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In the luxury-car marketplace, Acura is sometimes overlooked. It doesn’t have the decades of heritage you’d find from a European competitor, and it has a smaller model range than its Japanese competitor, Lexus. But Acura — which is the luxury division of Honda — sells stylish and high-tech sedans and crossovers, typically for less money than the biggest-name luxury brands.
Audi is a German luxury carmaker with a full line of sedans and crossovers, along with an unusual number of sporty performance models. The brand combines meticulously honed driving dynamics with extra-advanced in-cabin electronics — most famously the Virtual Cockpit, which replaces the conventional gauge cluster with a dazzling digital display. You can choose to render normal analog gauges or a Google Maps satellite view, among other options.
BMW says it makes “the ultimate driving machine,” and it has a heritage of brilliantly executed automobiles to back that up. The German company has been making cars for nearly a century, but its modern heritage came with the 1968 BMW 2002 — which brought delightful handling into a stylish yet sensible two-door sedan body. The 2002’s direct predecessor is the 3 Series, and it’s still the BMW that defines the brand’s values today. But while a 1968 BMW couldn’t match that year’s Mercedes-Benzes for relaxed refinement, current models aim to provide both excitement and opulent luxury, along with cutting-edge technology. This ranges from decadent luxury gizmos like gesture-based dashboard controls, to fuel-saving plug-in hybrid powertrains, to weight-reducing carbon fiber components.
By the time the budding General Motors purchased Cadillac in 1909, the automaker had already made a strong name for itself as a producer of luxury automobiles. Ironically the company was built on the remnants of the Henry Ford Company, and the founder of that company went on to establish General Motors' biggest and longest rival, the Ford Motor Company. A further irony is that Henry Leland, a prime mover in establishing Cadillac's quality reputation, went on to establish Lincoln, a longtime Cadillac rival. Throughout the 20th Century, Cadillacs reigned as the epitome of American luxury automobiles. In the Fifties and Sixties, they were known for their outrageous styling, and they were coveted by young and old alike. Legendary Cadillac models included the Coupe de Ville and Eldorado. As the luxury market began to favor import brands, Cadillac adopted a more international style, and it now goes head-to-head with the German, Japanese, and Korean luxury brands.
Named for a famous French racing driver, Chevrolet has always been a quintessentially American brand. For more than a century it has sold cars and trucks known for their solid value. In the General Motors hierarchy of brands, it is the lowest-priced among them. Yet Chevrolet also offers vehicles like the Suburban SUV and the Corvette sports car that have elevated price tags. In addition to those legendary vehicles, Chevrolet is also well-known for its Silverado full-size pickup truck, Tahoe full-size SUV, and Camaro sports specialty coupe and convertible. As the American market has trended toward crossover SUVs, Chevrolet has responded by offering the Equinox, Traverse, Blazer, and Trailblazer lineups. At the same time, Chevy has severely trimmed its once extensive line of sedans and coupes.
It’s hard to imagine a more all-American car brand than Dodge. Most of today’s carmakers source their lineups from all around the world, skewing toward space-efficient, fuel-efficient, front-wheel drive small cars and gentle-duty crossovers like you’d find in Europe and Asia. But even as part of the international Fiat Chrysler Automobiles group, Dodge has doubled down on American values: big tire-smoking rear-wheel drive cars with crazy horsepower.
Ford became an American icon with the 1908 Model T — credited with bringing the automobile to the masses. The Model T was basic and famously one-size-fits-all, but it was affordable, functional, and durable. Today, though, Ford focuses on its wide selection of hot-selling crossovers, SUVs, and pickup trucks. The brand offers just two passenger cars — the Fusion mid-size sedan and Mustang two-door performance car — and all of its current vehicles start above $20,000.
The first Honda vehicles sold in the United States were motorcycles, the Japanese brand’s light little automobiles arrived just in time for the 1970s oil crisis, and the company achieved dominant performance in the Formula One racing circuit in the 1980s. To this day, although the Japanese brand has spread to nearly every U.S. automotive market segment — plus motorcycles and machinery ranging from snowblowers to outboard motors — most Honda cars reflect this heritage of driving enjoyment and fuel efficiency.
Jeep got its start with the go-anywhere military vehicles of World War II, and the modern brand will never let you forget it. Although the Jeep brand has changed owners repeatedly over the years (it’s now part of the Italian-American Fiat Chrysler Automobiles), off-road capabilities and a seven-slotted grille are always part of the story.
Land Rover made one of the world’s first SUVs when it debuted in 1948, and arguably the world’s first luxury SUV when it introduced its flagship Range Rover in 1970. The British carmaker now makes exclusively luxury SUVs, but all retain the brand’s go-anywhere DNA. After selling its early vehicles in the U.S., Land Rover returned to this market in 1987 and has steadily grown its lineup ever since
It takes a lot for a new car brand to reach the upper echelon of name recognition and respect. That’s particularly true in the luxury segment, which pays particular tribute to decades of hard-earned reputation. But Lexus, which launched its first vehicle in 1989, is routinely mentioned in the same breath as luxury juggernaut Mercedes-Benz — whose first automobile hit the streets more than a century before.
It’s been a few years since Mazda dropped its famous “zoom-zoom” slogan, but it’s still hard to imagine a better way to sum up this small, independent Japanese carmaker. Mazda fills its cars and crossovers with an extra bit of driving zest, with livelier steering responses and more agile handling. While not every Mazda is the runaway most-fun-to-drive winner in its respective class, we’d say each one of them is — at a minimum — above-average.
Subaru is the longtime brand name of the cars and crossovers offered by a company formerly known as Fuji Heavy Industries. The Subaru name became so well-known that the carmaker recently changed its name to Subaru Corporation. Subaru came to the United States in 1968 in the wake of the entry into the market by other well-known Japanese manufacturers. It opened an American manufacturing plant in 1989 and has been building Subarus in Indiana ever since. Through the years the brand has become known for its emphasis on vehicle safety as epitomized by the fact that all-wheel-drive is standard across the bulk of its vehicle lineup. Excellent resale value is another Subaru hallmark.
Tesla got its start little more than a decade ago, selling a handful of Lotus roadsters with an electric battery pack and motor instead of a gasoline engine. But the California-based startup used its sales revenues to invest in increasingly accessible electric vehicles (EVs), and it’s now one of the country’s best-selling luxury brands — and its EVs are the most popular by a huge margin. In 2019, Tesla sold roughly three times as many fully electric cars in the U.S. as every other automaker combined.
Back in 1957, Toyota became the first Japanese carmaker to enter the U.S. market. But its Toyopet Crown sedan, engineered for low-speed Japanese roads, struggled in the American market. Toyota took the lesson to heart, adapting its future cars more carefully for American needs — and then proving so successful that U.S. brands began following its lead. Toyota’s compact Corolla and mid-size Camry sedans are segment-defining best-sellers. And Toyota created the modern crossover SUV and the modern gas-electric hybrid with the RAV4 and Prius, respectively.
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