Many American drivers want to live large but need to spend small — impulses that might seem mutually exclusive when it’s time to buy a new car. Too often, the concept of luxury seems way out of reach for the average consumer, especially in a recovering economy.
But guess what? Style and performance can be had on a modest budget. A number of luxury brands, including Audi, BMW and Lexus, have models around $36,000 or even less. Sometimes substantially less.
This is especially good news in Southern California — the leading market for high-end vehicles — because here, let’s face it, cars matter. And it’s not entirely about looks or prestige, of course, but also overall quality. Luxury brands tend to dominate satisfaction and reliability ratings by J.D. Power and other independent firms.
So just tell yourself (or your spouse) that it’s a practical choice. The search for a new ride needn’t be a joyless slog through rows of uninspiring clones on wheels. It can be an exciting first step toward the ride of your dreams.
Can’t wrap your head around it? Read on.
Acura ILX: $25,900 to $29,200
The all-new 2013 Acura ILX compact sedan is the perfect way to rock a luxury nameplate without milking the retirement fund. Acura’s latest entry-level ride is smaller than the TSX and styled somewhat more aggressively, with a younger vibe. At this low price point, you might as well add the step-up Premium package and its leather front seats and backup camera. A Technology package cranks it up further with a high-end audio setup and vast digital music storage, along with a navigation and information system that works through a multicolor display. All that and outstanding fuel efficiency with a 2-liter 150-horsepower engine that gets up to 35 mpg highway.
Audi A3: $27,270 to $30,850
A brand both trendy and timeless, Audi is front and center in any conversation about entry-level luxury. The classic A3, even loaded with options, is one of the most exceptional values around. Start with the green clean-diesel A3 TDI and its turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 140 horsepower and with fuel economy of 30 city and 42 highway mpg. The high-end hatchback A3 — graceful as a sleek coupe — offers a ton of standard features usually seen as options: leather seating and dual-zone climate control, to name a couple. The gas-powered A3 packs a peppy turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 200 horsepower. A sport package and magnetic ride system are optional. So is the “open sky” two-piece sunroof.
BMW X1: $30,650 to $38,450
An exciting all-new entry in the emerging subcompact crossover segment, the little X1 has all the Bavarian style you’d expect from this iconic brand in a sporty new package, featuring the distinctive BMW profile and nimble performance with no compromise. The X1 is outfitted with a pair of turbocharged engines: a 3-liter I-6 rated at 300 horsepower and 2-liter I-4 that gets a remarkable 34 mpg highway through a six- or eight-speed automatic transmission with overdrive. The interior is surprisingly spacious, with folding rear seats making for ample cargo room. And just try to resist the M Sport trim’s racy sport seats and Harman Kardon audio system, or the panoramic moonroof and available leather seating. Because rolling in a stripped-down base Bimmer is just wrong.
Lexus IS 250: $35,065 to $37,525
Packing all that the prestige Lexus nameplate has to offer, the IS 250 comes with some of the most upscale amenities in its class, a host of sexy standard features for a surprisingly reasonable price. The five-seat IS 250 sedan is loaded with dual-zone climate control, power moonroof and 13-speaker audio system. Black metallic trim adds a nice touch, and high-tech features include the advanced Enform system that helps locate restaurants, gas stations and other points of interest. This Lexus doesn’t lack for looks or style: The pricier IS 250C convertible offers a hot red leather interior, while a new F Sport Package drops in 18-inch wheels and tight sport suspension. Both versions have a 2.5-liter 204-horsepower V-6 engine that gets up to 30 mpg on the highway.
Volvo C30: $25,500 to $32,850
Charting its own distinctive course, Volvo serves up the refined and highly rated C30 compact luxury hatchback that’s heavy on comfort and style, with an emphasis on innovative safety technology. The C30 stands out with a huge glass hatch in the rear. Headlight washers and rain-sensing windshield wipers come standard, with Volvo’s blind-spot sensor offered as an option. The interior fits four on bucket seats (leather available) that offer tons of maneuverability for comfort and cargo space. A trio of upgrade packages include juicy extras like 18-inch wheels and a killer stereo. Under the hood is a powerful turbocharged 2.5-liter I-5 that delivers 227 horsepower and up to 30 mpg.
– Bob Young, Brand Publishing Writer