Have luxury cars really improved that much in the past decade?

I recently climbed into a BMW with an interior from 10 years ago. I plugged my phone into a USB port, paired it to Bluetooth phone and audio, and quickly selected a song from a playlist using the iDrive knob. This particular car didn't have blind-spot warning or adaptive cruise control, but with the right options checked, it could have. The materials, from the general plastics to the switchgear and wood trim, are perfectly lovely. The seats, sensational.

This got me thinking: Have luxury cars really improved that much in the past decade?

Oh, there are more gadgets and gizmos, sure. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto can be nice, but they can also cause enough headaches that it can be easier to use the car's native systems … including a 10-year-old BMW X5's. There are also more USB ports now and wireless charging, which is pretty clutch with Bluetooth Audio. The screens have all gotten bigger, and have picked up touchscreen capability, but their functionality hasn't always improved. It's sometimes gotten worse, especially in the cases of Mercedes-Benz and Lexus. Then there are the screens that are increasingly replacing traditional gauges. Is all that extra info right in front of you really necessary? Is it instead distracting? And in the case of BMW, is the design harder to read?

I don't want to sound too much like an old man yelling at a cloud. This isn't lamenting the loss of analog purity of old cars in favor of technology-packed new ones. That's perhaps something you could've done back in 2011 about cars that were then 10 years old. Indeed, the difference between a luxury car in 2011 and 2001 was far greater than what we have today between 2021 and 2011. And that's exactly my point. I'm not sure how much progress has been made recently, at least when compared to past decades.

Actually, it's hard not to wonder if some brands have perhaps gotten a little worse. In the case of interior functionality, all the extra technology can be distracting and confusing. Tasks that were once easy to accomplish with the press of a button can now be head-scratching and/or hair-pulling affairs. I also wonder if the increased reliance on screens in place of switchgear is more about car companies saving money than it is consumer demand and/or the belief they are superior. Two screens (or one) has to be a lot cheaper than designing, sourcing and then fitting an analog gauge pack and numerous buttons and knobs.

The other question is, do people actually use all the extra stuff added in the past decade? I have serious doubts, especially among older demographics — you know, the people most likely to have the cash needed to buy gadget-packed luxury cars in the first place. My mother doesn't even know what a podcast is, let alone appreciate that her Mercedes can play one in umpteen different ways. This observation extends to safety tech. While the industry-wide adoption of automatic emergency braking is without question an important advancement, many people (including myself) turn off lane-keeping assist because it's too intrusive and don't use adaptive cruise control (not including myself) because they "don't trust it."

2019 BMW X5
2019 BMW X5

In the case of interior quality, there's obviously more bling, plus leather or pleather applied to non-seat surfaces, and of course those big, pretty screens. But the overall quality of materials? It's nothing like the improvements enjoyed by mainstream brands, where cars like the Nissan Sentra and Hyundai Tucson are bordering on what was once luxury territory. The gap has definitely tightened. Actually, the quality of some luxury brands' materials have gotten notably worse. The interior of my 2013 Audi Allroad was of a higher quality than that of a 2021 second-generation model; the similarly disappointing Audi Q5 has hard plastics inside on par with what we'd consider unremarkable in a Volkswagen. That wasn't the case with the original generation.

And then there's the driving experience. Or, perhaps more accurately, the choice of driving experiences. Almost every car nowadays has a menu of drive settings that change steering effort, throttle and transmission response, stability control intervention, and if appropriately equipped, suspension firmness. My old, second-generation X5 is one of the last BMWs to go without such adjustable settings and is better for it. Admittedly, that's because BMW's adjustable drive settings found in its other cars from that era were notably poor. However, my X5's steering is immeasurably more communicative than any non-M BMW of today. The suspension, which isn't adjustable (though it could've been), is on the firm side but beautifully damped and benefits from wheels that aren't gigantic. The throttle and transmission response? No problems there.

I had a similar experience when comparing my old '13 Allroad to the latest version. Yes, the 2021 has more power and is more efficient, but you have to put it into Sport mode for it to respond in the same way as the old car did – and the old car was hardly sporty. I would rather drive that old Allroad, much as I would rather drive the 10-year-old X5. This is admittedly more a matter of taste, as BMW has clearly chosen to make its cars more customizable and comfort-oriented for a wider range of buyer tastes. I don't think its cars have gotten better to drive in the past decade, but others might. (Again, it's why I kicked this off talking about the interior). At the very least, then, we're talking about cars being different to drive rather than better. There is a big difference.

I must also admit that most of this relates to German luxury brands. Volvo and Lincoln are unquestionably better than they were a decade ago. Every Lexus sold today is much sharper and more responsive to drive. Acura is also making great steps forward, while Genesis has gone from a Hyundai-badged sub-brand to a legitimate heavy hitter in the luxury space. Meanwhile, the in-car technology of some brands, such as Land Rover and Cadillac, is far easier to use.

There are other areas to consider. Crash ratings in the past decade really haven't changed much … only the number of new tests ginned up by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Had engineers needed to make sure its cars passed the same expanded number of tests a decade ago, I'm pretty sure they could've gotten it done given how quickly they've proven capable of adapting.

Two related areas that have been unquestionably improved are fuel economy and acceleration. Perhaps the engines, be it internal combustion or electrified, are not nearly as characterful as their predecessors. That happens with fewer cylinders and more turbochargers. Yet, we should really stop and appreciate what powertrain engineers have managed to accomplish. As just one data point, a 2013 BMW X5 with the 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six produced 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, hit 60 mph in 6.1 seconds, and returned 19 mpg combined. A 2021 BMW X5 with the 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six produces 335 hp and 331 lb-ft, hits 60 in 5.3 seconds, and returns 23 mpg combined. That'll save you upward of $550 on gas every year. And remember, this is a car that went from six cylinder to six cylinder – the differences between those that downsized and/or added mild hybridization, are even greater.

The biggest difference, though, is with the fuel savers. My own X5, the diesel-powered xDrive35d, was the fuel economy champ of its day at 22 mpg combined, but it is obliterated by today's: the plug-in hybrid X5 xDrive45e that you can get into for roughly the same price as my car was when new. And that's without considering tax rebates.

Maybe we don't need or even want much more than what was offered a decade ago. Maybe luxury cars, or at least German ones, were so well-engineered and well-executed a decade ago that there really wasn't much left to do but put lipstick on a super model. The bar was raised, and it couldn't go much higher. Alternatively, perhaps all those development dollars are being funneled into electrification efforts like the X5 xDrive45e.

Either way, don't worry too much about buying a 10-year-old luxury car -- well, besides maintenance. There's a decent chance you won't be missing out on that much.

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