Bubblegum and baling wire sure won’t cut it with these drivers; yes, there’s no ladies from The Red Hat Society needed either. If you’re wishing for more then â€œpimpingâ€ your ride, please consider the following:
The sticker on the window of a 2006 Range Rover Sport HSE lists a few choice selling points: a child seat sensor, voice-activated controls and heated windshield washer jets — all for an asking price of $59,350.
A more comprehensive list for buyers to consider might read something like this: $1,741 for a new headlight, $600 to replace a cracked windshield — and the instant respect of valets and your little brother’s friends.
Call it the financial spreadsheet of the luxury car buyer.
It’s a calculus more of us find ourselves making. Luxury vehicle sales in the United States have nearly doubled over the past decade, to 1.5 million in 2006, according to Edmunds.com, a consumer automotive Web site. For example. about 50,000 new luxury models are registered in the Washington DC area every year, according to R.L. Polk & Co., a Michigan firm tracking the auto industry.
Many owners quickly learn, however, that the higher cost of owning a premium ride doesn’t end with the sticker price. There are fancy-but-finicky electrical gadgets and heftier insurance premiums because of expensive parts, according to auto quality and insurance experts.
And yet, luxury automakers such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW post record sales year after year, even as non-luxury brands close the gap in quality and reliability. “There really are no bad cars or trucks sold right now,” said George C. Peterson, president of the marketing consultancy Auto Pacific Inc. “The range in research ratings . . . has narrowed consistently for the past 20 years.”
That raises an obvious question: Why are consumers choosing to upgrade to premium brands when they have more opportunities than ever to get the same quality for less money?
Market researchers say the leveling of the playing field in terms of quality is exactly what’s driving people to luxury brands. Because there’s less difference in overall quality, consumers find other reasons to buy a car, said Wes Brown, an analyst with Iceology, an auto industry consultancy in Los Angeles.
“There’s an expectation of quality whether I’m spending $20,000 or $100,000,” he said. “There are other things I’m looking for, like the power of the brand. Is it worth it to me? Do I like how it makes me feel about my station in life?” Brown said. “People nowadays are looking to have an emotional connection with their vehicles.”
Ellis Covington, 37, who runs a mortgage company in Glen Burnie,MD owns two sedans made by Mercedes, a brand he has long revered.
“It’s personal,” he said of his preference for luxury vehicles. “It’s what’s ingrained in your mind.”
Covington also owns a Hummer H2 he bought on impulse and has his eye on a third Mercedes.
Sleek styling and sophisticated features, such as 17-inch Belize wheels and a finished Burl Walnut dashboard, have always separated luxury cars from their more pedestrian cousins.
But what increasingly sets luxury cars apart are technological gizmos such as adaptive cruise control (it adjusts the car’s speed relative to the car in front of you), Bluetooth wireless technology (so you can leave that cellphone ear piece at home), and voice-activated controls (so you don’t have to lift a finger).
Living on the cutting edge, however, comes at a price. The very gadgets that make luxury cars special can become gremlins that, in some makes, keep them in the shop. Electrical problems were partly to blame for Mercedes recalling 1.3 million cars last year.
“Electrical issues are the biggest bone of contention” and are most often a source of mechanical glitches with luxury cars these days, especially in non-Japanese brands, said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports’ auto test division.
This year marked the first time that luxury car brands didn’t dominate the vehicle-dependability study by consumer research firm J.D.Powers & Associates. Toyota’s luxury brand Lexus was first, and Cadillac was fourth. The rest of the spots were claimed by Toyota, Mercury and Buick, said Neal Oddes, director of product research and analysis.
“The extra stuff you don’t have to have in a car — that’s what’s giving [owners] grief,” said Gus Mohammadi, owner of Eurosport Motors in Rockville MD, which specializes in Porsche repairs. “There’s no essential major problems with them. It’s the little stuff people paid a lot of money for.”
At least owners of new luxury vehicles don’t have to pay for fixing many of these glitches during the first few years. BMW, Mercedes, and Jaguar cover repairs during the first four years or 50,000 miles. BMW also covers routine maintenance, such as changing the oil and windshield wipers.
Generous warranty policies have helped luxury automakers counter the perception that their vehicles prohibitively costly to own.
Of course, no matter how good the warranty, it doesn’t shield owners from higher insurance premiums, said car experts and luxury vehicle owners.
According to the Highway Loss Data Institute, an arm of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a large number of luxury models tend to have higher losses from collisions because their parts are more expensive to replace.
On a 2005 Jaguar XJ, for instance, a replacement xenon headlight with a washer costs $1,041, not including labor. The price tag for a new heated power mirror is $562. A fender bender with a luxury car can get even pricier if the collision damages the car’s adaptive cruise control, which is behind the front bumper. The IIHS estimates a new system for the Jaguar XJ costs an average of $3,239, again not including labor.
