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High Price Does Not Equal Better Car

With its 2013 Hyundai Sonata Limited, Hyundai is undermining the historical concept of luxury by making commonplace what was once exclusive. Available for about $31,000 including options, the Sonata Limited has practically everything available on substantially more expensive cars. Illustrates WHEELS-SONATA (category l) by Warren Brown, special to The Washington Post, Moved Friday, March 29, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Hyundai Motor Co.)

With its 2013 Hyundai Sonata Limited, Hyundai is undermining the historical concept of luxury by making commonplace what was once exclusive. Available for about $31,000 including options, the Sonata Limited has practically everything available on substantially more expensive cars. Illustrates WHEELS-SONATA (category l) by Warren Brown, special to The Washington Post, Moved Friday, March 29, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Hyundai Motor Co.)

New York — The concept of luxury historically has resided in notions of exclusivity.

The more exclusive something is the more desirable it becomes.

Exclusivity, or relative inaccessibility, combines with desire to create expense, which is why the most inaccessible things and experiences usually are reserved for the wealthy.

It is a concept that has worked well for the global automobile industry since its inception more than a century ago. Indeed, the automobile itself was a bauble for the rich until 1908, when Henry Ford began mass-producing his Model T cars and paying his assembly-line workers enough money to buy them.

Automobile luxury since then has resided in what the industry calls “aspirational” models: Aston Martin, Cadillac, Lamborghini, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz.

But along comes Hyundai Motor Co. from South Korea to upset all that. Hyundai is deliberately undermining the historical concept of luxury by making commonplace and easily affordable what was once exclusive. In doing so, Hyundai poses a serious problem for its global rivals, especially those catering to the luxury end of the automobile market.

The problem is stated as follows: When exclusive becomes commonplace, it is no longer exclusive. But when it is no longer exclusive, can it still be priced as a luxury item?

Consider, as an example, this week’s subject vehicle — the 2013 Hyundai Sonata Limited sedan available for the rounded price of $31,000 including options.

On the Sonata Limited for that amount, Hyundai offers practically everything available on substantially more expensive automobiles.

Are you looking for world-class fit and finish? The Sonata Limited has it. What about high-quality interior materials? It has those, too. Would you like one of the industry’s best onboard navigation systems and high-resolution backup cameras? Spend $2,900 on options and you are still spending less than $31,500 to get your dream car.

The temptation, as happened in a conversation here with a Land Rover executive, is to dismiss the Sonata Limited as a cheap imitation of life — a fake, a “wannabe.” It is none of those things. Quite the contrary, it is excellent value for money spent.

Look at this car. Its exterior styling rivals that of anything in the luxury class. People checking out the Sonata Limited frequently asked in surprised voices: “That’s a Hyundai?”

We have come to a point in the automobile business where traditional definitions of “performance” are changing along with traditional definitions of “luxury.” It is no longer enough to load up an automobile with massive horsepower and an excessive appetite for fossil fuels and dub it a “high performer.”

Governmental pressures for better fuel economy and fewer tailpipe emissions are changing all of that. At car shows nowadays — in Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, Sao Paulo and Geneva, and at the 113th annual New York International Auto Show here this week — car companies have been and are touting their ability to save fuel and pollute less and to do it all without undermining the joy of driving.

Hyundai has been a leader in that transition. Speed junkies won’t be agog over the standard 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder engine (198 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque) in the Sonata Limited. Nor will they get terribly excited about the 200-horsepower turbocharged version of that engine available in the sporty Sonata SE.

They need not fret. I have documented evidence that the same speed limits apply to the Sonata Limited and SE as apply to all other cars, regardless of price or engineering, using roads in the northeastern United States.