Rapid technological progress, accompanied by the increasing standardization of what once was sold as costly optional equipment, is upsetting the notion of traditional automotive luxury.
I've written this before - much to the chagrin of many in the car industry, particularly executives who cling to the eroding but still profitable idea that "luxury" is reserved for those truly wealthy enough to afford it, or aspirant buyers willing to incur enormous debt to acquire it.
I am hereby restating my argument and offering as proof Exhibit A - the 2016 Kia Optima SX Limited sedan.
It carries a starting price of $35,790, which is $13,950 more than the base - but still surprisingly well-equipped - Optima LX.
A difference of nearly $14,000 is no small thing. Not for me, at least. And, I suspect, it isn't chump change for most of you. But the top-of-the-line, fully equipped Optima SX Limited is still tens of thousands of dollars less expensive than many similarly outfitted traditional luxury automobiles.
This is where I usually get the Timex-Rolex argument. It goes something like this: Both watches perfectly reflect passing seconds and minutes. But the Rolex is more elegant, expensive, luxurious - fitting for someone wealthy enough and willing to spend the money to acquire the prestige it presumably imparts.
I used to give that counterargument some credence - until along came Apple and Kia.
The new Apple watches - effective wrist computers, smartphones, and timepieces - arguably do more and provide greater service than the most expensive Rolex, for a lot less money. Kia? Put it this way: Kia is doing to the car industry what Apple has done to the phone, wristwatch, and computer businesses.
Here is my interpretation of Kia's business philosophy: Everyone who buys a car wants to feel safe in that car and will appreciate any driver-assistance technology that enhances a feeling of security. Everyone wants to remain safely in touch with everyone and everything else, even while driving. Everyone appreciates flattery, something that visibly "congratulates" one for "having arrived," or at least for making solid progress toward getting there. Everyone loves a good deal, something that speaks to one's common sense, as opposed to something that primarily strokes egos while lifting wallets.
In addition, the Kia thinking goes: Of course, everyone wants a car that moves with authority. The Optima SX Limited provides that with a turbocharged (forced air) 2-liter in-line four-cylinder gasoline engine (245 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque). But people want everything, assuming they can get it. They want big horsepower in tandem with good fuel economy. The Optima SX Limited delivers decently, with 22 miles per gallon in the city and 32 m.p.g. on the highway, with premium fuel needed for "best performance."
I absolutely loved driving the Optima SX Limited. It is comfortable. The model driven for this column came with optional quilted napa leather seat covering. Standard driver-assistance technology (in the SX Limited) included a premium onboard navigation system with high-definition rearview camera, Bluetooth wireless technology with hands-free connectivity, electronic rear parking assistance, forward collision warning system, lane-departure warning, blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, advanced smart cruise control, and autonomous emergency braking.
All of this stuff works, consistently and reliably. It could mean the difference between a costly crash and no crash at all.