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Ten or fifteen years ago, if you were asked to say what a premium vehicle was you would answer with something along the lines of "Well, it'll be a German luxo-barge, of course" and nobody would bat an eyelid at your answer: the Germans did luxury and had the brand kudos to match the "premium" claims. There were exceptions to the rule of course, such as various Lexuses, but it was generally accepted that the "big three" were the undisputed masters of making a premium car. However, that was before the international credit crunch and that was when a tank of fuel was a lot cheaper than your average Scalextric set.

Since then, a lot has changed. Firstly, there was the beforementioned credit crunch, which meant that all of a sudden nobody could really afford to either buy or run such a large car, and more importantly, the stigma of owning a car has risen dramatically. Fifteen years ago, if you owned a BMW 7-Series you were seen as somebody who was doing well for themselves. Fast-forward to 2013 and the amount of stick you get for driving a Range Rover Sport or a Bentley Continental GT is like walking down the local high street proclaiming that you eat dolphins for breakfast.

Also, partly because of the credit crunch, stricter emissions laws and the changing attitude of society in general regarding the environment – and therefore demand – the cars from the so-called premium brands are getting smaller and smaller. Take the Audi A1 for instance. It shares the same PQ25 platform and oily bits as the rest of the Volkswagen Group cars of the same size, yet an entry-level A1 is £8,000 more expensive than the equivalent misery-spec Skoda Fabia. Aside from an Audi badge and the associated image that comes with owning an Audi, you don't get any more than you would do with a well-specified Fabia, VW Polo or Seat Ibiza.

And yet, buyers seem to want the brand image more and more. Aston Martin is voted the world's coolest brand on a regular basis. When the words "Aston" and "Martin" come up, you instantly think of prestige and luxury. (as well as James Bond, power and beauty, but those are beside the point)

Because of the need to reduce the brand's overall CO2 emissions, Gaydon sought a deal with Toyota to sell a version of the innovative IQ with their badge on it. A canny trick because not only are they reducing their carbon footprint and keeping Brussels happy but they're also making a more 'affordable' Aston in the process – albeit one with a huge profit margin as the Cynet keeps the Toyota mechanicals and basic body structure and adds a whole load of Aston leather and luxury on the inside. The difference between the IQ and Cynet in the dealership forecourt? A mere £20k and a bunch of people who can claim they own a product from the world's coolest brand. It's probably best if you don't tell them that underneath the nice interior, it's a ten-grand Toyota, mind.

Not only does the brand define a premium vehicle but also the technology, safety features and innovation contributes to a blueprint of a premium vehicle in 2013 Take the Mercedes-Benz S-Class for instance. It was the first car from Stuttgart to feature seatbelt pretensions in 1981, and many of the current driver aids and 'command centres' have debuted in luxo-barges too, such as BMW's infamous iDrive system which started out in the 7-Series, and thankfully over the years improved as it found its home in other BMW products – including Rolls Royces, no less.

Sophie Williamson-Stothert, a Staff Writer at Car Dealer Magazine agrees with the notion that premium means tech as much as anything else, "a premium vehicle in 2013 is a car that can offer its drivers a number of benefits ranging from new technological devices and safety features, while still generating high performance figures and practicality", she said when asked to describe a blueprint of what makes up a premium vehicle in this day and age.

"But", she continues, "A premium vehicle is predominately seen as 'a luxury car' and that's the way it will continue to be perceived and, a premium car in 2013 should reflect the success and similarities of its predecessors, but promote the future".

What Sophie briefly touched on towards the end is particularly prominent: the future. Not only does a premium vehicle offer the chance for manufactures to show off their latest and greatest innovations in safety, but also the stride forwards in terms of drivetrains; the Fisker Karma being a prime example of this, using a plug-in hybrid motor to drive down the emissions. It also uses solar panels to power things like the air conditioning.

Much like the first tablet computers, or laptops for that matter, this technology comes at a price at first. Anti-lock brakes, ESP systems and airbags debuted on premium vehicles and then slowly filtered their way down the ladder to more affordable and mundane cars. Nowadays, you wouldn't think twice about whether or not your new supermini has airbags or not, so this is the great thing about a premium vehicle: it provides the perfect space to wow journalists and buyers alike while in the future knowing that the things that have been pioneered on the flagship of the range will find their way into the lower models, not only improving the standard equipment, but also safety, performance and minimising the environmental impact all at the same time.

The key to defining a premium vehicle in 2013 is a hard one, but it has to combine all of the above; the brand kudos and appeal to the buyer, so then it can shift itself off the shelf and also the advancements that we've become so used to from this segment in the past. Gone is the German horsepower race and is instead replaced by the worldwide premium vehicle race.

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