If you dream of the sumptuous interior and smooth ride of a high-end luxury car…or the speed and precise handling of a high-end sports car…you could spend a lot of money to get what you want. But how about this—there also are brand-new vehicles that can give you what you desire for less than $35,000 and, in some cases, less than $25,000.
Impossible? Not at all. But the “luxury” automakers aren’t the companies that deliver these values. It’s some of the mainstream automakers that are getting better and better at delivering premium quality at a reasonable price.
With these lower-priced luxury vehicles, you’ll have to live without a prestigious emblem, such as the Mercedes three-pointed star, on your hood, trunk and steering wheel. If that sounds all right to you, here are today’s best affordable stand-ins for expensive dream vehicles…
To replicate the luxurious interior of an Audi A8: Chevrolet Impala. The Impala sedan is a beautiful car, especially on the inside. The cabin’s styling truly conveys the dignity and quality of a luxury sedan—the subtle two-tone interior color schemes are a particularly nice touch. Seats are very comfortable, and the leather used in optional trim packages is wonderfully supple. Like the Audi A8, the Impala has plenty of legroom in both front seat and back. (And the trunk is a downright cavernous 18.8 cubic feet.) Sitting behind the wheel of this car feels a whole lot like sitting behind the wheel of an Audi A8, a luxury car famed for its high-quality interior. But while the A8 starts at around $78,000, the Impala starts at just $27,900, and options including leather and other high-end amenities raise the sticker price to just $35,000 ($43,000 less than the Audi). The Impala drives well and gets good mileage for a full-size sedan—22 mpg city/31 highway.
To replicate the smooth, quiet ride of a Lexus LS: Toyota Avalon. Driving a Lexus LS sedan is like driving on a cloud—all is quiet, calm and refined. The outside world barely intrudes. Trouble is, the real world most definitely intrudes when you see the LS sticker price—it starts at around $73,000 and can climb above $100,000 fully equipped.
No other affordable vehicle does a better job delivering that Lexus-like driving-on-a-cloud experience than the Toyota Avalon. It might come as little surprise that the Avalon is comparable to a Lexus—Lexus is, after all, a division of Toyota. But you might be surprised by just how close Toyota’s full-size sedan comes to matching the Lexus’s roominess, quiet and comfort. The materials used in the cabin are of impressively high quality, too. The Avalon is sometimes called a Lexus wearing a Toyota badge, and that description is apt—but the Avalon starts at less than $33,000. It gets 21 mpg city/31 highway, which is good for a car its size.
Alternative: If you want the soft ride of the Lexus LS but have less than $30,000 to spend on a new car, your best bet is the Toyota Camry. This mid-size sedan is not as roomy or elegant as the Avalon or LS, but it does offer a quiet, comfortable cabin and a soft ride for a very reasonable manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) that starts at around $23,800. The Camry gets 25 mpg city/35 highway.
To replicate the premium German handling and road feel of a BMW 7 Series: Chrysler 300. Like BMW’s acclaimed 7 Series sedan, Chrysler’s 300 is a full-size rear-wheel or all-wheel-drive sedan with plenty of power—the Chrysler’s base 3.6-liter V6 engine delivers an extremely robust 292 horsepower (hp)…the optional 5.7-liter V8 has an even more impressive 363 horses. Like the BMW 7 Series, the 300 pairs its prodigious power with excellent driving dynamics. No, the 300 doesn’t match BMW in terms of steering feel—few cars can—but it is quite agile for its size and more than capable of holding the road through twists and turns.
The 300’s exterior styling is decidedly upscale, too. Pricing for the 2015 Chrysler 300 starts at $32,400, and it gets 19 mpg city/31 highway. (The V8 version starts at around $38,900 and gets 16 mpg city/25 highway.) The 2015 model features a new eight-speed transmission, along with an upgraded interior and more advanced safety technology. In comparison, the BMW 7 Series sedan starts at about $75,000.
To replicate the sportiness and drop-top fun of a Porsche Boxster: Mazda MX-5 Miata. Like Porsche’s Boxster, the Miata is a two-seat, rear-wheel-drive convertible with wonderful driving dynamics—both of these cars are tremendous fun to drive. But while the Porsche starts at $52,400, the Miata starts at just under $25,000, and even very well-equipped models sticker for less than $30,000. That’s a remarkably good deal.
True, the Miata can’t deliver the power of a Porsche—even the base Boxster produces 265 hp, enough to leave the 167-hp Miata (or 158 hp for the automatic) in its dust. But when it comes to handling, there is no compromise—the Miata really does offer the responsive steering and road-hugging handling of a true sports car despite its low price. The Miata gets 22 mpg city/28 highway.
Mazda has announced plans to redesign the Miata for the 2016 model year, which will no doubt encourage some would-be Miata buyers to postpone their purchase until this summer, when it is expected to be available. But early indications are that the folding-hardtop option will not be offered in the new model. That folding hardtop is worth having if you want your Miata to be as warm and quiet as possible when its top is up, so now could be a good time to buy.
To replicate the all-around quality of a top-shelf luxury sedan such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Audi A8: Kia Cadenza (photo at top of screen). Some luxury cars offer a smooth, quiet, luxurious ride…others offer fun, sporty handling and a powerful engine. The Mercedes S-Class and Audi A8 manage to deliver all of the above, plus beautiful styling and extremely well-appointed cabins.
The only sticking point is their sticker prices, which start close to $80,000 for the A8 and more than $95,000 for the S-Class, and each can easily climb to more than $100,000 with options. Kia’s Cadenza does a remarkable job of delivering this I-want-it-all luxury-car experience for a very reasonable starting price of $36,000. It is roomy, comfortable, quiet and well-appointed inside, stylish to look at and a joy to drive. Everything about the Cadenza simply feels high-quality. The Cadenza comes with an impressive array of standard features, too, including leather seats, an eight-way adjustable power driver’s seat and an advanced “smart” cruise control system that senses vehicles ahead and is capable of bringing the vehicle to a stop if necessary. The Cadenza’s base 3.3-liter V6 puts out an impressive 293 hp and gets 19 mpg city/28 highway.
To replicate the jaw-dropping glamour of a Mercedes-Benz SL: Used 2003–2006 Mercedes-Benz SL. If what you’re looking for is a two-seat luxury convertible that will be a joy to drive, a pleasure to behold and the envy of the neighbors, there really is just one car worth considering—the Mercedes SL. Nothing else comes close. Fortunately, while new SLs are very expensive—the SL550 starts at about $108,000—low-mileage used SLs can be surprisingly affordable. You can find a 2005 SL500 in great shape with less than 50,000 miles for well under $30,000. Any SL made since the model’s 2003 redesign still will look modern. These are tremendously well-engineered cars, and most are well-maintained. Still, it is worth getting a CarFax report and taking the car to a mechanic for a once-over before buying.
The SL takes premium fuel…its fuel economy is not great (expect to get perhaps 14 mpg city/20 highway)…and maintenance can be expensive—but even taking all that into account, a good used SL still can be an incredibly good deal.