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Executive wheels: The psychology of luxury

What transforms a Nissan into an Infiniti and an Audi into a VW?

Jeff Rundles //June 2, 2016//

Executive wheels: The psychology of luxury

What transforms a Nissan into an Infiniti and an Audi into a VW?

Jeff Rundles //June 2, 2016//

The automobile business these days is a confusing mess, one driven by psychology more than anything else. There are cars termed “luxury” or “near luxury” because they are badged by one automaker's “luxury” brand – Lexus for Toyota, Infiniti for Nissan, Acura for Honda, Audi for Volkswagen – that aren’t really at the luxury level.

Then there are cars in the “pedestrian” lines that are every bit as luxurious as those carrying the badge with more cachet. The psychology part is that people will pay more for the badge for the same or lesser car in the line with less prestige and refuse to pay less for the same or better car because the nameplate doesn’t have the “name.”

Here we have another two great examples of this psychology: the Nissan Maxima SL and the Audi A3 Sedan.

The Maxima is the flagship sedan in the Nissan line and was first introduced by the company for the 1982 model year. Maxima sales have fallen off in recent years, and in fact the company manufactured a 2014 model and then skipped 2015, launching this 2016 model as newly redesigned in an effort to re-capture its glory years. I’m not convinced this will work – not because the Maxima isn’t a wonderful car, but precisely because it is such a wonderful car.

This Maxima is Nissan’s Avalon – by all rights it should be an Infiniti. Here you have every bit of luxury you’ll find in higher-priced vehicles. A great, quiet cabin, leather seating, all the bells and whistles, and all of the feel of one of the world’s great sedans. The engine here – a 3.5-liter V6 with 300 hp – is coupled with a very smooth and smart CVT transmission and the result is a smooth and powerful car that will take the long drive with aplomb, and bomb around town with all the muscle anyone could want.

It has great 4-wheel ABS brakes, forward emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, cross traffic alert, halogen headlamps, a huge panoramic sunroof, navigation, color display screen with voice recognition, 18” wheels – you get the picture; this SL model of the Maxima, not base but not top of-the-line, has everything and all for a base price of $36,890. The only option listed was floor mats, trunks mats and a trunk net, all for $220, and when you added in the $825 destination charge, the bottom line is $37,935.

There are two similar Infiniti sedans: the Q50 and the Q70. Neither compares apples-to-apples, and the Q50 is only slightly more expensive than the Maxima on base price, but it has a much less powerful engine (300 hp vs. 208). The Q70 has a 5 inches longer wheelbase than the Maxima, and its 3.7-L engine puts out some 330 hp – but its base price is $49,850! Plus, to be honest, on the redesigned Maxima they lengthened and rounded the nose, and it looks just like the Infiniti sedans.

The point is, if you can get over the nameplate – and, using psychology, over yourself – the Maxima is an Infiniti, but with the Nissan name on it you get more car for the money. Sounds good to me



Now the Audi A3 is another matter entirely, and a different approach to car psychology.

First off, let me just say that I loved driving the A3. It is categorized as a small family/compact sedan, and it’s just the right size for zipping around town, maneuvering traffic, getting into tight parking spaces, and it even had plenty of get-up-and-go for the highway. It handled great in every situation. About the only downside was that the back seat in this 4-door sedan was a bit on the crimped side; not terrible, but no lounge chair, and larger people would find it challenging.

This sporty car features a 2.0-liter, turbocharged in-line 4 banger engine with some 220 hp – not a race car by any means, but more than adequate for a car of this size. Again, it featured pretty much all of the bells and whistles of modern, technology driven cars – then they added on about 5 grand in tech and premium upgrades: nav with voice, cd/dvd/hd radio Audi connect, 18” wheels, music interface with iPod cable, heated power seats, aluminum window surrounds. They charged nothing extra, but the Chestnut Brown leather interior was superb.

Not everything was perfect. Like many German cars, the cup holders seemed like an afterthought and they are in a tough place and difficult to use – under the climate and radio control, and not deep enough for a 711 coffee. And the turbo lag is a bit troubling, as the car pauses every time you punch it and then kicks in with a BANG. The sunroof is smallish. The outside side mirrors are small.

And there are quirky things: The radio volume is not in the dash, but rather by itself on the console (and Audi thing) – no big deal, and you get used to it. And then even though there is a screen, the car has redundant connections for everything – car settings, nav, media, radio, etc. – on toggle switches on the dash.

But like I said, I liked it, it was fun to drive, and all of the systems were easy to use.

Yet – all through the week I was wondering “what is it about this Audi?” Something familiar. Then it dawned on me. It’s a Volkswagen. Sounds like a VW, drives like a VW. Feels like a VW. The only difference is price – the psychological factor of selling this VW as an Audi.

The base price here on the A3 with AWD Quattro is $34,200. They added on the stuff I mentioned, then $925 in destination charges, and the bottom line is $40,525. I liked the car a lot – really. But I could get something very similar, which I would like just as much, as a VW for less money. I’d have to navigate the AWD thing – the new VW Sportwagon, perhaps.

In any case, I really, really like Audi – but this A3 I drove is a VW that says Audi. Not a bad thing, just sayin’.