The winged badge on the nose may be familiar to those who know the legendary British marque, but the new Aston Martin Cygnet is definitely not the sort of car you’d expect to see super-spy James Bond driving; it’s certainly not the latest DBS nor the classic DB5 brought back to life in 007’s latest adventure, Skyfall. Measuring barely 10 feet, nose to tail, the three-door Cygnet isn’t much bigger than a Smart fortwo coupe.
And while the Aston microcar isn’t available in the U.S.—yet—it underscores the dramatic transformation that is underway in the luxury car market both here and abroad. Gone are the days when luxury was measured by the foot and the pound. These days, small is big with upscale buyers, compacts and even subcompacts—like the familiar BMW 3-Series and the newer 1-Series—rapidly growing in demand even as such traditional, full-size flagship models as the 7-Series, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the Audi A8, barely tread water.
Other classic metrics are facing a challenge. These days, many luxury buyers are as likely to compare the wattage of their sound systems as they are horsepower or 0 to 60 times. For the emerging digital generation, infotainment technology has become a major differentiator—Cadillac is putting as much emphasis on the new XTS sedan’s iPhone-like CUE technology as its performance characteristics.
Of course, some things never change. Buyers expect a significant level of refinement from a car wearing a Lexus or a Lincoln badge. Bentley still devotes more than 100 manhours of labor to the burl-wood-lavished interior of its big Mulsanne sedan. But even today’s “entry-luxury” models deliver a degree of sophistication once expected on only the most exclusive, top-line models. The latest Lexus ES boasts nearly as much standard equipment as you might have anticipated on the Japanese maker’s flagship LS barely a decade or so back.
Sorting out all the new luxury offerings isn’t easy, but we’ve narrowed the list down to a dozen of our favorites, as well as a select group of runners-up. (We’ve also picked our favorite luxury concept car of the year.) Furthermore, we even considered factors like fuel economy and the size and functionality of in-car infotainment systems that are not traditional in the segment. Of course, the classic measures of luxury—elegance, exclusivity, performance and desirability—still played an important role in our selections.
Best Entry-Luxury Model
It’s been a decade since Cadillac introduced its edgy Art & Science design language, promising a renaissance for the once-dominant domestic luxury maker. Since then, Caddy’s progress has come in fits and starts, with a couple notable setbacks. But the maker is clearly back on track for 2013 with the launch of two new models, the XTS and the ATS.
The latter is the first truly serious competitor to the benchmark BMW 3-Series that we’ve seen from the Motor City. The 2013 Cadillac ATS delivers a very solid mix of performance, styling and technology (notably the new CUE infotainment system). Our personal choice is the 2.0-liter turbo package, though the bigger V-6 is a muscular alternative. If the ATS is any indication of what Cadillac has in store—and we hear there’s plenty of new product to follow—it might yet become a viable competitor.
Honorable mention: It was yet again a virtual coin toss while trying to decide whether to give the gold medal to Cadillac or BMW. We’ve certainly got great respect for the latest-generation 3-Series. Kudos also goes to the latest-generation Audi A4, another one of the models giving BMW a run for its money.
Best Midsize Luxury Model
Whether you’re talking mainstream or luxury, the midsize segment is clearly one of the market’s most competitive and one of the most difficult from which to select a clear winner. But we’ve ultimately gone with the Audi A6 because of its striking design, lavish and elegant interior and solid performance—as well as a highly functional and easy-to-master infotainment system.
While Audi continues to set the bar when it comes to interior design—and nowhere is that more obvious than in the A6—it is also coming on strong with performance. For 2013, the maker is adding both the sportier S6 and the truly thrilling RS6 to the lineup, with the latter featuring a twin-turbo, 4.0-liter V-8 making 572 horsepower.
