Bottom Line/Personal: What are the best entry luxury cars for 2015?

I’m Steven Kaye, Editorial Director at Bottom Line Publications, and today my guest is auto analyst Karl Brauer, Kelley Blue Book Senior Director. If you want to spend a little more for some extra luxury, you still want a lot for your money. Bottom Line will help you sort out the options.

Karl, thank you for coming out today.

Karl Brauer: Hey, good to talk to you.

Bottom Line: It’s a real pleasure having you here. Before we start talking about the cars in this segment, I want to talk about the segment and kind of define it for our viewers: entry luxury or entry level luxury. What exactly does that mean?

Brauer: It basically means your first step into a premium brand. Lots of people would like to drive a premium branded vehicle, but they’re on a budget and they don’t have the ability to go buy an S-Class or a 7 Series or one of these top-end vehicles.

The manufacturers know this; they want to supply them, and they end up with a lot of volume out of these people who are just looking to make their foray into luxury. So they’ve created this entry luxury category. It’s been around forever. It was defined by the 3 Series initially.

Bottom Line: The BMW 3 Series.

Brauer: BMW 3 Series.

Bottom Line: Not all premium brand cars feel as luxurious as others, though. So a shopper in this category has to decide exactly what is he after. We were talking about the 3 Series previously, and you said something very interesting to me, which is that as expensive as it is, it doesn’t necessarily seem like a luxury car, so it’s not one of your top picks in this category.

Brauer: Yeah, it’s unfortunate, because the pricing on all cars has gone up – we know that – and luxury cars particularly. But it just in my opinion feels like the BMWs have disproportionately increased in price. What you have to pay now just to get into various BMWs, including the 3 Series, and then what you have to pay to get a well-equipped version of the 3 Series, doesn’t feel very entry luxury to me at all. If you get one of the base ones, the car doesn’t feel that luxurious either in the 3 Series.

So I ended up picking vehicles that I feel like when you step into their luxury nameplates, you’re getting a luxury treatment, and you’re not spending as much money.

Bottom Line: Okay, so then what’s your first entry luxury sedan choice for 2015?

Brauer: A strong player in this category for decades now has been the Audi A4. Again, Audi focuses so much on things like interior quality and refinement and just the look and feel of all the touch points inside that even the A4 feels like a luxury car, even though it’s down in the lower spectrum of their pricing parameters.

You get this car and you end up immediately knowing that you’re in a luxury car. Even the outside, the lighting, the styling – it all is very luxurious, and it still can be fun to drive, too. There are sportier versions; you can get more powerful engines if you want. There’s no question you’re going to feel like you’ve got a luxury car if you get the Audi A4.

Bottom Line: Let’s place people financially where you have to be for something like an Audi A4. Where do you start out pricewise for this entry luxury car?

Brauer: You can still get them in the thirties. I used to think entry luxury was high twenties; those days are gone. But you can still get into a nice A4 in the thirties, and that’s where a lot of the other entry luxury cars – some of the brands, like BMW – get tough because you’re going right into the forties by the time you get any kind of equipment on the vehicle.

If you’re out of the thirties before you’ve even added equipment, or at least any real substantial equipment, I feel like you’ve lost the entry luxury price range.

Bottom Line: You haven’t hit a sweet spot where the price is still low enough, but you’re still getting some of that luxury.

Brauer: Exactly.

Bottom Line: Audi is famous, perhaps most famous, for their interiors. What makes an Audi interior so nice?

Brauer: They’ve figured out things like interior lighting. They’ve got this soothing lighting that you won’t even really notice until you’ve been driving for awhile and you look around, and you see that the center console is well-lit, the cup holders are well-lit. And a lot of the car companies are now trying to emulate it, but they were the first to really go after that and do it really well.

The lighting of the gauge cluster, the lighting of the interior touch point for the touch screen controls. High quality sharp contrast across all the displays. These are things that Audi just has done really well. And you’re right: they focus on the interior, and it shows. It means that you feel like you’re in a very luxurious vehicle even when you’re in their lowest priced vehicles.

Bottom Line: I want to talk about the driving of this car. I’ve driven the recent BMWs as well, and I didn’t find myself that they had handling and feel – I guess road feel – as much as they used to have. Haven’t been in the newer Audis.

So I want to ask you, is that your sense of what’s happening with some of the BMWs? And how do the Audis compare, just in terms of the way they drive?

