Many rich folks opt for plain ol' pickups, economy cars

The wealthiest among us could afford to drive just about any luxury car on the road — Ferraris, Jaguars, Porsches — you name it.

But instead, a study finds the most popular cars for high-income Americans are pretty much what everyone else drives, notably Fords, Jeeps and Hondas.

MaritzCX, which conducted the study covering the 2016 model year, found that the Ford F-150, which is already the most popular vehicle in the U.S., was also tops among those earning more than $200,000 a year.

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Next came the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Honda Pilot, Jeep Wrangler and the only compact car in the top five, the humble Honda Civic.

The survey estimates reflect a big change over the past decade. There has been a "shift out of luxury vehicles in a lot of cases and moving toward SUVs and trucks," even if they weren't branded as luxury vehicles, says Shawn St. Clair, senior director of global syndication for MaritzCX. It apparently doesn't make much difference whether those preferred trucks are mainstream brands.

It's only when annual incomes climb above $400,000 do luxury vehicles dominate. Then the top sellers are a Lexus RX350, Tesla Model S and once again, the Honda Civic. Over $500,000 a year, the F-150 reappears in the top spot followed by two Land Rover models, BMW X5 and Lexus RX 350.

St. Clair says he thinks the shift is due to three factors.

•Features. Mainstream vehicles have grown more luxurious and offer many of the same technology features.

•Broader range. Many models come in a broader range of versions, with the fanciest ones encroaching, both with features and price, on what has been traditionally luxury territory.

•New wealth. A new breed of high-income earners have come to the car market, many of them a far cry from the stereotypical fat cats of yore. They may work as Silicon Valley software developers and not particularly care about cars as long as it gets them to work, or they might be oilfield workers who struck it rich in America's energy revival and need a dependable pickup.

"Some people, like the actively employed wealthy, are too busy working to think about luxury cars," says Robert Ross, auto editor for Robb Report, a magazine for the ultra-wealthy. "For them, a car becomes an appliance."

He says he encountered a billionaire a few years back at a car event who drove a beat-up Honda Accord. A practical fellow, "cars did not register. Cars were like athletic socks, underwear or a toaster" — just another commodity.

Ford officials say the F-150 carries cache with the rich because there are few substitutes for its ability to haul and tow. Detroit automakers, notably Ford's Lincoln division and General Motors' Cadillac, tried to market luxury pickups more than a decade ago, but they never caught on.

Nowadays, though, the F-150 that starts at $26,700, below the average price paid for a new vehicle in recent months, goes all the way up to $59,795 for the most deluxe, tricked out version. That puts it, at least on price, in solid luxury territory.

About a third of the F-150s that Ford sells fall in that luxury price realm, basically above $40,000, says Ford's sales analyst, Erich Merkle.

"There's a lot of people with wealth who may have a luxury car or SUV, but they also need that truck for its towing capacity," Merkle says. "They want all those creature comforts."

The presence of Honda Civic on the list is more baffling. Even MaritzCX's St. Clair calls it a "bit of a head scratcher." Beyond its appeal to the skinflint wealthy or maybe as an extra car for their kids, the Civic -- the second biggest selling car behind the Toyota Camry last year -- does come from a brand that tries to appeal to more upscale buyers, even though it's a mainstream brand.

"Our marketing approach is to sell on the merits of the product as opposed to selling the deal," says Honda spokesman Sage Marie, "and we invest in the product."