Honorable mention: It’s hard to go wrong in the midsize luxury market. Among our other favorites are the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, the BMW 5-Series and Audi’s A5 coupe, easily the most stylish in the group. You can also find some lavishly equipped mainstream brands pressing into the segment with competitively equipped—and appealingly priced—alternatives, including the Chrysler 300 and the Hyundai Genesis sedan.
Best Premium Luxury Sedan
Audi has traditionally been an also-ran in the American market, especially when it comes to the premium luxury segment, the A8 long lagging behind such stalwarts as the BMW 7-Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The latest-generation A8 suddenly shifted the equation when it made its debut a couple of years back. And now, with the addition of the sportier S8, Audi is starting to win over a sizable number of converts who used to only have two serious choices if they wanted a German premium sedan.
The new Audi S8 is the biggest, baddest and most powerful flagship model the Volkswagen AG subsidiary has ever offered. Its twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 makes an impressive 520 horsepower and 479 lb-ft of torque—enough to launch this full-size sedan from 0 to 60 in just 4.2 seconds. That might have been impressive enough to win our nod, but add to that the sophisticated design and luscious interior Audi first revealed on the A8—and an assortment of impressive comfort, safety and performance technologies—and you have our winner.
Honorable mention: Once again, here’s a segment with a variety of offerings with which it is hard to go wrong—including the newly updated BMW 7-Series—and we’re expecting big things, as well, from the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class coming this year.
Best Coupe-Like Sedan
BMW 6-Series Gran Coupé
A year ago we named the the Mercedes-Benz CLS our winner among Premium Luxury sedans. This year, as we see more and more coupe-like four-doors introduced to market we’ve decided it’s time to give them their own recognition. The first to claim that honor is the new BMW 6-Series Gran Coupé.
Like many a follower of the Bavarian maker we worried about what BMW might come up with as it added another 4.4 inches—and a second pair of doors—to the luscious 6-Series it introduced just a year earlier. There was no reason to fret. The overall look maintains the distinctive, coupe-like elegance while gaining a whole lot more flexibility and functionality. And careful engineering resulted in only the most modest of weight gains, which translates into nearly the same level of performance as the two-door BMW 6-Series. A perfect pick to mark the debut of this new award.
Honorable mention: Here’s still another segment in which potential buyers have some great alternatives, including the Porsche Panamera, the Aston Martin Rapide and Audi’s performance updates of the stunning A7, S7 and RS7.
Best Luxury Sports Car
When Porsche introduced the original Boxster, back in 1997, it had an almost toy-like quality and would never be confused with the German maker’s classic sports car, the 911. To its credit, each successive generation of the Boxster has gotten better and better. And during its unveiling in Geneva, last March, when we asked Porsche chief designer Michael Mauer what the goal was with the all-new model, his response was simple: “To make it more mature.” After spending time with the 2013 Porsche Boxster we’d have to say that it nails it.
If there’s a downside, it’s Porsche’s problem, not ours. The new model is so solid, so nimble and so attractive that those 911 wanna-owns who might otherwise have strained to get into the flagship model can now comfortably enjoy—rather than settle for—the Boxster.
Honorable mention: That said, the latest-generation 911—and the even newer 911 Carrera 4S—simply set the benchmark if you want to push the limits without stretching your budget all the way up into supercar territory. We are, however, anxiously awaiting a first drive of Jaguar’s new sports car, the F Type, which is likely to land on next year’s short list.
Best Luxury Convertible
Infiniti IPL G Convertible
The Infiniti brand long struggled in the shadows of the more successful Japanese luxury brand, Lexus. But the Nissan subsidiary has been gaining some traction in recent years. Much of that is due to the sleek lines and solid performance of the compact G-Series line, which now includes the new Infiniti IPL G convertible, a more muscular take on the G37 cabriolet.
The initials are short for Infiniti Performance Line, and at 325 horsepower and 267 lb/ft of torque, the Infiniti IPL G Convertible gets a noticeable bump up from the more conventional Infiniti G37 cabrio, the base car which had plenty of show but needed more go. Like the stock G37 convertible, the IPL G features a three-piece folding hardtop that maintains the sensuous lines of the G-Series, whether up or down.