Brauer: It’s interesting that you noticed that, because it is transitioning. There’s things going on with gas mileage being a concern. Car companies are starting to do things like use electric-assisted power steering instead of hydraulic, and that means there’s not as much of a mechanical connection directly between the steering wheel and the front wheels, which is almost unavoidably going to cost you some feedback and make the car not feel as engaging. That’s what a lot of cars have suffered from.

I’ll be honest; I drove a 3 Series recently, and I was actually surprised it still drove really well—these cars still drive really well. But I don’t think they have the clear, distinct advantage they used to have over other cars in this category.

The Audi essentially feels as good going down the road, and it’s interesting, because the Audi starts out as either front or all-wheel drive, whereas the BMW starts out as rear or all-wheel drive. Normally the rear wheel drive gives you an advantage in road feel and driving engagement, but again, like you noticed, it doesn’t seem as distinctive or as obvious as it used to for the 3 Series. So you’ve lost a little of that driving advantage, in my opinion.

The cars are really expensive. This is still the benchmark by many people’s standard for this category, the 3 Series. But I just think you get some better value and equivalent driving dynamics from other vehicles.

Bottom Line: And you have another choice in the entry luxury sedan category that will be probably not surprising to people simply because they haven’t heard of it, and that’s the Lexus IS.

Brauer: Yeah, and the Lexus IS, you know it’s been around for awhile. The first version was actually a Japanese vehicle that was just rebadged a Lexus and brought here. It was a rear-wheel-drive car, and a pretty fun to drive car, but it felt like a Toyota from Japan, not a particularly luxurious car.

Then they transitioned to a more purpose-built, U.S. version for this entry luxury rear wheel drive sedan, and it did feel more luxurious. But it wasn’t still that engaging to drive.

Then it was just redesigned like 2 years ago, and the first time I drove it, I was highly impressed. I felt like, “Okay, they’ve got it now.” This car – again, and maybe there’s been a bit of a drift downward from the benchmark 3 Series, and plus a drift upward. But the bottom line is, the Lexus IS feels on par with the best driving cars, including the 3 Series in this category.

And yet it remains one of the most refined, quiet, comfortable vehicles, and also good value. Plus it’s got what I almost want to call a widescreen movie display. The interior display on this car is kind of freakishly large, but it’s really great, because it’s very easy to read when you’re driving.

Bottom Line: So a Lexus that’s actually a driver’s car?

Brauer: Yeah. It’s actually a driver’s car. First time I drove a Lexus and thought, “Okay, I could see myself buying one of these right now.” I really like it.

Bottom Line: And the styling is a lot more aggressive than we’re used to from Lexus.

Brauer: Yeah, and that’s still a little controversial. I mean, honestly, if someone were to say “Is there any downside to the Lexus?”, I’m still not 100% sold on that grill. They want to be distinctive, they want to show that they’re passionate and exciting. They’re certainly distinctive, but distinctive can be good or bad, depending. But the grill isn’t disturbing enough for me in this car to dissuade me, given the other positives of the vehicle.

Bottom Line: I like that. “Not disturbing enough.”

Brauer: Is that a backhanded compliment by me?

Bottom Line: That is the definition of a backhanded compliment. I want to ask you about one other wildcard in this category, and that’s the Mercedes CLA sedan.

Brauer: Yes?

Bottom Line: Did they bring it in at under thirty, or is it just over thirty? Where are they with that car?

Brauer: They’re calling it under thirty.

Bottom Line: Calling it under thirty.

Brauer: And all the transaction prices we’re tracking on Kelley has it at about thirty-five to thirty-seven. So they’re doing what they wanted to do, which is to make people think they can get a Mercedes for under thirty, and nobody is buying the Mercedes for under thirty. But they’re coming into the dealers to look and leaving with a $35,000, $37,000 Mercedes.

Which for a Mercedes is still a relatively low price, and you get the three-pointed star, which a lot of people, that’s the most important part of buying the Mercedes. And you get actually a pretty good car overall. I’ve heard mixed reports about the interior quality from other people; I would agree with that. We’re back to that question of are you getting a luxurious experience? Are you getting that luxury treatment by buying an entry luxury vehicle? I still think it’s a little borderline, and that’s why the CLA wasn’t my pick.

But it’s doing very well for Mercedes. It’s doing its job. It’s getting people into the brand that probably wouldn’t have bought a Mercedes. The volume is strong. So kudos to Mercedes; they figured out a way to expand their buyer profile.

Bottom Line: But for you still, for 2015, Audi A4, Lexus IS.

Brauer: Those two cars I think are the sweet spot, like you said. Price and luxury treatment.

Bottom Line: Okay. Thanks very much, Karl.

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