Look beyond the badge and there are more alternatives than you know
Luxury and premium brand cachet is a difficult thing to acquire. It seems no matter how good a product is, for it to establish itself as premium vehicle it needs only wear the right badge on the hood and tailgate. But there are manufacturers out there building proper rivals to the established luxury elite. These aren't wannabe rivals, but ones that provide genuine alternatives that are worth serious consideration when you're in the buying market.
Toyota went through a strange post-Supra phase where performance and excitement disappeared from its radar. There were sparks of potential brilliance since, but few ever caught alight and set the brand on fire. That's the case still, to an extent, though the brand seems to have found a little more fire in its belly of late. The Toyota Camry – once a class leader in its own right – has rediscovered its mojo in its latest incarnation. Despite remaining front-wheel driven, it boasts exceptional driving dynamics, packaged with high tech safety systems, and interior class and luxury that seem more Lexus than Toyota.
Though it might not target them directly, the BMW 3 Series finds an unlikely, and deserving, rival in the form of the Camry.
Genesis may be the luxury arm of Hyundai, but it's yet to truly crack the luxury segment and change perceptions. The G80 goes a little way towards changing that though. It slots in as a rival to the BMW 5 Series, offering a 5.0-liter V8, rear wheel drive, and a properly premium package. It may not offer the driving dynamics of the Jaguar XF, with a dedicated comfort bias, but the prioritization of comfort makes it one step short of a luxury limo jam packed with features. The only place the Genesis G80 really fails to thrill is in driving dynamics, but few who buy in this segment want a razor-sharp drivers tool – and anyway, isn't luxury all about comfort?
Though it's not quite a Volvo XC90, the Hyundai Santa Fe offers some pretty premium aspects of SUV ownership. Take for example the spacious seven-seat interior and the punchy 3.3-liter V6 motor. But where the Santa Fe scores highest and proves itself to be a premium alternative is in the levels of refinement it offers. The Santa Fe boasts one of the best ride qualities in class, pairing good support with supple damping that irons out every bump smoothly and efficiently. NVH refinement is also hugely impressive, with wind and road noise kept to a minimum – offering a sensory deprivation tank of a ride on par with some of the best.
There's nothing I love more than when the little guy delivers a swift kick to the teeth of the playground bullies. That's precisely what the Mazda CX-5 does. Against rivals like the BMW X1 and Audi Q3, the Japanese model under-promises and over-delivers in a big way. Not only does it offer a premium design inside and out, but the material quality is exceptional, it's jam-packed with features, and it offers some of the best driving dynamics around. BMW is oft seen as the driver's car in all segments, but the CX-5 makes the X1 seem downright ordinary. Exceptional levels of refinement just cement the CX-5 as a true rival to the premium elite.
At first glance, the Legacy might not seem entirely premium – the interior design, material quality, and somewhat awkward infotainment system seem lackluster against German alternatives. But I'm yet to meet anyone that's driven the Legacy that hasn't fallen in love with its spaciousness, levels of refinement, and supreme comfort. The Boxer engine thrum is matched by its relative efficiency, and the standard all-wheel drive gives all-weather confidence. It may lack the finishes of a premium product, but if premium is skin deep, then it's not really premium after all – and the Legacy proves that with its depth of quality and character.
Alfa Romeo would like us to believe that it's as premium as it once was – but the reality is there's a lot that still needs to be proven. But in the SUV stakes, the company's first effort has proven to be a smash hit. Based upon the same platform that underpins the Giulia sedan, the Stelvio offers uncompromised driving dynamics, packaged in a premium SUV body that lives up to the premium build quality and design expected of anyone wanting to rival the BMW X3. Soft leathers, soft touch dash materials, and plenty of available features are just cherries on the top of a well-rounded premium package.
Volkswagen has never been classified as a premium brand – yet almost all underpinnings are shared in one way shape or form with Audi siblings. The Atlas is one of the few models that doesn't boast an Audi counterpart – but the MQB-based 7 seater offers all the refinement and style of an Audi. The kings of perceived quality, VW has endowed the Atlas with more than just skin-deep quality. Build is exceptional, yet premium in feel, and the ride refinement and powertrain options are truly top class. A spacious interior with seating for 7, the Atlas is the biggest, baddest Volkswagen you can get: a premium package without the accompanying price tag.
Few manufacturers ooze style from every single model they offer in the way the Mazda line-up does. The Mazda 6 follows true to this with striking looks inside and out. But beneath the surface, the Mazda 6 offers uncompromised driving dynamics and high levels of refinement in all areas. Ride comfort is on par with the premium Audi A4 and better than the BMW 3 Series, and despite its front-wheel driven base, the Mazda 6 offers keen handling and composed ride on all surfaces. It's so refined, you could slap an Audi badge on the nose and no one would be any the wiser.
At the rapid rate of progression Volvo is moving at, it won't be long before it's not just any premium, brand, but the premium brand to buy. The latest XC60 follows on from a best-seller globally, but the new model sheds the plain ruggedness of the old XC60 and moves into true premium territory. The XC60 oozes style, inside and out, and offers a refined package with cleverly thought out ergonomics and compelling driving dynamics. Few cars enable you to get out more relaxed than when you climbed in – but the XC60 is the latest in a number of Volvos that achieves that feat. Now that's premium!
If just a decade ago you'd said that Kia would have a rear-wheel drive sports sedan engineered by the men from BMW's M Division, you'd have been called a liar. Yet we're in the midst of the Stinger GT – a rear wheel drive saloon from the Korean brand that not only attempts to face a pitch from the premium elite, but one that hits it for a home run, and a big one at that. Sporty performance, a compelling turbocharged drivetrain, and impressive dynamics are only bested by a premium interior. The only problem facing the Stinger is the badge on its nose – but look past that and it's one of the best vehicles you can buy in segment.