Honorable mention: It was a virtual coin toss, with the Audi A5 cabriolet a solid competitor to the new Infiniti. Volvo also weighs in with the S80 convertible which is likely to come as a shock to anyone still thinking that Swedish designers can’t think outside the box—shape—of years past.
Best Premium Luxury Convertible/Roadster
How can we hand this honor to anything other than the all-new Mercedes SL? With the revolutionary original, those letters stood for sport and light, though like all too many other products introduced in the six decades since, the SL roadster has gotten bigger and bulkier. But the all-new model takes the Mercedes two-seater back to its roots.
Schwabian engineers have come up with a modern take on the original car’s aluminum tube frame that shaves as much as 300 pounds off the 2013 SL, depending on the specific model. That decreased mass has a number of benefits, including increased performance and agility—as well as notably reduced fuel consumption. Add a number of other innovations, including the trick FrontBass audio system and the Magic Vision Control wiper system and the latest SL is as striking at the first.
Honorable mention: BMW’s new M6 is everything one could expect when pairing the vaunted M-badge with the maker’s latest 6-Series coupe: stylish, sophisticated and blindingly fast. Bentley’s Continental GTC, meanwhile, takes open-air motoring to its finest level with the sort of elegance you’d expect from the British marque, including a multilayer, folding soft top that, when up, is as quiet at the GT coupe.
Ferrari F12 Berlinetta
There are plenty of reasons why anyone wanting a new Ferrari is likely going to have to stand in line and wait—sometimes for several years. The latest is the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta, which delivers the unassailable advantages of lower weight and more power. The front-mounted 6.3-liter V-12 punches out a scorching 730 horsepower through the rear wheels. A Formula One–derived, dual-clutch gearbox gives the driver the option of track-fast manual or automatic shifts. If you’re wondering, the Italian maker is boasting of 0 to 60 runs in a mere 3.1 seconds.
To our eyes, the new Ferrari F12 is also more visually appealing than the old 599. For your money—about $315,000 to start—you’ll get just two seats. If you want more, put your money down on the Ferrari FF.
Honorable mention: It’s becoming a bit more difficult to distinguish between mainstream and true exotics, but the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series undoubtedly pushes into the supercar stratosphere. This stripped-to-the-essentials version of the gullwing coupe turns out 631 horsepower, an extra 48 hp more than the “base” SLS.
Best Compact Luxury Crossover or SUV
The letters actually do mean something in German: Geländewagen Luxus Kompakt-klasse. We prefer to simply call it Mercedes’ compact crossover. The littlest version of the G-Class was completely updated for 2013 and given a distinctive—if polarizing—new look.
Mercedes likes to describe the GLK as the sort of ute you can take to the cottage during the day and the opera at night. It’s reasonably competent on gravel and washboard roads, but won’t tolerate truly rough off-roading. Then again, who cares? The majority of motorists never push the limits of traditional, truck-based SUVs, so the switch to car-like crossovers improves what really matters: on-road manners and fuel-economy.
Honorable mention: Audi continues to beef up its Q series of crossover-utility vehicles with the latest iteration of the Q5. Buick, meanwhile, has added an impressive compact CUV in the form of the new Encore.
Best Large Luxury Crossover or SUV
It’s been a big year for Britain’s Land Rover, what with its downsized Evoque winning just about every possible award—and now, the newly redesigned Range Rover aims to repeat that success in a larger package. The fourth-generation Range Rover may not deliver the visual shock that the much smaller Evoque did, but it’s a nonetheless appealing update of the big SUV’s familiar shape—and the attention to wind-cheating aerodynamic detail really pays off in a number of ways.
