James Locker is a finalist in the 2014 Sir William Lyons Award

Defining a premium vehicle in 2014 is as difficult and confusing as spotting the difference between forty years of Porsche 911's. I envy last years' contestants because I now face the difficult task of sorting through an extra three hundred and sixty five days' worth of new cars all vying for the coveted 'premium' label. Wish me luck...

History dictates a premium car must have premium qualities -specification, comfort, brand exclusivity, racing pedigree and innovation. Yet I find it difficult to think of ONE car that incorporates all of these qualities. Mercedes Benz, BMW and Audi possess four of these traits but lack brand exclusivity which has been sacrificed at the hand of small car production to comply with ever tightening carbon dioxide emission targets and to avoid fines imposed by some European countries. Similarly brands such as Lexus, Acura and Infiniti, luxury subsidiary marques of Toyota, Honda and Nissan have no strong racing pedigree but all feature technology and comfort to satisfy the most fastidious of customers. These elements could be the reason why Lexus has been the number one selling luxury car in the United States since 2000 and also suggests racing pedigree is no longer a factor in defining a premium car.

In the past, the cost of your car would usually determine whether it was premium or not. Ticking all the optional extra boxes was a quick if not expensive way to earn bragging rights over your mates' stock car. Air conditioning now common place on even the most basic of cars was historically regarded as a premium mark. This is a consequence of the trickledown effect initiated by the three German giants. Premium features such as 'lane keeping assist' featured in Mercedes Benz during the late 90's but now, everyday cars such as the Ford Fusion offer 'lane assist' as an option. Adaptive cruise control is another feature which has become optional on relatively inexpensive cars. Every manufacture now has to search for that 'marginal gain' which will catapult their vehicles into the 'premium' echelons whilst simultaneously delivering these technologies at modest prices. Other motives for Mercedes, BMW and Audi's venture into the compact car market is to introduce younger buyers to the luxury marque, an astute marketing ploy to ensure customer loyalty in subsequent years. However, this ubiquitous behaviour from the Germans has tarnished their reputation for prestige and exclusivity, characteristics once used to define their cars as premium.

It seems the criteria defining a premium vehicle in 2014 has changed and a new set of standards must be applied. These being, economy, practicality, price, reliability and safety. As we adjust to the pressures imposed by climate change and stricter carbon emission regulations, car manufacturers are obliged to act accordingly. In Western Europe, cars with zero emissions, hybrid technology and environmentally friendly credentials are fast attracting a premium badge thus explain why Ferrari, McLaren and Porsche have forayed into hybrid technology with their new hyper car offerings, if these cars can't be classed as premium then what can? BMW and Audi have faltered in the premium car rivalry by failing to infiltrate the hybrid market sooner. BMW's flagship I8 model has only been released in the past few months and similar complacency also led to the ousting of Audi's last research and development chief. A brilliant example of new brands, deprived of an illustrious history, advancing in the premium car market is that of wealth manager Louis Alexandre de Froissard who traded his Audi A8 for an Infiniti Q50 hybrid, a far more efficient car emitting only 144 grams of co2 per kilometre, his reason that everybody owns an Audi or BMW so the Infiniti was a much more original choice. Conspicuous consumption is becoming increasingly unfashionable in times of economic autserity, hence the reason we are witnessing a hike in the popularity of compact, efficient, city-friendly cars such as the Volkswagen UP and Renault Twingo. Both cars boast impeccable safety features, enough technology to sink a battleship and cost less to fill than a meal at Weatherspoons. Evidence that supports the change in the global car industry has been highlighted by IHS automotive consulting firm who calculated the combined sales of the three leading German manufactures totalled 4.7 million vehicles, a whopping 60% of the global luxury car market. However UBS predicts Tesla's model S and DS models from Peugeot Citroen are to attain 30% of the premium sales growth throughout 2014-18.

However, premium customers are looking for a premium experience. This extends beyond the vehicle itself to customer service, confidence in the brand and marketing techniques. We all like to feel special, a good salesman makes us feel special- that is a premium experience. Providing a comprehensive warranty is a simple way to inspire faith in the brand. Peripheral but nonetheless seductive to the 2014 driver is the merchandise associated with premium brands. To a greater or lesser extent we are all defined by our jobs, our homes, our cars and also our clothes and accessories. Hence the success of the accessory ranges of luggage, umbrella's, shorts, belts sold alongside their famous marques by Aston Martin, Jaguar and Bentley persuading us that their marque confirms our superiority.

So, the definition of a premium vehicle in 2014 has changed dramatically from outdated notions of raw power and ostentatious design. In 2014 the driver is seeking an unpretentious premium car experience that boasts eco credentials, comfort, high end technology, style, status and still leaves you with enough cash to wangle a few optional extras. Germany's giants no longer occupy the premium car throne; China, the world's leading car market view cars as status symbols, hence no surprise to learn that the most popular brands are there are Buick, Ford, Volkswagen and Nissan, which ten years ago few would have regarded as premium brands. The industry is changing as Jaguar Land Rovers Joachim Eberhardt pointed out, "new powertrains, fresh designs and self-driving technologies are making the auto industry cool again". Prehaps I should replace my Lamborghini Countach poster with one of a Renault Clio Dynamique Medianav dCI 90 Eco2 Stop & Start-or not!

James Locker

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