When you’ve been testing cars for over two decades, you get to know them quite well. Extremely well, in fact. It’s inevitable when you’ve tested hundreds of cars in all those years.
It’s quite like veteran jetsetters, who can differentiate between various European or Asian nationalities simply by their accents or facial features.
In my case I pay extra attention to a car’s interior. We spend more time inside a car than staring at its exterior anyway. I’m into the tactile sensations—the leather on the steering wheel (the interior component we’re in touch with the most), the plush fabrics or smooth leathers on the seats and door sidings, the deepness of the carpeting…
But for me, the most indicative of a car’s luxury (or the lack of it) is the design of the armrests. Or more specifically, what your left and right elbows feel and touch when you rest them.
Here’s my take:
Subcompact hatchback (P400,000 to P600,000)
You sit on the driver’s seat. You rest your elbows. Your left elbow falls on a hard plastic surface. Your right elbow finds only air. You’re sitting in an entry-level subcompact hatchback, probably a Hyundai Eon/i10 or Suzuki Alto/Celerio. This category would normally have no center console, or even if it does, it wouldn’t have a lid for you to rest your elbow on.
Subcompact sedan (P600,000 to P800,000)
Your left elbow rests on a plastic armrest. Your right elbow rests on the plastic cover of a center console box. There’s a good chance your two elbows are resting at different levels, so one shoulder might be higher than the other. You’re likely in a Hyundai Accent or Toyota Vios. This category would offer slightly more equipment than the cheapest cars.
Compact sedan or pickup-based SUV (P800,000 to P2,000,000)
Your left and right elbows are almost perfectly level. And they rest on padded high-grade cloth or fabric rather than plastic. You’re sitting in a Honda Civic, Toyota Altis, Mazda3, Subaru Impreza or any number of compact sedans. You may even feel smooth leather if you’re in a top-of-the-line version of these models—in which case you may also be inside a Toyota Fortuner, Mitsubishi Montero Sport, Chevrolet Trailblazer, Isuzu mu-X, or Ford Everest.
Midsize executive sedan or SUV (P1,500,000 and up)
Your elbows are absolutely level and resting on plush extra-padded extra-fine leather. You’re sitting inside the finely crafted cabin of a Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Subaru Legacy, or Hyundai Sonata. You may also be in a Honda CR-V, Nissan X-Trail, or Subaru Forester. These crossover SUVs generally have better quality interiors than their pickup-based counterparts.
Luxury sedan or SUV (P3 million and up)
This would be pretty much the same as the preceding description, with the added sensory detail being an olfactory one. Your elbows may not be able to differentiate between different grades of leather, but your nose will not miss the unmistakable aroma of rich and luxurious Nappa or Dakota leather. European cars have a distinct scent (needless to say, it smells good) that is enhanced even more by fine leather. Of course if you can tell the tactile difference, the finest leathers will always be smoother and more supple to the touch.