/ Motoring

Is there more to a luxury car than just leather seats?

Car leather seats

Twenty or so years ago it was as easy as pie to identify the essential ingredients for a luxury car – leather seats, polished wood etc. But has the luxury car evolved?

Go back a few decades and a luxury car meant seats that oozed the aroma of top quality leather and were comfy enough to fall asleep in, carpet thick enough to lose your toes in, and swathes of highly-polished solid wood (preferably wrinkly-grained walnut) along the dash and doors.

Having just spent an hour cocooned in Mercedes’ £180,000 SLS AMG super coupe, I’m rethinking my opinion on what really makes a luxury car.

While the leather remains a must-have, there’s a whole host of new trim materials that are being used to create an air of prestige, including matt aluminium, ultra shiny ‘piano’ black and patterned carbon fibre.

New luxury cars

At Which? we spend the vast majority of our time thinking about more sensible cars than the SLS. And so when looking at the attempts of more mainstream car makers to push their cars upmarket, it’s evident that there are a lot of different interpretations of luxury. We can’t blame them, as the best-performing names in our current car market are premium and budget brands, with middle-of-the-road makes losing out to both.

So it should have come as no surprise when Ford unveiled a super-luxury Vignale sub-brand at September’s Frankfurt Motor Show, which will be offered on pricier models like the Mondeo and S-Max. The defining features inside these cars are lashings of leather, matt aluminium and black trim, brightened up by mid-blue illumination on many of the controls.

Volvo is keen to gain a slice of the luxury car sales boom too, and it launched a classy new Concept Coupe at the same German show. But this Scandinavian brand has a different take on creating the best interior ambiance.

Volvo aims to combine a feeling of natural airiness with beautiful details in its luxury cars. So the Coupe has minimalistic, hollowed-out seats instead of the traditional cossetting pews. It also has a dash that looks as if it’s floating, and splashes of shiny silver trim.

Do you think it’s a good thing that mainstream brands are trying to give their cars a more upmarket feel? And what do you think are the essential ingredients for a luxury car?


It is essential to distinguish between a luxury motor car and a pretentious and over-priced glamour vehicle bought as a status symbol. A luxury car will ride well on superb suspension, have doors that allow you to get in and out easily without doing contortions or crumpling your hat, have very comfortable seats with deep sprung squabs and arms for all passengers, and – above all – silence. The interior trim will be discreet with very little visible metal or plastic, there will be electric doors, windows and seat adjusters, it will cruise effortlessly, and will have a deep-tone horn. These features used to be available in certain production cars up to around fifty years ago that were affordable for the proffesional classes – nowadays you’d have to be a squillionnaire to run one. A luxury motor car purrs; anything else merely growls and shows its teeth.

Every car on the road is a compromise. Performance, cost, economy, comfort, etc. are a complex mix and improving one factor comes at the expense of others. Ultimately what matters is not luxury but getting the best compromise for YOU.

Because of the nature of my work I’ve driven a much wider variety of makes/models/trim-levels than most people. Yet when it comes to my hard-earned cash time and again I return to BMW. Yes, they are expensive but to me they’re the best compromise for MY needs. Allegations of ‘badge snobbery’ irritate me a lot; I’ve tried many cars, this is what suits me best.

So, as far as I am concerned, BMW represents luxury. But looking at John Ward’s definitions above, for example, the BMW 1 series does not ride well, does not allow easy entry/exit, does not have deeply sprung seats, electric doors electric seats, nor a deep tone horn.

Yet, to ME, it’s a million times more luxurious than a Ford Vignale!

Ron Dobson says:
15 November 2013

For me a luxury car does NOT have black trim of any kind. It shouldn’t have to be large – why can’t there be small luxury cars? SatNav and an iPod connector do not a luxury car make!

I agree with you on this. The descriptions of the interior of luxury cars supplied by Clare just turn me off. I shall not be emptying my ISA’s or piggy bank any time soon.

My luxury car would have a chauffeur (or chauffeuse). How many come with these?

Whenever I see a black car with alloy wheels… I think of luxury… that is why I have one …. a Black Peugeot 308. I notice that I get a lot of respect.

Who from?

Luxury for me is about comfort (access/egress, seating, ride quality, low noise) and ambience (don’t ask ! – you just know it when you experience it). All these features have to be there all the time of course, which brings in reliability. Our Mercedes CLS has it all; our Toyota Auris Hybrid just lacks the ambience – but makes up for it by being so ‘interesting’ !

Maurice Dickinson says:
25 November 2013

I own a luxury car one that is never or seldom mentioned in any survey that is a Citroen C 5 it is quiet, comfortable, economical for a two liter diesel 47-52 mpg,easy to get in and out with plenty of space. The ride is superb and that is not with the hydro.suspension but with double wishbone suspension instead. People say that they are not reliable,i must be one of the lucky ones as this is my 4th Citroen they have never let me down and i have driven all over europe could be the way people drive them that makes them last.

Eddy Martin says:
26 June 2017

My old Ford Mondeo ghia had air con in the front seats, as well as heated seats. The air con on hot days was sheer luxury. Meanwhile my current BMW 5 series doesn’t. The BMW is more luxurious to drive, but does not cool the seating area on a hot day.

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