From tailfin Cadillacs to the Hummers of the SUV heyday, the principles of auto luxury have been passed down like slab-sided commandments: bigger, stronger, faster. But with new environmental regulations staring them in the face, luxury carmakers are trying on a new set of values - smaller, humbler and more fuel-efficient - that might shock a large-barge traditionalist.
Downsizing is the rage among luxury cars, from slimmed-down bodies to smaller four-cylinder engines and hybrid or electric power. Land Rover's striking, $44,000 Range Rover Evoque crossover is the lightest, most fuel-efficient Rover in history. Powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder rather than a beefy V-8, the Evoque earns a federal highway rating of 28 mpg.
Lexus bills its CT 200h as the world's first compact luxury hybrid hatchback. BMW plans to begin leasing small numbers of its Active E, an all-electric version of its perky 1 Series coupe, in urban markets. Small sedans, crossovers or hatchbacks are in the works from Cadillac, Mercedes, Lincoln, Porsche and more.
Even an imposing sport sedan, the exotically styled Fisker Karma, goes for a tiny game-changer under the hood: A two-liter GM four-cylinder mated to a plug-in hybrid system, good for 403 total horsepower.
In some ways, industry downsizing is a do-it-or-else proposition. A federal target of 54.5 mpg by 2025, along with anticipated carbon dioxide emissions rules in Europe, have even deluxe brands scrambling to increase fuel efficiency.
But a question remains: Shy of $6-a-gallon gasoline, are enough Americans willing to spend big bucks on a little car?
Smaller luxury cars, many powered by frugal diesels, have proliferated in Europe. But Americans have rarely seen the point of buying less car, especially when a roomier version can be had for roughly the same price. "We're still a bit in the experiment stage," said Jeff Schuster, director of forecasting for J.D. Power & Associates.
The list of America's most notorious luxury failures is littered with small, entry-priced models. Lower the bar too far in styling, features or power, and U.S. critics and buyers quickly sniff out a designer impostor.
In the '80s, Cadillac dressed up a rattletrap Chevrolet Cavalier and called it the Cimarron. Consumers weren't fooled. Cadillac will look to correct that mistake with the ATS sedan, a taut-bodied BMW 3 Series fighter that goes on sale next year. Caddy is also developing a compact plug-in hybrid based on the Chevrolet Volt's system.
As with the Cimarron, a cut-rate luxury car can tarnish the image of an entire brand. That's what happened when Jaguar - desperate for its own entry-level rival to the BMW 3 Series - disguised a Ford Mondeo sedan with leather and a feline "leaper" badge and tried to pass off the shoddy result as the 2001 X-Type. The Jag later joined the Cimarron on a Time magazine list of the 50 worst cars of all time.