Back when I was writing about cars nearly every day, a piece of conventional wisdom traveled around the auto-journalist circuit: “there are no more bad cars.” This was extremely untrue, and possibly payola-influenced. I drove some real dogs. It was also not true that the worst car in, say, 2015, was fancier than the best car from the 1970s. The junkyards are full of bad vehicles from the aughts and later.
It is, however, true that there are more good cars now than at any point in automotive history, and there are also more fancy cars, coming from places you might not expect. If $40,000 is the baseline, then manufacturers had better be giving us something pretty decent for that price. Toyota and Mazda, not names you usually associate with luxury, are making plays for wealthier drivers. I recently spent time in their highest-end offerings, and they’re hard to distinguish from their fancier peers.
The 2024 Toyota Crown
I went to Arizona to go to a poorly-attended high-school reunion this year, and I got to tool around Phoenix and Scottsdale in a Toyota Crown. Once upon a time, there was a Toyota flagship car called the Crown, and then Toyota discontinued it, replacing it with the Avalon, which quickly became the ultimate grandma car—something akin to a 1980 Cadillac DeVille crossed with a hearse. When Toyota could no longer stand listening to Avalon jokes like the one in the previous sentence, it went back to the Crown. And it’s a big improvement.
I drove the Crown about 70 miles; from the airport to the hotel to various bars and restaurants, and, of course, to the casino. This particular Crown was a hybrid, and it had three drive modes: “Eco,” Sport” and “Normal.” Sport mode seemed completely pointless in this car. It gave the Crown the amount of extra pep I have after drinking half a Coke Zero. But this is a Toyota, and no matter the mode, it got excellent gas mileage. I averaged 40 MPG throughout the weekend.
The interior was comfortable enough, if a little rubbery, and the technology was good enough. But where the Crown really shines is in the exterior design. This car verges on the edge of gorgeous. It is sleek and tapered and cool, and the wheels look amazing. The car’s body lifts off them just a few inches, and it really accentuates the stance. This is a design triumph, and it really does give the Crown a luxury vibe.
I was walking back to the car through a parking lot after eating at Pizzeria Bianco, the world’s greatest restaurant, when a woman coming out of Trader Joe’s stopped me. “Is that your car?” she asked. I didn’t feel like explaining, so I told her yes. “It looks amazing,” she said. When I told her it was a Toyota, she couldn’t believe it. Drive the Crown, and you can believe it’s a Toyota, but just looking at it, it could easily pass for a Lexus or better.
Mazda CX-90: A Two-Ton Driving Computer
Like Toyota, Mazda is not a brand with typical appeal to luxury car buyers. Maybe there are some Miata fanatics among the upper-middle class, but that’s definitely a specialty item. The CX-90 that I drove from Austin to the casino in Durant, Oklahoma, on the other hand, would appear on the surface to be no different from a similarly beastly GMC or Nissan Armada. But this is a new product from Mazda, and they are clearly going for a fancier clientele.
On the inside, it was a massive luxury boat, with gorgeous tan Nappa leather seats, a second row of captain’s chairs, and seat coolers and heaters (I needed both, because the weather kept changing) that made me feel like I was in a cocoon. I drove the highest-end package possible, with a 3.3 liter inline turbo engine that generated well over 300 horsepower. And the gas mileage showed, never averaging more than 24 miles to the gallon. That’s not really what the luxury consumer wants these days.
On the other hand—and I cannot emphasize this enough, given that I spent almost all my time in this car on I-35 in Texas, the dullest possible road available to American drivers—the CX-90 practically drove itself. In the three years I took off from driving fancy cars, self-driving technology has advanced in extraordinary ways. I set a safe distance, and a speed, and the car cruised for a half-hour at a time without a hitch or a blink. If I even lifted my hand up to bite a nail, it flashed a “Distracted Driver Alert” right in my face. How did it know? It knew, and it astonished me. For tooling around town, I can’t recommend this vehicle—it’s really big. But for the long haul, you want a cozy, indestructible robot that handles itself. Cars don’t get much cozier or more robotic than the CX-90.
When the CX-90 came out of cold valet storage at the casino, the parking lady took the time to say to me, “This is a really nice car.” I had already tipped her, so it wasn’t an empty compliment. Again, I didn’t feel the need to explain that it’s not actually mine. No one cares. And I realize one must take the opinions of a random woman in the Phoenix Trader Joe’s parking lot and an Oklahoma casino valet as passing comments in the wind. But it’s also clear that to folks on the street, Toyota and Mazda can easily pass as luxury cars these days. And that’s not something you could have said a decade ago.