You know, I think I’ve finally figured it out. It comes down to a single word, and it’s not even a really complicated one. That word is refinement. I came to this conclusion whilst driving a hire car in the quiet country town of Adelaide, an hour’s flight from Melbourne. Refinement, is defined as having elegance, in taste or feeling. While taste in cars is most definitely a personal thing, sometimes even quite tribal, the feeling of driving an elegant or refined vehicle is very much measurable.
Modern cars are generally pretty good. Unless you’ve bought a Great Wall or a GM product from South Korea. Here is a good example. We’ve had two hire cars in Adelaide, one a Hyundai i20, in a rather nice blue, I might add, and a GM Holden Barina/Chevrolet Aveo. Both cars are decidedly cheap, basic small things you would drive in the city, but not on a long cruise. I’m not sure if it was the kilometres done, or just poor engineering and assembly, but the Barina was sh!thouse.
Firstly, the engine was all sound and fury, signifying nothing, except maybe wasted dinosaur juice. Then, the engine would create some sort of rattle that caused a vibration in the car above 3,000 RPM and the gearbox was about as decisive as a bipolar fat kid deciding between chocolate and caramel. That was just to change up one gear. I can’t imagine what it would be like when it needed to do something intelligent, like go up a hill. In contrast, the Hyundai was, to put it simply, refined in stark comparison. It did what it needed to do, it used what it had at its disposal and it didn’t complain or send nasty vibrations through the cabin when you needed to accelerate. It managed something difficult, that is, to feel smooth and effortless, without giving away its price point.
Now, these are basic city cars that are built at a price, for a price. Cheap, cheerful cars have a role to play, and make for good runabouts over short distances. They’re also surprisingly roomy and comfortable now, as long as you don’t have four big people in it, and some of them are even pretty quick, like a Fiesta ST or Clio RS. The level of refinement is of course, the defining factor. But just what is refinement in a car? I tend to think of it as the vehicle being able to do whatever the driver wants it to automatically, with minimal fuss or angst and in cocooned comfort. In this way, the Chevrolet Aveo/Holden Barina I was driving in Adelaide does not fit the bill. Neither, really, does the Hyundai i20.
Of course, this means that the term “luxury” should not be automatically attached to a car just because it’s built by one of the major luxury car companies. Sure, an Audi A4 is, by many measures, a luxury vehicle. However, I don’t think an A1 is particularly luxurious, given leather seats (real or fake) aren’t even a standard feature. For the asking price, around AU$30,000, you could buy a top range Polo GTi, which is both quick, entertaining and…well, it’s actually the same car. Which one would you rather have, ignoring the badge snobbery? I know my preference.