In rare cases, premium automakers turn out a lemon, and when they do, they face the wrath of the luxury lemon owner, who may have more resources to press a claim.
Wallace Ridley of Upper Marlboro MD had owned a Mercedes, so his expectations were high when he bought a 2000 Jaguar XK8 convertible. The car came from a dealer, had 25,000 miles on it and was still under warranty.
Within the first 10,000 miles of owning it, he started to hear a noise in the engine. Every time he brought the car in for scheduled maintenance, he asked the dealer to look into it. Every time he was told the noise was normal.
The noise continued to get worse. A few days after the warranty expired, the tensioners on the timing chains — a critical engine part — came loose. Jaguar would not repair them, so Ridley paid $2,000 to fix them. About 35,000 miles later, the timing chains broke at a cost of $5,000.
Ridley believed the chains would not have broken had the dealer addressed the loose tensioners.
He looked into suing under his state’s â€œ lemonâ€ laws, which are modeled after the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which requires manufacturers of consumer products to live up to their warranties.
The Maryland lemon law applies to new vehicles or ones transferred to another person while still under warranty. A vehicle is considered a lemon if it can’t be fixed after a reasonable number of attempts, which can be as few as one, depending on the problem.
Getting a lawyer involved often gets automakers’ attention faster than suing on your own, lemon law attorneys say.
“It puts [consumers] in a position equal to the manufacturer in bargaining,” said Craig Kimmel, a Philadelphia attorney who has handled thousands of auto cases, including in Maryland.
In July, Ridley chose to sue Jaguar himself in small-claims court in Prince George’s County. Without admitting liability, Jaguar settled with him in September.
“All high-end vehicles have problems. It’s how they’re addressed,” Ridley said.
Rosemary Mariniello, a spokeswoman for Jaguar North America, said that she could not discuss Ridley’s case because of company policy but that in general, “Jaguar takes . . . each case as it comes to us and takes into account the dealer’s actions and what the customer is asking us to do.”
After his battle with Jaguar, Ridley could have been expected to drive his XK8 into the Potomac. But he did no such thing. In fact, he still has it.
“My wife, she just loves the car,” he said. “It’s very unique, and it drives like a dream.”
Interviews with a dozen luxury vehicle owners indicate that it takes a lot to push them over the edge, out of their heated leather seats and behind the wheel of, say, a Honda Civic.
In 2004, after getting around by riding public transportation, Brown bought his first Mercedes, a 1999 ML320 sedan, from a dealer in Woodbridge for $18,000. It was silver with a black leather interior. It was sleek and beautiful. It also had a clean vehicle history and 89,000 miles on it.
“I struggle for my money. I think I should enjoy it,” said Brown, a Department of Veterans Affairs employee who was wounded while serving with the Army in Iraq.
Pretty quickly, Brown’s dream car started to have problems. It made a loud noise whenever he applied the brakes. The wheels fell out of alignment. And his fuel pump once went out a day after he replaced it.
After spending several thousand dollars on repairs, Brown decided to buy a new car. He looked at a Land Rover and at a Lexus but ended up buying another used Mercedes, this time a 2002 ML500 sport-utility vehicle with a sticker price of about $32,000.
“I still wanted a Mercedes,” he said. “It’s the name I love. It’s not about anything else.”
That was before the tires on his second Mercedes wore out three times in a year, costing him $900 to replace each time. After transmission troubles recently landed his SUV in the shop for nine days, Brown said “I’m not going to buy a Mercedes.”
Kevin Johnson, a business development executive for a information technology firm, in some ways preferred his last car, a Chrysler Concorde, to his current luxury ride, a 2002 Land Rover Discovery he bought in close-to-new condition four years ago. (The Land Rover brand is owned by Ford Motor. )
For one thing, on the Concorde, replacing a cracked windshield cost no more than $200 and could be done in his driveway. When the windshield on his Land Rover got dinged this year, he was told the repair would cost $600 and had to be brought to the shop because the windshield has special rain sensors.
But the Land Rover came with an intangible perk he didn’t quite expect: the reaction it provokes in other people. Valets treat him with more respect, as do his younger brother’s friends.
That became clear to him after he drove his wife’s Toyota Corolla for a few days. “It’s amazing how much nicer people are to you when you pull up in a Land Rover,” he said.
Johnson thinks driving the right car can have the same effect professionally as wearing a finely tailored suit or having a lofty title.
“My job is to get in front of people. If they don’t take me serious or don’t think our company is successful because I don’t have an appropriate car, it makes sense for me to pay a little more,” he said. “If it gets me one extra deal a year, it’s worth it.”