A guest – someone involved in the high-end luxury car business – pulls a face when the Mercedes-Benz S-Class is mentioned. “That’s not luxury, that’s premium,” they say of a car whose base price can be as high as £192,805 – higher than the starting price of some of the luxury cars their own interests involve.
So I try to define luxury. Is it exclusivity? That’s part of it, but the fact that nobody else has one can’t alone be a reason, otherwise an MG 6 would be a luxury car.
Okay, that’s facetious. Sorry. Luxury also, presumably, means expensive. But clearly that’s not enough either, if the opinion of our expert is to go by, otherwise an AMG S-Class would be a luxury car, and apparently it isn’t.
Is it craftsmanship? That there’s a personal mark on it? Possibly. Recently I watched a Bentley steering wheel being stitched together. The leather wrapping each rim is cross-stitched by hand. Before they start, the craftspeople who do it make a series of indentations in the leather, so they know where to put their stitches. To do that, they work their way around the rim, pricking it with a fork. Each of them has their own fork – any old kitchen fork – which means the pitch between the stitching is unique to whoever hand-stitched your wheel.
That is my steering wheel, made by that person. By hand. It took time. It is unique, to me, made by them. That, I will accept, sounds like the very definition of luxury, as opposed to premium.
So I’m getting closer to a definition, but that can’t be enough, otherwise Mercedes wouldn’t have thought it worthwhile to launch the Maybach brand (recently resurrected as a trim level). Just putting in time and effort would have been enough.
So is there also, for want of a better word, snobbery? A grim one-upmanship to which some people fall victim. Is it that there is no reasonably priced alternative available? You can buy a Seiko watch for £25,000 but also one for £250. You can have a Hublot watch for £25,000 but not £250. Does that make one a luxury brand and not the other?
Similarly, you can spend £200,000 on a new Mercedes and also £30,000, but there’s no new Bentley for the latter price. I’d dare say most people have no idea which £25,000 watch or £200,000 car is the better built or which involves more craftsmanship, but they will know which feels like luxury and which does not.
What makes me more uncomfortable than anything is that I know it too.