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Gear shift: Irish car buyers now demanding more luxury

Luxury brands are popular but we also want more high-end features from ‘regular’ carmakers

What is luxury in a car? It can mean different things to different people. Photograph: iStock

What is luxury in a car? It can mean different things to different people. Photograph: iStock

 

According to Bill Bryson, human evolution has been one long journey to find more luxury. From breaking our backs just to survive as primitive early humans, we’ve become a species with access to all the world’s information via a pocket-sized supercomputer that can also order pizza for us.

With such luxuries abundant in our everyday lives, it’s little wonder we’re looking for more and more luxuries in our cars, and indeed just flat-out looking for more and more luxury cars. Ford, that mainstay of working-class and middle-class motoring, recently announced it was going to kill off the venerable Mondeo saloon, simply because people just aren’t buying such workaday medium-sized cars anymore. As an emblem of the modern car market, you couldn’t do much better than the death of the car once used by the UK Labour party as an avatar of the everyman. Its once unassailable market position has been eroded, both by more expensive SUVs and posher brands such as Audi.

Indeed, according to Fortune Research, the total global revenue from the premium and luxury car market will exceed $655-billion by 2027. You can see the appetite for high-end cars in the increasing number of brands that have dedicated premium marques. Whereas once, your choice of luxury cars was pretty much limited to Audi, Mercedes, or BMW (unless you were well-heeled enough to go for a Rolls-Royce or Bentley), now the luxury car buyer can choose from DS (spun off from Citroen), Lexus (Toyota’s luxury brand since 1989), and Genesis (Hyundai’s luxury brand, which will be coming to Europe later this year).

Distinct shift

That’s without even taking into account more high-end models from established brands such as Porsche, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo. Volvo in particular has made, in the past two decades, a distinct shift from middle-class to upper-class motoring, taking on the German “Big Three” head on, and doing so successfully.

“We feel we have a very compelling offer that will appeal to the premium end of the market, offering a greener choice for consumers for whom the environment will be an important factor. Of course, we will continue to keep safety and reliability at the core of what we offer customers,” says Alan Cowley, commercial operations director at Volvo Car Ireland. “The XC40 and XC60 are both No 1-selling models in their respective segments. We have always enjoyed a strong association with safety and reliability and in more recent times this reputation has been enhanced with outstanding design, something that our home country Sweden is synonymous with. The industry is changing at a greater pace than ever before, electric power trains, autonomous drive being the two of the most obvious changes, but ownership and usage styles are also changing. What is not going to change is the fact that there will be demand for cars at different price points and the fact that customers like choice.”

Of course, luxury motoring is not just about luxury brands. Increasingly, Irish car buyers are looking for more luxury from what might be considered “mass-market” brands, and they’re willing to pay for it. Carmakers that began life as bargain brands can now introduce models costing north of €50,000 without the batting of a single eyelid. One simple stat shows Irish buyers’ preference for increasing luxury and that’s the fact that sales of automatic gearboxes have increased by 70 per cent in the past decade (although that’s in part been driven by the fact that many auto box options are now more efficient from an emissions perspective).

Luxury cars in 2021 are far less likely to be defined in terms of their engine or any mechanical characteristic

“If you look strictly at the vehicles marketed and perceived as upper luxury cars, their share of the market is increasing. But customers across the market are demanding more. The typical car sold in Ireland in 2021 is bigger, faster, better equipped than in 2015 – by a significant margin. Which begs the question, what is luxury? It means different things to different people, but in terms of cars, it seems to be getting harder to define,” says Jeremy Warnock, product manager for Renault Ireland.

Breakthrough

Renault in particular looks to be one of those brands on the cusp of making a breakthrough from mass-market to quasi-premium in the next few years. “Luxury cars in 2021 are far less likely to be defined in terms of their engine or any mechanical characteristic. We already see this in the upper luxury segments, both saloon and SUV. Where once big petrol engines were de rigeur, we now see a mix of petrol, diesel, hybrid, plug-in hybrid and, increasingly, fully electric. And where once, luxury cars were exclusively saloons, today they might alternatively be hatchbacks, estates, SUVs, coupés or even coupé SUVs. So the concept of luxury has changed – the ingredients don’t matter so much, as long as they make the customer feel good,” says Warnock.

“At Renault, we don’t offer fibre-optic starlight headlining, or crystal champagne flutes on any of our cars. But with every new model we launch, we increase the feel-good factor for our customers. The best example of this policy is our forthcoming Arkana. The coupé-inspired style of this SUV combines with generous interior space in a way that has until now been seen only in premium brands. Sometimes it’s not a question of equipment and features. In some cases, luxury is found elsewhere. Our Zoe customers love the car for its effortless acceleration and its silence – characteristics previously found on larger vehicles. But they also appreciate the ease of use it brings – being able to refuel your car at home, so it’s ready to go every morning without ever having to splash diesel on your shoes or resist the dubious temptation of petrol station baked goods is a luxury that people sometimes don’t even recognise until they already own their Zoe!

“That’s only one side of the luxury market though – bringing premium features to customers buying mainstream brands. The sporty Alpine brand is also part of the Groupe Renault portfolio and offers a different type of luxury, the opportunity for customers to experience the joy of driving a pure, focused sports car, developed without compromise. Alpine will build on these credentials in the coming years, as it develops a multi-model line-up, with a range incorporating sports cars and also cars which retain a driver focus while offering family capabilities. Also to add customers are redefining luxury – they often choose to drive smaller cars including PHEV and EVs but are willing to pay for high-end trim levels with enhanced spec, trim and technology.”

Affordable to premium

That journey from affordable to premium is one that Audi has long since been on, the brand having made its debut in the 1960s with the Audi 50, based on the lowly VW Polo, and the original Audi 100, based on the Volkswagen Passat. The four-rings have come an awful long way since, and Audi regularly vies for the best-selling luxury brand spot now. It’s even broken into the top-10 selling brands in Ireland, and now it’s taking a lead in the electric car world.

“Audi has firmly established itself as a premium brand over the past 40 years. Audi’s innovation in the fields of engineering, design, quality and driving performance have been the basis of our success. We are on the start of a journey with our electric model range. The e-tron GT is our flagship electric model making a statement of what is to come from Audi. The e-tron GT’s design language, both inside and out, demonstrates just how desirable an electric car can be,” says Richard Molloy, Audi Ireland’s general manager for product and marketing.

“Audi Ireland has been a national sales company for just over a decade. We have been the number one premium car brand in Ireland over this time. We have grown the business in Ireland thanks to an extremely professional dealer network, investment into the brand, and high levels of customer loyalty. All underpinned by an extremely strong range of cars. There are 15 products in our range, spanning from the A1 to the e-tron GT. There is a healthy demand from Irish customers for Audi products. Based on the wide range of the types of cars we retail, we have a wide customer base in terms of age, demographic and so on. PCP finance has been a major lever for consumers to purchase our cars.”