A new era in American motoring

By Jeff Rundles

Just recently, in a regular automobile review column I do called “Executive Wheels” for ColoradoBiz magazine’s website, I wrote about the new 2010 Toyota Avalon, and something very interesting happened through the course of reader response.

I wrote that I loved the Avalon – I called it a “stunning” car – but I said that it struck me as an odd car in the Toyota line because it was so nice. Sure, Toyota makes a complete line of wonderful cars, trucks and SUVs, and I could go on and on extolling their virtues. One of the big ones is my own personal experience: my wife and I own a 1991Toyota Previa van, which I have reviewed here in these pages, and it just keeps going.

But the new Avalon struck me as a vehicle that should be better placed in Toyota’s luxury line, Lexus. Indeed, if you took the Toyota badging off of the car and replaced it with the Lexus logos, I wouldn’t think even the Lexus showroom personnel would even give it a second thought. My reasoning was that I didn’t think the average person going into a Toyota dealership was looking for a car on the luxury level that is the Toyota Avalon; that the person looking for a car like this would just go to the Lexus dealership. I was thinking about it psychologically, or so I thought, where people looking for quality and luxury would go to Lexus, and people looking for just quality would go to Toyota.

There is, it seems to me, a long line of psychology in all of this. The example I have usually cited over the years is the Nissan Maxima and the Infiniti G37 in Nissan’s luxury line. They used to be identical except for upgraded cosmetics in the luxury Infiniti, so the real difference is in the badge itself. The person just wanting a great, comfortable car with a ton of nice stuff but was in it more for the personal experience of driving it, would select the Maxima and save a few thousand dollars. If it was important to tell the world that you drive a luxury car, then the Infiniti, for a few thousand more, is the choice.

The same relationship exists for Toyota and Lexus. The 2010 Avalon, priced from $27,945 to $35,285 MSRP in three trims, is virtually the same car as the Lexus ES350, with one trim carrying a base price of $34,000. They weight within five pounds of each other, are the same size, and differ on wheelbase by less than 2 inches. Cosmetic differences.

It has always been my supposition that anyone wanting all of the quality but was willing to eschew the cache of Lexus – which is, essentially a message out to the world, not an internal feel-good thing – would buy the Toyota. I have recommended many times that it’s the car, not the name plate: The Honda Accord instead of the Acura TL; the VW Passat 4Motion instead of the Audi A6; the aforementioned Maxima/Infiniti thing. But there are always those people who, for little more than ego and the public statement, will pay more for essentially the same car.

That’s my psychology statement.

Then I get this email from a guy who said his father-in-law did just the opposite. He bought the Toyota over the Lexus not because it was cheaper and essentially the same car. Rather, he chose the Avalon over the Lexus because he didn’t want to be thought of as a Lexus driver; with the Avalon he got all of the luxury and none of the sneers.

That’s a psychology I never thought of.

I think I like this guy’s father-in-law a lot. Not only was he not a show-off, he purposefully went in the other direction. He didn’t do necessarily because he understood that the Toyota was the same car for less money – that would be the practical person. He did it because, probably, he doesn’t like the average Lexus guy. This is deep thinking. This is a guy would wear a beautiful custom-made suit simply because it was not an Armani. The Armani guy likes to be asked and pronounce the word “Armani” as often as he can; the custom-made suit guy doesn’t want people to see him in Armani, and then walk away and say “What an arrogant _____!”

Maybe it’s a sign of the times. So many people over the last several years bought too much house, too much car, and just basically flaunted, really, what they didn’t have, that maybe now we’re in an era of understatement. Stay under the radar.

The radar now is for people like that idiot in Fort Collins, Colo. who pulled the Balloon Boy hoax in hopes of garnering fame with a reality TV show. The rest of us now, one hopes, seek comfortable obscurity.

This all may have something to do with the new General Motors’ advertising campaign: “May the best car win.” They are not selling cache; they’re offering comfortable obscurity at an affordable price. It might backfire – Chevrolets might continue to suck – but I do believe that, at base, more people are willing to take a look at Chevy and Buick and stay under the radar.

I don’t know. About the only thing I’m sure of is that I wouldn’t want to be selling Lexus right now.

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