What’s been done under the skin is equally impressive considering the impact that it will have on comfort, functionality and fuel efficiency. The aluminum body saves as much as 700 pounds, depending upon the model, and powertrain improvements also yield significant advantages in both performance and mileage. There’s also a fancy new infotainment system that pairs with a 1,700-watt, 29-speaker Meridian audio system.
Honorable mention: It’s also been a big year for Mercedes-Benz after updating the entire G-Class lineup, including the big Geländewagen, the compact GLK and the bigger GL, which delivers surprisingly good mileage if ordered with its optional diesel package. Then there’s Nissan, which finally enters the seven-passenger crossover segment with the all-new and lavishly outfitted three-row JX.
Best Luxury Green Machine
Tesla Model S and Fisker Karma (tie)
This is a critical time for the green car segment, which has a flood of new offerings hitting the market between 2012 and 2014. Significantly, mainstream makers are adding hybrid options to a variety of conventional models, such as the BMW 5-Series, the Lincoln MKZ, the Infiniti M35h and even the Porsche Panamera and Cayenne.
We’re pronouncing a tie between two nontraditional makers, both California start-ups, though we need to add a few notes of caution. The Tesla Model S is the first mainstream offering from Silicon Valley–based Tesla Motors, the brainchild of Internet pioneer Elon Musk, who also runs commercial space firm SpaceX. The Tesla has been earning plenty of kudos for its interior and exterior design and features, though the real breakthrough is the use of an electric vehicle platform that can deliver a range of up to a 300-mile range. That’s more than triple that of most current battery-electric vehicles, but it requires an optional pack that nudges the price up to around $100,000. Part of our caution is that the lack of availability means not all of us have had a chance to drive the Model S yet.
Then there’s the Fisker Karma, founded in California by former Aston Martin chief designer Henrik Fisker. At a base price of around $103,000, it is one of the most stunningly beautiful sports cars on the road and offers the advantage of having both battery and a gasoline backup generator that lets it keep going even when the pack has discharged. Fisker has had some early quality problems but for those who want a stylistic masterwork that’s also green, it should not be ignored.
Best Luxury Tech Car
Lexus LS 600h
It likely won’t be long before you can order a hybrid option for nearly any vehicle on the market, from the smallest city car to the likes of a big Mercedes-Benz S-Class. But at the premium end of the scale, Lexus has first-mover bragging rights, having introduced its first gas-electric flagship, the original LS 600h in 2007.
As with the original, the 2013 version of the hybrid is the most expensive and lavishly equipped model in the Lexus lineup. The new LS 600h has nearly every possible bell and whistle, from massaging seats to a massive video display that will make an iPad owner whistle in admiration to the latest version of the Lexus hybrid drive system. It also boasts a sportier look, including the brand’s signature spindle grille design.
Honorable mention: When many buyers seem more interested in knowing the square inches of a vehicle’s video screen than the cubic inches under the hood, the Cadillac XTS, with its intuitive cue infotainment system is clearly clicking with the digital generation. For those with a seven-figure checking account, there’s the Bentley Mulsanne, which can be ordered with what is virtually an entire mobile-office layout.
Best Luxury Concept Vehicle
We’ll wrap up our annual Best-of awards with a tip of the hat to the Lexus LF-LC, a hybrid supercar concept that we first previewed at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show and visited again with an update at the Sydney (Australia) Motor Show last October. Officials with Toyota’s luxury brand remain cagey about plans for the dynamic design, which features the boldest use yet of the new Lexus spindle-grille nose. But odds are we’ll see it reappear—at the very least heavily influencing the look of the replacement for the original Lexus supercar, the LFA. And don’t be surprised if, like the concept, a production version uses hybrid power primarily to improve performance.
Incidentally, the two models that tied for our pick of Best Luxury Concept of 2012 aren’t going to disappear either. The Lincoln MKZ was being readied for production as we reached this issue’s deadline. As for the Acura NSX, stand by. That reborn supercar likely will reach U.S. showrooms sometime in 2014.
Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of the website TheDetroitBureau.com.