Infiniti Q50 2013 665x297

What’s the definition of a premium model?

Premium. It’s a word that is thrown around by many with little thought as to what it actually means, attached to everything from cars (obviously) through to shampoo and paper towels. Perhaps it’s just the people I follow through social media (you can find me @FrontSeatPhil) but there has been a lot of discussion recently as to what exactly qualifies a car as being premium, with suggestions that vehicles as diverse as the Range Rover Sport and Dacia Duster fit the bill.

The phrase ‘premium budget’ even appeared in my feed one day, and that’s when I thought that we have all gone too far with chasing this premium image. First of all, let’s accurately define the word premium. Checking the Random House Dictionary, it states that something should be “of exceptional quality or greater value than others of its kind,” which is a pretty solid definition. The problems start when you include perceptions in the mix, which is what lead to the ‘premium budget’ line being linked to the Dacia Duster.

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In the kindest possible way, I don’t believe that Dacia products can be described as being of ‘exceptional quality’ but, given their bargain basement pricing, is there perhaps room to suggest that they offer ‘greater value’ than their competitors? The headline price of £8,995 for an SUV-like car sounds like great value, but in reality you’re getting quite a basic level of sophistication and refinement. Start wanting such luxuries as a refined engine, metallic paint and four-wheel drive to match the SUV appearance and you’re suddenly facing a £16,000 bill and plenty of competition.

It seems like the bargain-basement versions just give you what you pay for. I’m a big fan of what Dacia are doing with new cars, but don’t let that starting price sway you in to thinking you’re getting a massive bargain, otherwise we’ll soon be including the SsangYong Turismo under the premium headline.

As far as cars go, I think the dictionary definition of premium can simply be discarded, rendered redundant by intangible things such as feelings, desire and indefinable quality.

At least I think it’s indefinable, but an engineer at Infiniti recently spent a long time explaining to me that everything can be quantified. After many hours and a lot of red wine, I’m not sure who won the point, after a good sleep I still maintain I’m right. My evidence is the recent press release for the all-new Mercedes S-Class. It ran to nearly 35,000 words, most of which were used to explain just why it’s such an awesome car, but only twice did the Stuttgart team mention ‘premium’.

Perhaps it’s not something you bestow on a car then, but rather something that is earned. The marketing departments of the motoring world will wheel out their heritage, the fact that they’ve competed in motorsports for many years making them a premium brand. They may be right – look at Audi’s endless Le Mans victories, or Ferrari’s 60-odd years in Formula One.

Is it that history that’s earned them the right to be regarded as a step above the hoi polloi, somehow better than the rest? Probably not, given that Vauxhall have been making cars and competing in motorsport for over a hundred years but have still failed to attract that premium cachet.

Likewise, few would argue that the Lexus LS range is anything but premium, yet the brand started life as a marketing exercise by Toyota, and even then that was less than 25 years ago. There’s no heritage, no sense of passion, yet every bit of the car is up there with the best.

I have no option but to conclude that there really is no way of defining a premium car, that it’s simply down to the individual to bestow such a description upon a brand. For most, it comes down to those touch points on a car, the parts covered in thick leather or solid-feeling metal. Well built, well crafted, doing their job exceptionally well but without any overly ornate and unnecessary frills.

It’s also about the sensation of driving, the feeling that there’s a connection between the driver and the car, however that manifests itself. For some it’ll be the direct responses and communication of suspension, for others it will be the isolation from the outside world that also allows just enough feedback through the controls.

Then there’s the safety element, both real and perceived. A Renault Clio provides a five-star EuoNCAP score just as a Mercedes A-Class does, but one simply feels more solid, provides a greater impression of safety. That perceived solidity is then subconsciously felt throughout the rest of the car.

Put everything together and you’ll find that the German trio of Audi, BMW and Mercedes are making the most of it. That also explains why they’re loathe to depart from their tried and tested formulas, for fear of alienating their buyer, losing that premium tag.

And it’s why there’s never been a better time to be a young or mainstream brand keen to take a slice of the pie. Infiniti and Lexus are building the right products, Citroen are making the DS sub-brand work, even the likes of Kia and Hyundai are getting there. Ultimately it’s not up to them though.

You decide what counts as premium, regardless of what the marketing teams tell you.

[button link=”” rel=”nofollow” color=”orange”]This article was first published at on 15 October 2013.[/button]

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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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