Many car makers try to pitch their product at the lucrative premium market, but only some have ever succeeded. It’s not always the ones which make the best cars, either. We look at some almost-but-not-quite examples.

We can all define what we perceive as a premium brand. Typically German (with a few notable exceptions), typically vaguely sporting, and (for current models at least) driven by someone who’s converted the two-second rule into metric and arrived at 50.8mm. But what defines premium, and what of the marques which never quite made it? While the middle classes may swoon over Mercedes, or buy BMWs with their bonuses, there are alternatives which offer the same amount of equipment without the pushy image. For those who don’t need to shout about their status, there are a number of marques out there which offer all the same style and comfort as the Germans, but without the social opprobrium.

It wasn’t always this way for Audi – now almost the archetypal premium brand, once it acted as the antithesis of yuppie culture. The Quattro may have been a yuppie icon, but the 80 and 100 ranges were harbingers of good taste and discretion. The launch of the A4 changed that – Audi was far more proactive in targeting the BMW market, and having successfully joined the first division it left a gap which other manufacturers were quick to fill.

Companies such as Saab, whose quality and good taste had already ensured a loyal following among those who cared for quality but not for image. Priced slightly below Mercedes to compete with BMW and Audi, Saabs offered comfort and performance aplenty but their eccentric image meant that they were never seized upon by the social climbers which came to define premium brand appeal. Likewise their Swedish counterparts at Volvo – there’s a quiet respectability to a 700 or 900 series that is oddly lacking in status. Traditionally favoured by the same old money types that would drive a Daimler but couldn’t countenance a Jaguar, rear wheel drive Volvos turn the concept of premium completely on its head by offering solidity and sense, but leaving showroom style firmly at the door. Nonetheless, like Saab this has earned Volvo a core band of enthusiasts who to this day will drive nothing else.

A curious British case is that of Rover. Once a genuinely upmarket brand enjoyed by no less than the Queen herself, the British Leyland saga gradually eroded the kudos of the marque first through poor fashion choices, then through poor quality, and finally by applying the badge to some distinctly average material. The Rover SD1 may have been stylish and powerful but it often showed a lack of attention to detail, while the 213 and 216 were about as far removed from the P5 of Rover’s heyday as it was possible to get.

And yet with its next generation, Rover almost recaptured those glory days. The R8-series 200 and 400 of 1989 were genuinely class leading products; with style and quality far above those of their perceived rivals. The facelifted 800 may have been flawed but looked fresh for 1991, and the 600 completed the range perfectly. Could Rover become a British BMW once again? BMW didn’t give it chance; buying the company from British Aerospace in 1994. The 75 might have felt a cut above the Mondeo and the Vectra, but the junior executive market didn’t want walnut and leather in its 3-Series rivals.

But then – what is premium, really? If a premium car is intended as a sign that one has well and truly “made it”, then buying something expensive with toys and a brand name isn’t really the way to do it. Look at those who have always been at the top – people who’ve grown up in privileged environments, where money has never been an issue. There’s a prudence of view that would baulk at the idea of a BMW or a Mercedes on the gravel driveway – a desire for a tool that is capable of doing the job. And when you have a country estate, four wheel drive is useful in winter. It can be no coincidence that the majority of aristocrats have an old Subaru Legacy estate tucked away somewhere for popping into town. Nor can it be pure chance that sees the Queen driving a Defender.