers to have service bays and facilities if they're only selling a few cars a year," Vogelheim says. "You bring in something with more volume and you're able to better the whole experience for everyone."
Laugh all you want about putting scuff marks on the precious Navigator, but it offers a 5.4-liter V8 under the hood. The Acadia doesn't offer anything above a V6. Though the horsepower disparity between the two isn't much -- 310 for the Lincoln vs. 288 for the GMC -- the Lincoln can handle more payload (1,600 pounds to 1,523) and more towing weight (8,800 pounds to 5,200) than its downmarket competitor.
At roughly $55,000, the Lincoln still earns its "premium" title over the Acadia, but more "premium" buyers with boats, horses and other high-priced cargo are starting to see the value of a truck-based SUV. They also have the income to handle its nearly single-digit miles per gallon.
"In fairness to the luxury SUV folks, the Infiniti QX, one of the ugliest vehicles at the New York Auto Show, is incredibly confident and maneuverable for a land yacht," Vogelheim says. "Rightfully, they showed it in Kentucky with the concept that you're pulling around a horse trailer and will need a truck-based SUV to do it comfortably."
One is a hatchback that gets a combined 32 miles per gallon, has 36 cubic feet of cargo space and starts at $12,605. The other is a luxury sedan with a power sunroof and rear sun shade, leather-and-wood interior and costs $65,380 for the base model. We smell a sitcom. While a subcompact car that parallel parks and fits a whole lot of groceries makes sense for the average city dweller, the Lexus LS seems too large and pricey for the average street-parking car buyer, yet not "premium" enough to justify the monthly garage fee to the average brownstone or luxury condo owner. "We got a call from Lexus on that, saying 'Really?' " Vogelheim says. "For a city car, motorists want a nice car in the premium class but not a real expensive car like the 7 series
BMW or the new E class
"Oh, Chesterfield! Please bring the Hyundai around: Millicent simply must go to Barney's."
It doesn't sound quite right, but neither do the standard country-club tropes after decades of tech, housing and hedge-fund money have diluted the blue from most club memberships' blood. Similarly, there's less separating these two vehicles than the $2,000 price difference indicates. Sure, the Genesis' wood interior isn't the real deal and the Genesis' rear-wheel drive lacks the traction of the A6's all-wheel drive, but the V8 in the Hyundai's top-of-the-line model is more powerful than the Audi's (368 horsepower to 350) while getting slightly better mileage.
More surprising are the options, where the Genesis matches the A6 point-for-point from the power sunroof and rain-sensing wipers to auto-dimming mirrors, leather interior and navigation. The A6 wins with features like a standard DVD player and Bose sound equipment, but not by much, while Hyundai has used both the Genesis and Equus to establish a foothold in the high-end marketplace.
"It points out that there are people in that group driving the Hyundai because they see it as a good value. The consumers were the ones identifying the vehicles they used to go to the country club, and the Genesis was the motorist's choice for that type of car."
Apparently, being either incredibly safe or discontinued is really adorable.
In the often boxy world of Volvo, the C30's slick "sportback" look and broad color palette are a welcome addition to safety features like crumple zones with four grades of steel, a whiplash protection system and an inflatable curtain for rear passengers. Volkswagen, meanwhile, is taking its cute, cuddly New Beetle and squashing it like a roach after the 2010 model year. While there are rumored successors to the New Beetle's 11-year legacy, VW seems content to pull its most "aww"-inducing model off the road in favor of yet another ill-fitting luxury foray.
"The Volkswagen Phaeton, which should have been an Audi or Bentley, wasn't successful, and they're bringing it back to market," Vogelheim says. "Meanwhile, the Beetle gets the 'cute' award and I'm saying 'Wasn't this discontinued?' "
Lexus RX Hybrid
The Prius must get so annoyed with its rich cousin the RX.
The Prius gets tagged as a lefty elitist-mobile for getting nearly 50 miles per gallon, while RX Hybrid drivers getting a combined 29 miles per gallon -- roughly equivalent to a non-hybrid Subaru Forester -- trip all over themselves to call it "eco-friendly." Owners can argue for the size advantages, power and cost of the RX Hybrid compared to other premium offerings like the Chevy Volt or the
Roadster, but calling it "eco-friendly" when there are dozens of cars out there leaving a much less expansive carbon footprint isn't just a reach, it's a delusion.
"There's quite a few of them out there and a lot of people driving it because they believe it to be eco-friendly -- though that has more appeal to it than reality," Vogelheim says.
FUN TO DRIVE
At almost $50,000, it's hard not to call the Corvette "premium." When placed up against performers like the BMW 5-series, though, it looks like a bargain.
The 8-cylinder BMW 5-Series Gran Turismo starts at $67,000, has a 400-horsepower, 4.2-liter engine and goes from 0 to 60 in 5.4 seconds. That just made some tanned retiree smile, as his Corvette blows that GT off the road with its 430-horsepower, 6.1-liter powerhouse and a 0 to 60 of 4.2 seconds. Sure, the 5-Series has rear-wheel drive, but does that make it more fun than the Corvette's high-powered rear-wheel drive and convertible top. Not for that price, it doesn't.
"The Corvette surprised me at first when it won our Best Overall Value award last year," Vogelheim says. "I'm not a Corvette owner in personality, but it's a great value statement for a performance vehicle."
Lexus RX Hybrid
There was nothing high-tech about the Ford Taurus' original, fleet-friendly incarnation.
SYNC Bluetooth/navigation/music console; a full complement of digital gauges including compass; external temperature and tachometer (notable because the RX Hybrid doesn't have them); standard rear-parking sensors (again, absent from the RX), USB connection; blind-spot information system; MyKey parental controls for teens learning to drive; and keyless entry; and the Taurus is suddenly ready for the 21st century.
Tech isn't usually the area where the premium vehicle lags behind, but when the Taurus driver's kids are plugging their laptops into rear power outlets and the Lexus driver's spawn are left twiddling their thumbs, that nearly $10,000 price difference seems a bit steeper.
Ford Taurus SHO
Kudos to Ford for doing a lot with a little.
Yes, the Taurus is only packing a V6, but that 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine cranks out 365 horsepower and pushes from 0 to 60 in 4.8 seconds, faster than BMW's 5-Series Gran Turismo, faster than BMW's 550i and way faster than the Infiniti M45, which clocks in at 0-60 in 6.0 seconds despite having a 4.5 liter V8 and costing $15,000 more. The Infiniti is still a bargain performer among premium vehicles, but that shouldn't take away from what Ford did in giving family-friendly gearheads the space they need and the performance they desire. That's a far cry from the SHO of old.
"I started in the industry when the Taurus was released, and when the SHO was introduced, it had this Yamaha engine that we thought was the prettiest thing ever," Vogelheim says. "I remember a Southern dealer coming up and lifting the hood and, with a heavy drawl, used the 'Where the hell am I going to get someone to work on this piece of (expletive)."
Lexus RX Hybrid
With 32 miles per gallon of fuel efficiency, 57 cubic inches of storage space in a subcompact and modular seating with 10 cupholders, this is a rolling, affordable party at $15,000. At $40,000, the Lexus RX hybrid has a bunch of tech toys, a ton of space and the sense of satisfaction that comes with driving an "eco-friendly" hybrid vehicle. That 29 miles per gallon may not seem like a bargain, but it all depends on your perspective.
"Certainly, there are more eco-friendly cars than the RX, but there aren't any in the premium category," Vogelheim says.
--Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.